Lifestyle Basics: Breathing

In the TCM perspective, there are really only two ways to get energy into our bodies: eating and breathing. We’ve already covered some of the basics of the former, so let’s turn our attention to the latter. We will start with an exercise that everyone can do (and we insist that you actually DO THIS!):

- take a deep breath in, filling the lungs from the bottom to the top. Let the belly get big, the chest expand, the collarbones slightly lift, and the throat open. Feel the sensation of open fullness in your whole upper torso for a second. Then let it out slowly, from the top to the bottom. Repeat 3 times (really!).

Notice a cycle! It’s one that you absolutely can not say you are not directly involved with. In however many years we’ve been on this planet, no one has ever messed up and followed an inhale with another inhale. We’ve never skipped an inhale (though we may have put it off for a few seconds). In the poetry of Chinese philosophy, we would say that breathing is one of the ultimate gifts our ancestors gave us at the deep genetic level. All of our predecessors, however far back you want to go, never neglected this cycle. Interestingly, in Chinese medicine the energy of the chest is referred to as “ancestral qi.” Traditionally, the moment we stop participating in this cyclical energy is the moment we go to join those same ancestors!

We can also notice that, of the many cycles we participate in, our breathing can be both unconscious and conscious: we can choose to either let it do its own thing, or we can choose to deliberately control it (we all tried this out at the beginning of this post, remember? Maybe we forgot about breathing since then, but the body was kind enough to take over for us in the meantime). Many of our cycles are not this obliging and accessible. This means that breathing can serve as a bridge between our minds and our bodies, and by regulating, or failing to regulate, our breath, we influence both mind and body.

So, suffice to say it is important (duh). Even though we do it all the time, it is possible to participate in breathing incompletely. Shortened breath. Hasty breath. Held breath. All of these patterns are natural responses to certain circumstances, but done regularly, they open the door to pathologies of many kinds. These include:

- Stress and anxiety
- Back, neck and shoulder pain
- Fatigue
- Headaches
- Dizziness
- Insomnia
- and even indigestion, as the diaphragm massages the digestive tract to facilitate the movement, breakdown, and absorption of food

This is why the oldest forms of documented exercises passed on to us from the Eastern antiquity are breathing exercises. Although there are literally thousands of different breathing exercises (or qi gongs), the most important thing is to breath deliberately, deeply, and completely, at least for one short period a day. If we put in this kind of simple training into our system, we find that over time our breath naturally deepens, relieving stress and thoroughly oxygenating the blood. This brings greater awareness and vitality to all hours of our lives.

And it just makes sense: if we are going to be doing something every second, every day, for the rest of our lives, we should be very very good at it!