Breathing is second nature to us , it’s as natural as …well, breathing. But how many of us actually breathe correctly ?
For many of us after years of sitting in offices hunched over desks breathing shallowly into our lungs we have developed dreadful breathing habits and in one of of the most memorable soundbites of recent years Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative coined the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’ describing how our sedentary lifestyles have led to increased widespread health problems.
In Eastern martial arts such as karate, kung-fu and tai-chi those who practise are trained to breathe from the diaphragm not the lungs. This type of breathing is based on the ancient Chinese practice of Qigong.
Why the focus on breathing?
Al Lee, co-author of ‘Perfect Breathing’ blames our sedentary lifestyle. From a high-tech engineering background, he developed an interest in the science behind breathing about 20 years ago. He says the body associates the shallow breathing when sitting with the ‘fight or flight ‘response and as a result ‘Blood pressure rises, the blood becomes more acidic and we are more likely to be emotional and emotionally reactive to our situation’.
‘In qigong breathing the emphasis is on abdominal breathing where air is inhaled through the nose slowly and deeply so that the lower abdomen becomes inflated. As the air is exhaled the lower abdomen is contracted slowly so that the lungs may be completely emptied. Breathing should be long , slow and regular.’ ( Gaiam Life , ‘How Qigong Improves Health’) Al Lee recommends the six second breath , 3 seconds to inhale and 3 to exhale , and repeat for 5 minutes for a month. It is the sort of deceptively simple exercise that can be done anywhere , in the car , watching TV, waiting for a bus , anything.
So what exactly are the benefits of breathing like this ?
Benefits of Qigong breathing
It is common in the West for us to feel warmed up when we are slightly breathless and our muscles are ‘pumped’ through the inflow of oxygen to the blood cells. This makes us feel ready for what is to follow. However, by following the gentle breathing exercises of qigong the muscles are worked quite differently.
Qigong breathing builds effortless power and looseness . The goal should be a feeling of relaxed power when the muscles, rather than straining and fighting just loosen up and allow the energy ‘chi’ to flow through.In the West we have been led to believe that aerobic exercise is necessary to strengthen the heart and lungs.While aerobic exercise undoubtedly does do this then so does qigong. The slow, deep and regular breathing combine to work oxygen deeper into the tissues than regular exercise provided that you stay within 70% of maximum effort and do not overstrain.
Abdominal , slow and measured breathing works to massage and strengthen all the internal organs and to correct blockages or imbalances in the internal energy or ‘chi’ that run through the body and strengthens the immune system , relieves pain and stress and detoxifies the organs.
In addition Qigong breathing can help speed recovery time from injury and illness .The gentle, non-jarring and low-impact movements of qigong can be done immediately following an injury or operation, particularly if the 70 percent rule is adhered to and no strain is applied. This rule is particularly important during healing, as the body is already overstressed.
Applying the rule of no strain helps injuries to heal fully. The 70 percent rule allows recovery to happen gradually and fully. Injuries that are only partially resolved can progressively weaken other parts of the body and set up conditions for major problems in uninjured areas, immediately or over time.
Given that life expectancy in parts of Japan where this practice is commonplace is amongst the highest in the world , is it worth the risk not to give it a try ?