We all know that physical exercise can benefit the human body and make us feel good. So why is it that with some forms of movement, such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong, equal emphasis is placed on breathing techniques and breath awareness? What’s breath go to do with maintaining optimum health? It’s a fair question to ask; allow us to help by revealing the ancient wisdom behind these age-old traditions.
In most pursuits that promote mindfulness, the breath is one of the first things you’re instructed to focus on. A fundamental part of the courses offered by White Tiger Qigong, for example, involves teaching students very specific breathing techniques, such as Qi Pressure Breath, Gate Breathing and Golden Elixir Breathing. Go to any yoga or Tai Chi class, and you will be encouraged to consciously take control of the breath, before practising any asanas or movements.
Why is conscious breathing so important?
The inclusion of conscious or ‘mindful’ breathing exercises and the ‘marrying’ of breath and movement, in practices like Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi, has a number of positive and potentially long-lasting effects, such as:
- Soothing the nervous system and calming the mind
- Restoring and even increasing energy levels
- Enhancing levels of focus and awareness
- Harmonizing mind, body and breath – meaning the spirit and the body can become unified
In short, breathing with awareness is held to be the key to vitality, longevity and happiness!
Why does conscious breathing have such a profound effect on our wellbeing?
In order to answer this, it’s necessary to first explore the way the breath works when we’re not actively thinking about it.
When we breathe, oxygen is transferred to the bloodstream via the lungs, and it’s then carried by the blood to our muscles. How much oxygen we need depends on what we’re doing and how we feel.
The harder we work or the faster we move, the more oxygen our muscles need – that’s why we gasp when we have a burst of activity. If we’re tired, we need more oxygen, too – so we yawn and intake a large volume of air. Incredibly, the mind has no active part in this process – we don’t have to think about adjusting the way we’re breathing. We do this unconsciously.
Messages concerning variations in O2 levels are sent via the nervous system to the brain’s ‘respiratory center’. The respiratory center then sends signals back to the body in response to the information it has received, and our bodies act accordingly (we breathe more deeply or at a quicker pace, for example).
Fight or flight
It’s not just our levels of energetic output that trigger these background responses. If we’re scared by something – a big grizzly bear, let’s say – the nervous system releases hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, prompting various physical reactions which give us more energy and strength. The heart rate speeds up and the breath quickens, so that more oxygen reaches the major muscle groups, preparing our bodies for action – for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.
Once upon a time, when enemy tribes and carnivorous beasts could threaten our safety, this natural short-breathed response to stressful situations was very useful. The ensuing fight or ‘flight’ (a sprint to safety!) would have the desired effect of helping us avoid or overcome the perceived danger.
Nowadays, this ‘stress response’, as it’s also known, is not so helpful. Faced with bulging inboxes, frequent deadlines, congested roads and busy supermarkets, we go into the same ‘fight or flight’ mode – but it happens more often, and usually without periods of rest in between. There’s no ‘down time’ for our bodies and minds, which can lead to fatigue, illness and disease.
Using the breath for health and healing
So what happens when we charge our breath with our consciousness?
The ancient sages knew that certain breathing techniques could improve and enhance a person’s wellbeing, and they transmitted them through their teachings. It’s now commonly accepted throughout the scientific community that conscious breathing techniques can positively influence our health. It’s the two-way nature of the respiratory system that’s responsible for this effect – as Andre Van Lysbeth points out in his book, ‘Pranayama: The Yoga of Breathing’:
“A peculiarity of the respiratory centre is that it usually functions autonomously, like other sympathetic centres, but it also has the unique privilege of being able to take orders from the conscious self; it can cooperate with it.”
By consciously controlling the breath, we are able to send a message to the brain, which reverses the effects of stress. When we “Take a deep breath”, we are telling the body “Everything is okay”, and as such, the heart rate lowers, the muscles relax, and the mind becomes steady.
Mindful breathing, mindful living
There are further benefits to be had from breathing with awareness – by concentrating on the breath. Initially, we become aware of the mind’s tendency to jump from one thing to another. Over time, with regular practice, we train our minds to remain focused – and this simple discipline of concentration allows us to experience the present moment. Free from any regrets about the past, or worries about the future, we are able to fully immerse ourselves in what is happening now.
By breathing mindfully, we not only positively affect our energy levels and overall mental and physical wellbeing, but we develop the faculty of alert and sensitive awareness, so that every moment of our lives can be experienced in all its richness.
You can learn all of this and more as a student of White Tiger Qigong. If you’d like to learn a little more about the benefits of mindfulness and breath control, check out our blog here. Alternatively, if you’d like to become a student of White Tiger, feel free to look into attending our events. It’d be our pleasure to have you and teach more of the secrets Qigong has to share.