Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Are you kidding me? I’ve been breathing all my life, I must be doing something right. Now Craig wants to teach me how to breathe? Well yes I am!
Tai Chi Breathing
Breathing Like a Baby
Last week we looked at all the reasons you should and the mountain of evidence as to why you should deep breathe. If that didn’t make an impression on you as to why you should deep breathe then let’s make it personal. Take a look at this simple test. This test is taken from the book “Conscious Breathing” by Gay Hendricks, Ph.D.
If you answered yes to 3 or more questions you need to practice deep breathing. We will be working on breathing in class this week. We will go in depth on how to breathe and practice how to breathe. BTW this week when we do our breathing we will be going at my personal rhythm, not class rate. You might notice a difference. :) We will also try to incorporate breathing into the Tai Chi form if time allows. Let’s look at some fundamentals to help us get started.
If you want a good example of deep breathing watch a baby breathe. The last thing to develop in the womb are the lungs. So a baby has to use all if it’s lungs to breath. So when it breathes it’s little stomach puffs out. (Pediatricians count respiratory rates of newborns by watching the stomach move). Most kids are still using belly breathing in kindergarten. Most kids are not using belly breathing by high school. It is speculated that the change in breathing comes from the shock and trauma life provides us as our awareness grows.
The most important factor in learning to deep breathe is to relax. If you find yourself tensing up when you practice, stop and revert to normal breathing. Remember being tense squeezes your belly and doesn’t allow your belly to expand. Likewise if you feel dizzy, tense or awkward you are probably trying to hard. Let it go and try again later.
One more point, we practice deep breathing when we are relaxed and we can control the environment around use to make it conducive to relaxing and breathing. When we get better at deep breathing we will be able to do it when conditions aren’t favorable for us. Just like training for a race. If you wanted to run a 5K you wouldn’t go out the day of the race and do it. You would practice and build up to it. Breathing is the same way. Don’t expect to wake up in the middle of the night stressed out from life and be able to automatically deep breathe. Practice during the day when you have a chance, then when that stressed night happens you are ready for the race! If you have been doing your 20 in 2020 you are getting your daily practice in.
When I first started meditating it took we awhile to get my breathing regulated, to allow my mind to reach a state of mindfulness (sometimes not getting there at all) and if something interrupted it, I was done. With practice I got better, interruptions still threw me off but I was able to pull myself back into mindfulness if I spent more time at it. As I got better I was able to get into a mindful state with just a few breaths. I was also able to deflect interruptions and not let them break my mindfulness. It doesn’t always work that way, if times are especially stressful or I have too much going on in my life I will have to spend more time getting to mindfulness.
First let’s look at how our body is designed. Our body is designed to make the most out of deep breathing. The upper part of our lungs are small (have to make room for our hearts). So majority of our blood circulation takes place in the bottom of our lungs. To fully oxygenate our body we must use the bottom part of our lungs. If we keep our stomach tense our diaphragm has no place to expand to and we shallow breath. Pull in our stomach and try to take a beep breath. Now take a deep breath and let your stomach expand. When we tense our stomach and breath it is referred to as upside down breathing. Our diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle at the bottom of our rib cage. When we take a deep breath in the diaphragm flattens out (as long as we let our belly expand to make way for this to happen). Pulling air into all of our lungs. Just learning this aspect of breathing can be very powerful.
Let’s take it further. Lie down on your back, probably your bed works best for this. You can do this on the floor also. Put one hand just below your sternum (where your ribs come together) to the top part of your hand touches the bottom of your sternum (this will be called your top hand). Take your other hand and place it on your lower belly to the top part of your hand sits right below your belly button. Now breath “regularly” or as you normally do for a minute. Notice when you breathe which hand is moving or if they move at all. Now try to take several deep breaths. Again notice which hand is moving and how much they are moving. When you are deep breathing properly only the bottom hand should move. When you are upside down breathing your top hand will move.
A couple of other things to consider. The Chinese teach us to breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. Again going back to the design of the body helps us understand this. The nose has small hairs in it to help filter the incoming air (if you have ever worked in a dusty place you know exactly what I mean). You will see this as part of an advance breathing method (next week). One note here, Yoga teaches us lots of different ways to breathe. Don’t get too hung up on the breathing unless you are wanting to move on to the advance level of breathing.
Another technique that the Chinese use when breathing. When breathing put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, lightly touching the upper palate, just behind your teeth. This also will help you when we cover advance breathing techniques. When you are doing this you are connecting the governing vessel with the conception vessel allowing you to use circular breathing.
Now work with this feeling. You don’t want the top hand to move, only the bottom should move. Learn to relax the belly and the feeling of the bottom hand moving. Alternatively one of my students, Will (thank you sir), suggested that you can put a shoe on your belly in place of your bottom hand. The feeling of this slight weight on your belly may give you the tactical feel you need to help with this exercise. Or you can be like Karen (another of my students) who puts her TV remote in place of her bottom hand. While not the way the ancient Chinese did this, what the heck, use what works.
Keep working with this. Keep the body relaxed and notice when you do, you are able to take more air in. Also notice if you tense up you can’t breath in as well. So work on staying relaxed as you breath in. When this becomes easier, practice as the end of the exhale tighten the stomach muscles slightly (don’t overdo this part). Imagine you are trying to squeeze every last bit of air out.
When breathing this way becomes easy (it may take hours, days, weeks – doesn’t matter). Then try sitting up and deep breathe. Remember to sit up straight, Tai Chi style – shown in an earlier blog. If you are slouching you will not be able to take a deep breath. It is usually best to start breathing in the prone position, then transfer to the seated position until that is comfortable. When breathing in the seated position becomes natural, then transfer to the standing position. If at any time if starts to feel awkward, you can move back to the supine position or seated until things smooth out.
So how do we make this a habit? Like anything else patience and persistence. I like to use the analogy for learning to write. Do you remember back when you made your first letter “A”? It took forever and probably didn’t really look that good. Plus you had to concentrate really hard to do it. But you kept working at it. Over and over again. Again and again. Now you can write the letter A quickly and easily and it looks great! We learn something consciously and have to think hard about it. It eventually moves to our subconscious. Over a long period of time it becomes a reflex. Learning Tai Chi works this way also. We start with “Staccato Tai Chi” looking anything but smooth. Eventually the forms smooths out. Then we actually remember the moves!
My challenge for you this week is to work on your 20 in 2020 (of course), but on the breathing part of the 20 practice (10 minutes breathing, 10 minutes Tai Chi) work specifically the exercises above. Keep at it until you become an expert breather. Don’t force it, just practice every day and a month from now you will realize how natural it has become. The advanced challenge is to start looking for small spaces in the day to practice deep breathing. At a stop light, first thing in the morning, before you go to bed, when in the Dr waiting room etc. Later on we will talk more about meditation in a blog and in class. Have a great week breathing!!!