Tai chi breathing for health, peace and comfort – a simple practice
It’s been a strange summer – the Olympics and Brexit, long sunny days and driving rain. With even more change around us than usual, it’s time for some deep, comfortable breathing!
Actually, it’s nearly always time for some deep comfortable breathing. We are a culture of chronic shallow breathing and holding our breath. Once you start to pay attention to your own breathing, you might notice you’re holding your breath more than you realised.
Many people, for example, hold their breath when they’re thinking hard, or when something unexpected happens, when they get up from a deep chair, turn over in bed and so on…
Does it matter?
Well, yes. For one thing, you have more reserves of strength and stamina than you probably realise, and breathing fully can help you access them when you need them – climbing a steep hill, getting through a busy day, or dealing with a sudden emergency.
Deep rhythmic breathing oxygenates your blood better, so that even if your circulation isn’t great, your tissues get more of the oxygen they need for operation, growth and repair.
It opens your lungs. (Did you know that the bottoms of your lungs can actually get ‘stagnant’ if badly underused? That makes disease and damage more likely, and who wants to have lungs like a pond anyway?)
It massages your abdominal organs, rhythmically pressing and releasing (you see your belly pushing out and in), helping them in their work, and keeping everything easy and free-moving. Great for the digestion!
Best of all, perhaps, deep comfortable breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the opposite of the stress-response, flight or fight system. This is where the feelings of peace and comfort come from. As your mind calms and relaxes, your body can get on with resting, digesting, healing and repair.
So I hope you’re convinced enough to do some easy, enjoyable practice! I’d suggest spending 2-5 minutes a day on the simple process below to start with.
As you settle into it, try extending your time, or doing a couple of short sessions. It’s a lovely way to start and end your day, particularly if combined with some gentle tai chi movements.
As ever with these tai chi-related things, taking it easy and staying well within your comfort zone will give you great benefits.
A Simple Breathing Practice
Think of a baby lying on its back fast asleep.
As you watch from the side, its belly rises and falls a surprising amount, in a gentle natural rhythm – that’s what we’re aiming for for ourselves.
If you have time and inclination, you can do what is now being done in some primary schools – the children lie down and put a stuffed toy on their tummies. Then they simply breathe so that Teddy moves up and down comfortably. Schools doing this for a few minutes a day report that the children are calmer and happier – and the teachers probably are too!
Our basic tai chi breathing practice is simply an adult version of this – although no lying on the floor or teddy is required.
Sit towards the front of a firm chair, with your knees apart and centred over your feet. Check that you can feel your ‘sitting bones’ resting comfortably against the chair seat. (Which means that your buttocks are mostly behind you rather than under you – much better for your back!)
Let your spine ‘grow’ comfortably up towards the sky – feel a very gentle stretch as the golden cord from heaven attaches to the crown of your head and suspends it. The tops of your ears are now reaching up gently to heaven, while your shoulders are comfortably heavy, descending towards the earth.
This is the ‘tripod’ position, which makes an excellent foundation for breathing practices, seated tai chi and sitting generally.
If your lower back is currently weak, you may find that it is tiring to do after a short time. Keep practising (with the breathing) in odd moments, and you’ll find your back strengthening too. This makes everything – standing, sitting, bending – easier!
1. Let yourself become aware of your breathing. Don’t change anything, just breathe and notice how you’re breathing, and how it feels.
2. Continue breathing, letting yourself start to slow down, relaxing your lower ribs and belly, and feeling how that changes things. (You might find yourself sighing or yawning. This is fine whenever it happens.)
3. Continue breathing, relaxing more and more, letting the relaxation spread to your whole body. It’s common for your hands, feet and face to feel heavy and ‘quiet’ – it’s all good.
4. Let yourself enjoy ‘feeling into’ your body. We spend a lot of time dealing with what’s outside us. This is a time to enjoy simply being a quiet relaxing body, breathing gently and increasingly slowly and deeply.
5. When you’re ready, open your eyes, and take a moment to re-orient yourself before leaping up and getting on with your day!
Should my eyes be open or closed? Either is fine. Just check that the little muscles around them and your mouth and jaw are soft and relaxed.
My mind keeps racing. That’s absolutely normal. No need to worry or berate yourself. (Some people do!). Just gently bring your thoughts back to what you are actually feeling, now, in your body. It can help to say, inside, “in…” and “out…” or somesuch as you breathe – as long as you say it in a warm, relaxed, sleepy sort of internal voice.
Like many good things, this skill takes a little practice – but it’s worth it. After a while, you can find your peaceful breath even under stressful circumstances.
Start with a little, and feel free to do it as often as you feel like it. Noticing and simply deepening your breathing can be done anytime and anywhere – but taking time a couple of times a day to deliberately notice, slow and deepen your breath is a great refresher and stress reliever.
Let me know how you get on!