As a healthcare practitioner for over 26 years, I am well placed to observe clients/patients breathing patterns. One thing has become obvious over that time and it is the fact that most people now seem to have a baseline of chronic stress that has become normalized. I observe this in their; demeanour, muscle tension, speed of speech, symptoms reported and most importantly, by how rapid and shallow their breathing has become. This breathing pattern has become their set point i.e., normalized.
Why is this the case? It is because life has sped up; people are hyper-connected and stimulated; financial and relationship issues are more prevalent; poor sleep hygiene is endemic; people have virtually no down time; and that is just a short list. Being in low-grade chronic stress has become habituated and this is reflected in our breathing patterns. When our sympathetic nervous system is overactive as it is when we are stressed, we breathe in the upper part of our chest (upper lungs) and our breathing becomes more rapid to compensate for the decreased volume as compared with deep abdominal breathing, which occurs when relaxed. We also recruit muscles of the neck and shoulders to help support this breathing pattern. The muscles between the ribs must work harder as well. This all leads to greater muscle tension and it can form a positive feedback loop making the stress worse.
As human beings we are not built to be in this state constantly. The stress response is there as a survival mechanism. When a threat occurs the body switches from ‘rest and digest’ when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant to sympathetic nervous system response; ‘fight and flight’ (the stress response). Once the threat passes, we should naturally come back into our parasympathetic state. In order for our breathing and stress response to come back to homeostasis we need to relax the body-mind back to the setpoint of ‘rest and digest’.
This is where our Qigong and Taijiquan comes in. It’s ideal for relaxing the body-mind, and also training our breathing patterns.
Breathing correctly is one of the three pillars or ‘Treasures’ of Qigong. Qigong is often referred to as a ‘Body-Mind-Breath Practice’. So, when practicing Qigong, we cultivate:
1. The body via the postures, correct alignment, and our movements;
2. The mind, our metal focus, awareness and intent;
3. Breathing correctly and in-sync with our movements and focus.
Correct breathing is also extremely important in Taijiquan.
When first starting out as a beginner people expend most of their focus and effort on learning, and getting the movements correct in their practice of Qigong and Taijiquan. At this stage, the breathing is secondary and should be allowed to follow a ‘natural’ rhythm. As you progress, and the movements become known, you can coordinate your breathing with your movements. This also involves encouraging deeper, relaxed abdominal breathing. For this to happen you need to spend a few moments consciously relaxing the body; the neck, shoulders, back straight but relaxed…the body not tensed. The breathing itself should not be forced either. When breathing in you should allow the belly to relax, expanding outward, inviting the diaphragm to expand more fully thus allowing the lungs to take in a greater volume of air.
So, you can see why we spend some time practicing breathing after the warm-up in class. At its simplest, this involves standing with the knees off-lock, relaxing the body and taking the awareness to your breath. This can be done by taking your focus to your chest rising and expanding, or the sensation of the air in your nasal passage. After a minute of two of this you can invite the belly to expand a little more on your inhalation, encouraging the lungs to fill more. It is important to do this in a very relaxed manner and progressively. The aim is not only to train your breathing pattern, but also to reduce your stress load. Sometimes it can be helpful to even imagine or visualize the air travelling in through the nose and down to your belly or lower Dantian. This practice can be done sitting at home. Regular practice will retrain your breathing mechanism.
When combining your breathing with the movements of Qigong you generally breathe in when rising up, and your arms are moving outward or upward. Then exhaling as you sink down or bring the arms inward or down. For example, in the first movement of the ShiBaShi – Waving Hands; as you bring your hands up to shoulder-height and width you breathe in, commencing the breath as the hands commence and completing it as the hands arrive at shoulder height. You commence the exhale as the arms/hands and knees begin to drop and complete the exhale as the hands reach a position just above the thighs with the knees bent.
Breath is life! Breathing correctly allows us to be vital and healthy. The quality of our breathing affects the quality of our life. I would recommend practicing 5-10 minutes of deep, relaxed abdominal breathing at home every day.