Basics of breathing

Breathing is a core part of Tai Chi with the aim being to extend, through relaxation, the length of the breath. Although the volume of your lungs is set by your genetics the speed at which you in-hale and exhale can be trained. The speed of your breathing has an impact on your physiological state. Try a quick experiment: first try breathing in as fast as you can and out as fast as you can. You will find in a minute (if you can keep it up that long) you feel quite light headed and your heart rate has increased and unseen to you, your blood vessels have become constricted and your whole muscular system has gone into a ready state. Now try and breathe in and out as slowly as you can and observe what happens. You will find you relax and your heart rate decreases, your blood vessels dilate and muscles relax and your body goes into a state of relaxation.

In our day to day lives we often find ourselves in the ready state in response to the many external stimuli of our modern world. This puts us in a constant state of ready where our sympathetic nervous system is activated. The sympathetic nervous system is important so we can get things done, move about and accomplish the things we want to. The problem is when it is activated all the time and there is little chance for the para-sympathetic (rest and recovery) nervous system to rejuvenate us.

Obviously the para-sympathetic nervous system is active when we sleep (this is why enough good sleep is very important). However, with screens and constant stimulation for many people this is the only time it gets a chance to do its stuff. Even then due to the amount of tension and stress we pick up, especially mentally (that never leave us like worrying about our jobs, kids, friends etc), the sleep we get is not enough to release the tension. So we end up accumulating more and more tension and stress that eventually manifests itself as illness or injury (usually in areas of weakness such as that which begins as lower back stiffness and ends up in slipping a disc).

Breathing practice where you sit and just breathe for 10 minutes prior to sleep goes a long way to releasing tension and stress from the body while activating the parasympathetic nervous system in preparation for a deeper more rejuvenating sleep. Essentially the breathing practice readies the body and mind for sleep. Yes the mind too, because as you focus on lengthening the breathing you stop thinking about everything else which allows the mind to settle as well.

So this is what you do: find a quiet place, sit comfortably with your hands in your lap or at your sides. Begin with breathing in as slowly as you can. Focus on relaxing the tummy allowing it to expand as the diaphragm extends down as your lungs fill up. You can think about breathing into your belly button. Then exhale at the same speed as you breathed in and empty the lungs. your tummy will contract inwards as the lungs empty and the diaphragm returns to its relaxed position fully breathed out. Then begin the breathing in again and so on. Set an alarm so you know when your time has ended so you don’t have to keep checking the time and can fully concentrate on the breathing.

Your are focusing on making the inhale and exhale as slow s you can and they should be even (equal duration). It may take a little time to get used to the feeling of deep breathing but stick at it and it will come.

For more on the benefits of deep breathing there are a number of YouTube videos on the subject of cardiac coherence which is generated by the breathing. The state of coherence is where the para-sympathetic nervous system is activated and your internal systems align and it has many many health benefits. The state of coherence is achieve by actively breathing as I have described above and I would suggest you do an internet search for more reading on the subject as there is more than I could hope to cover in a blog post beyond introducing you to it and pointing you in the right direction.