Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Simple Breathing Exercise to Reduce Stress

So, this stress stuff.....it's not too cool.  It can raise blood pressure, lower the immune system, cause headaches, lower your mental concentration, and can even cause the body to store fat around the mid section.  (For a larger list of the effects stress can have on your body, click here to read a short paper published by the Mayo Clinic Staff)

Pretty lame stuff, right?  Yet everyone seems to have an ample supply with plenty in reserves just in case they happen to have a peaceful day sometime during the year.  It's not that any of us like stress, but so many of us have stressors piling on more stress every time we turn around it almost seems like there is not escape.  The boss is upset about something, we need a job, the kids spilled grape juice on the new carpet, we have to fill up a 20 gal. gas tank with gas prices going through the roof....you name it, stressors are all over the place.

So, since we cannot simply tell the world to go away and to stop being stressful, one of the best things we can do is learn to release the stress that we have accumulated during the day.  Some people choose to do this by taking part in activities that simply add more stress.  Although they may be fun and seem to reduce stress at the moment, they often tend to create an imbalanced lifestyle of constantly pushing yourself.  In the long run such a lifestyle tends to lead people to a place where they just feel burned out and apathetic towards life.

One of the worst parts of this whole mess is that most people that are stressed have become so used to it that they don't even realize they are stressed.  Their body is full of tension and they don't even notice it anymore.  I've taught Tai Chi to students like this.  I will tell them to relax their shoulders while they are standing in a certain posture, but they are so used to the tension they carry around all day that they look at me with a puzzled look and say, "My shoulders are relaxed."  Which, to them, is true because they don't remember what relaxed feels like, but it is very easy to see that their shoulders are anything but relaxed.  Sometimes placing my hands on their shoulders and telling them, "Focus on these points and try to relax them a little more each time you exhale" is all it takes to get them to actually relax their shoulders (some times it takes more than that), but they are always surprised by how much tension they were actually carrying when they do finally relax their shoulders.  Often the exact words they use to describe the difference are, "Oh wow..."  Simply by letting go of some of the tension they have stored up for years they immediately feel like a new person.

I want to teach you a simple breathing exercise that will help you get rid of some of your stored up stress.  You might be wondering, "How is breathing going to get rid of tension in my body?"  It's pretty simple.  In the same way that you can use your mind to stress out about something or worry about something to the point that you give yourself an ulcer (or any number of other health problems caused by stress) you can use your mind, on purpose, to have a positive effect on your body.  Simply by changing what you are focusing on for a short while you can give your mind and body the little "vacation" they need to keep on going. 

Ready?  Here we go...  :)

You can sit in a chair, cross legged on the floor or on a pillow, or even stand to do this breathing exercise.  Regardless of which way you choose to do this you will want to make sure your spine is straight.  Start by tucking your chin in slightly, and tilting your hips slightly to straighten out the curve in your lower back.  You can imagine that your head is filled with helium and is being lifted gently upward.  This will help straighten and alleviate the feeling of pressure on your spine.  If you are standing you will want to keep a slight bend in your knees.

Next place your hands on your lower belly about an inch below your belly button.  For females place your right hand on your lower belly then place you left hand over top of it.  For males place your left hand first, then your right hand on top.

Once you are here imagine all your weight and every bit of tension sinking down to the lowest part of your body then imagine that your tension is draining out into the ground.

Start by closing your mouth.  For this exercise you will be breathing in and out through your nose only.  Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth (this is important in Chinese medical theory because it connects two of the bodies meridians and allows the body to adjust and balance out more easily) When you breathe in through your nose imagine you are pulling that breath all the way down to where your hands are on your lower belly.  Keep your shoulders relaxed as you do this.  Instead of drawing your breath into your chest and expanding your rib cage, keep your chest and shoulders relaxed and expand your lower belly as you inhale.  When you exhale bring your lower belly in as you push the air out of your lungs, but continue to keep the chest and shoulders relaxed and move them as little as possible.

In Qi Gong they say that your breathing should be quiet, thin, and smooth like a silk thread.  You should not be able to hear it and it should not have an ending or a beginning.  Your inhale should smoothly turn into your exhale and vice-versa.  Try to breathe deeply and slowly.  Long, steady, smooth inhale and long, steady, smooth exhale.

When you are doing this simply start by counting your breaths in sets of 10.  Usually you will want to do at least 20 breaths per session, but you can add more if you feel so inclined.  So with your first inhale count "1" in your mind and follow that breath all the way to the lower belly with your mind, then follow it all the way back up and out your nose.  Do the same thing over and over until you reach "10" then start counting at "1" again.

While you are doing this the mind will tend to wander and will try to pull your attention back to the things that it has been worrying about or thinking about all day.  Our minds are very often unaccustomed to silence.  If thoughts begin to pop up, don't try to force them away, just let them pass by and continue to focus on just your breathing. After a while of practice your body will become more relaxed and your mind will feel more relaxed and more focused at the same time.

It probably won't take you more than 10 mins. to go through all 20 breaths so this exercise is something you can use to focus your mind and prepare yourself for the day or as a way to calm down and relax after a long day.  10 minutes is definitely worth it if it can help you maintain your health, or counteract some of the effects of stress on your body, right?

Feel free to contact me with any questions about this exercise and I hope you enjoy a more relaxed mind and body for years to come as you practice this simple stress-relieving breathing exercise. :)

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