I frequently get asked by people, “What can I do to help my acupuncture treatments along?” Depending on what their personal issue might be, the answer can be quite varied, from exercises to herbs to supplements – each being uniquely tailored to the individual. However, in my (fairly) long experience, there are some things that that I feel that most people are missing out on. In this series of articles, I’d like to offer some simple ideas that can be of help to literally everyone. Today I’d like to talk about:
Ok, I just have to come out and say it: virtually no one breathes properly. We are a culture of chest breathers and hyper-breathers. Simply put, we breathe with the wrong part of our body and we do too much of it. Having practiced Kung Fu, TaiJi, and Qigong for many years, I tend to take for granted that I have been conditioned to breathe correctly, and that years of stress and poor posture have done a number on the vast majority of people that have not specifically trained their breathing. At the risk of being self-referencing, I’d like include here part of a chapter of my humble ebook An Introduction to Tai Chi, where I offer a short breathing lesson:
“Correct breathing is essential in Tai Chi. Done properly, it oxygenates the body in a highly efficient manner as well as promoting a more tranquil state of mind. Breathing is the link to the autonomic nervous system, which is where our “rest and repose” functions lie. The list of benefits of proper breathing is vast and beyond the scope of this work, but put simply, it can activate the relaxation response and turn on many healing activities in the body and mind. Most likely everyone has at some point been very upset about something and were told, “take a breath and calm down”. The breath has such a profound effect on us because it is part of the unconscious nervous system but is also under our conscious control. By developing control over our breathing, we can literally develop control over the mind.
Proper breathing is initially best learned while lying down, with the feet flat, heels tucked up by the buttocks, or with the lower legs resting on a couch or hassock, or such like. A thin pillow or book can be used to give the head some support and reduce strain on the neck. Lying down in this fashion allows the lower back to flatten out, where it is easiest to feel the proper muscle actions of breathing, as well as eliminating the need for the postural muscles to hold the body upright, which can hinder the ability to sense the proper action of the diaphragm. There are many different techniques of breathing, but addressed here will be the simplest with the most wide-reaching benefits, and can be incorporated throughout daily life as well as the practice of Tai Chi. This one exercise addresses the most critical dysfunction in most people – chest breathing. This exercise will help you learn to use the diaphragm muscle in the proper way to draw the breath into the lungs correctly and efficiently.
Lesson #1 – Begin by lying on the floor in the aforementioned manner. Begin breathing in and out through the nose. The breath should be extremely soft, as if a feather would not be disturbed by the inhalation or exhalation. Relax all the muscles, as if you are melting into the floor, and let your attention come to rest in the lower back. On the inhalation, you want to feel the lower back inflating and exerting pressure on the floor, almost as if it were a balloon lifting you up. This action should not be forced; it should be gently directed by the mind and simply observed when it is happening. We want to focus solely on inflating the lower back into the floor, as this is the most under used portion of the diaphragm for most people. By putting the attention there, conscious control is developed. The lower abdomen essentially “takes care of itself” and does not need special training at this point. Simply keep the mind focused on the lower back and use that as a guide to draw the breath there. Ideally, one would begin their day with 10-15 minutes of this exercise, at least for a period of one month, so that it can become a habit. By keeping the attention focused on the lower back and nowhere else, this also serves as an effective method for disciplining the mind and bridging the way to meditation.”
After one learns the skill lying down, it is then important to work it into your daily life so that it is an unconscious habit – you just always breathe properly and you come to notice feeling a bit off if you’re not. Like any other skill development, it does require practice and diligence; no one is going to play a piano recital at Carnegie Hall if they only practice for 20 minutes every third Wed. The nice thing is, breathing properly gives you such a ‘battery recharge’ and makes you feel so much better that you’ll be motivated to work on it, and there’s no better time to start than right now!