We are continuing with our exploration of the Lungs, which paired with the Large Intestine comprise the organ systems of Metal. This is the season to focus on inspiration and letting go. The inspiration will light our way as we descend into the darkness, the yin time. Letting go, winnowing down, paring away the non-essentials help us appreciate the value and beauty in our lives. We take stock of what is is in our pantry in anticipation of winter; we take personal stock of our many talents and strengths, as we prioritize and recognize self esteem and value.
Inspiration is a key motif of this season. Just as we expand our lungs to take in air, the pure qi, so too do we expand our entire beings to receive divine inspiration. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the surface area of the alveoli, the microscopic branches of the lungs, could cover a tennis court. Think of this expanded lung surface area as you take in your next breath, filling all these minute spaces with air and extend that metaphor to the inspiration potential that expands our every moment.
I will explain a variant of yogic breathing which I like to call 360* breathing. Doing these types of breaths during your day can give you many benefits. I formerly worked in an acupuncture clinic which primarily serviced patients suffering injuries sustained from work or car-accidents. Most patients were in severe physical pain, which naturally extends to psychological challenges as well. I noticed that most of them were breathing quite shallowly. When I would ask someone to take a breath, there would follow a short intake of air. I would ask them to take a deep breath, and the patient would take two short intakes of air, reporting that it “it hurts to breathe.” We would do very gentle 360* breaths ….. and magic happened. The ones who continued with this self care at home came back to clinic reporting that their back pain had improved, that they had more energy and they felt calmer. They all experienced better breathing, their nasal passages not as congested, and the few of them who were on asthma inhalers said they had decreased their usage significantly.
Why did this happen? With regards to the back pain, very often the quadratus lumborum, or QL, is stiff and tense upon palpation. Breathing deeply gently lift the pleura of the lung – of which there are many running down the back (not just the front of our chest!) The quadratus lumborum runs from the iliac crest and attaches to the 12th rib and the top four lumbar vertebrae. It stabilized the 12th floating rib (just above the waistline) when you are breathing. But – if you have back pain, you might tend to breathe shallowly, which causes the muscle to stiffen, which causes more back pain and the cycle worsens. 360* breathing gently massages these muscles and helps lower pain, breaking the cycle. The added oxygen and in turn blood and qi are benefits as well.
With regards to the increased energy, this type of breathing massages the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. The in and out breath simultaneously stimulates and then calms the adrenals, helping to relieve adrenal fatigue and burnout.
The increased oxygen levels from full 360* breathing brings mental clarity. By supporting the nervous system, this breathing brings calm, peace and well-being.
Try these full breath exercises below and notice that with each breath’s expansion, comes a feeling of expansion in our bodies and eventually in our lives – we are body/mind beings.
FULL BREATH EXERCISES
You can do this type of breathing anywhere – sitting down, reclining, in a car, standing on line, walking about. However, if you are new to this breathing, it’s best that you consciously pay attention to the steps until they become second nature. You may find eventually that in a stressful situation, you will go to this full breath to relax. But at first, it’s best to stop other activities to take this breath break.
Position your body
Sit in a chair, cross-legged on a cushion, or (best for this beginning practice), lying down, arms at the side, palms facing up feet uncrossed. This is called the Corpse or Shavasana pose (shavas meaning corpse in sanskrit). In particular this is a good posture to use during the Metal, as we return to yin energy as Nature dies around us, combining the Large Intestine energy with the Lung, an inspiration and expiration movement.
If this is new to you, you may want to start the breath with your eyes closed, in order to shut out visual distractions and focus just on the movement of air in your body. Eventually you will want to open your eyes, aware of your environment to allow this type of breath to integrate into your waking, walking, working life. Integration accentuates the yogic background of this breath. Yoga means “union” and the ability to be in union with oneself, the Divine (however you term that), and the external world is a continual challenge and goal. Closing your eyes and being a yogi within is one thing; opening your eyes and engaging with the world as a yogi is another. Both have their place in life.
Three parts of the full yogic breath:
1) Abdominal breathing
Observe your natural breath. You will notice that as you inhale the abdomen rises and then falls with exhalation. Watch this for a few moments to check this flow, then deepen, lengthen and extend these movements.
- place one hand on abdomen below the navel
- start with the exhale and completely void all air from your lungs, exhaling through the mouth. Using your hand, gently push the last bit of air out of your lungs and body.
- Inhale through the nose, lifting your abdomen (which will lift your hand) to its utmost position. Only breathe into the abdomen, the chest is not involved yet.
- Continue with this for a few breath cycles or so and then stop.
2) Middle Chest breathing
Again observe your normal breath, this time focusing your attention on the middle chest, the ribcage area. You will notice this part of the chest moving slightly up at inhalation and down with exhalation. Again observe this pattern for a few moments. Now again, begin to deepen, lengthen and extend your breath.
- cross your arms over your chest and place hands around ribcage
- again, starting with the extended exhale, relax and contract the ribcage, emptying out the chest and lungs completely. Use your hands gently to release extra air.
- inhale, expanding the ribcage to its limit
In this step, keep the abdomen still, moving only the middle chest. Do this for a few breath cycles and then stop
3) Upper Chest breathing
- place one hand on upper chest
- again, starting with the extended exhale, relax and contract the upper chest, emptying out the lungs completely.
- inhale, expanding the upper chest to its limit
In this step, keep the abdomen and the ribcage still, moving only the upper chest. This is a shallow breath, but the purpose of it is to familiarize yourself with the various degrees of breathing. Don’t worry about “getting it right”, just focus on the intention of breathing into the upper chest only. Do this for a few breath cycles and then stop.
IMPORTANT NOTE: All of the above steps should be done in a relaxed, with no straining. This is free-flowing, effortless, wu wei (action through inaction) method of breathing. At first this breath may be mechanical, filled with bumps, pauses and uneven movement. Stay with it, as you visualize a wave like pattern expanding and contracting. You are aspiring to minimum effort with maximum rewards.
FULL YOGIC BREATH
This is a continued movement of the three parts above:
- Slowly exhaling, relax and contract abdomen, then ribcage, then raise upper chest.
- Slowly inhaling, expand abdomen, then ribcage, then raise upper chest
- The full breath is one continuous flow of air, qi, oxygen and movement. Repeat slowly, steadily, consciously.
360 DEGREE BREATHING
As all three areas are expanding (Abdomen, Middle Chest, Upper Chest), pay attention to the pleura of the lung which continue down the back of the spine to our low back. Feel them inflate with air, like balloons expanding.
Imagine every part of your body expanding as well: the head, neck and shoulders, arms and hands, chest, pelvis, legs and feet.
On a cellular level, imagine every cell expanding as well, filling with oxygen.
In Chinese medicine, our first breath connects us to Heavenly Qi Energy and continues until we take our last breath. Qi flows through our body in inner pathways called meridians. By controlling our breath and ensuring that every part of our body expands, oxygen, qi and blood move effortlessly and continuously. Blockages which result in pain – on a body, mind and spirit level – can be moved by this free flow.