How many of us really spend a lot of time thinking about breath? After all, breathing is under autonomic nervous system control, which is to say that it happens without having to consciously think about it. It’s usually just something we automatically do to stay alive.
Yet I have pondered long and hard on the implication of breathing techniques on the human health and happiness. I have often wondered how breath might be harnessed by our will and made to function to our benefit. Along the way, I have gathered a few pearls of wisdom, a few of which I will share today.
There are entire books written on this topic. At the time of this writing, I searched Amazon.com’s books for “breathing” and got 6,724 results! Why would so many authors write on a topic that seems so mundane and obvious?
Perhaps it’s because breath is a tool that is greatly underestimated in its ability to change our physiology, state of our minds and our health. The use of breathing exercises is one way to potentially improve your odds of healing with natural medicine approaches such as acupuncture.
Dr. Zhu states, “It’s like opening a safe. You have the key [acupuncture] but you also need Daoyin. It’s a movement, a process. This is why we emphasize Daoyin and breathing a.k.a. ‘Tu-Na’ (exhalation-inhalation).”1
I have found that in clinical practice, these three breathing exercises (below) are specifically useful for acupuncture patients:
- Needle-insertion breathing: This is designed to cut down on acupuncture needle insertion pain. Take steady full breaths through the nose, exhale long through nose and mouth, timed with needle insertion by the practitioner. These are natural breaths which are a little more pronounced than usual. Feel free to “sharpen” or intensify the exhale, if it feels right. Lastly, you may generate a cough and time it to coincide with needle insertion. Coughing is a nice disruptor of peripheral pain signals, so don’t be afraid to use it if needed.
- Square breathing + mindfulness: This exercise is for use during acupuncture needle retention, during rest periods, or at any time during the day which is ideally convenient, quiet, private. The function is to calm the Shen in a profound way, both immediately, and in a long-acting way when pursued over longer periods of practice. Set a timer before you sit down to practice for whatever amount of time you intend to spend on it (I would consider 10-15 minutes a minimum). Start in seated or supine position with your mouth closed, focusing your awareness of the breath to where it enters your nostrils. Inhale and count to 4, hold and count to 4, exhale to a count of 4, hold and count to 4. Any thoughts which occur should be recognized as such and let go of, such that you no longer follow the train of it’s course. Think of the thought as a cloud, let go of it and watch it drift away in the sky of your mind. Begin counting anew and re-focusing your awareness of the breath to where it enters your nostrils. Continue until timer goes off. 20-30 minutes per day of this exercise is, in my opinion and experience, a viable if not significant stress-management strategy.
- Lower abdominal (Dantian) breathing: This exercise can be used during active Daoyin exercises in clinic, sitting, or standing in wuji It’s function is to generate, regulate and store Qi in a way which can be likened to a battery recharge for humans. Begin with your mouth closed, take a long, steady inhale and let the lower abdomen expand in size (the shoulders and back should not be moving or exerting at all to make this happen), then a long steady exhale to contract the lower abdomen in size. Focus on the 3-D spot located about 3 inches below your navel and 3 inches deep inside your lower abdomen. You can use your imagination to visualize white light pouring into your lower abdomen with each inhalation, and spent, dirty light leaving by way of your legs and sinking into the ground below you with each exhalation.
I would venture that the way we can benefit from any given exercise is it to actually do it. I now invite you to give any of the above exercises a try on your own. It’s not as difficult as it may sound. Build it into your lifestyle and you won’t even miss the 20-minutes-per-day. Plus you’ll be better off for it.
My recommendation is to practice daily, and pay attention to the changes you experience in your health concerns and in your general sense of well-being and calm following each of your sessions. Consider recording these impressions in a notebook or personal journal for future analysis.
1Video: Chapter 2 – Zhu’s Scalp Acupuncture: Theory and Characteristics; 27:21.