My last post made the case for awareness of your blood oxygen level. A healthy oxygen saturation (94-100%) is important for optimum health. Even a 1% improvement is significant. But in the time of COVID-19, “hidden hypoxia” may trigger pneumonia and you don’t even know it.
It stands to reason that improved capacity and efficiency of breathing could be a powerful asset in dealing with this global pandemic. Robust good health may be your best defense.
Get comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing. It will improve your health and your state of mind. It may help to minimize the symptoms should you get infected. (Click links below for more information.)
1. Thoracic (chest) breathing tends to fire up your sympathetic nervous system, which is probably red-lining already. Diaphragmatic breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm things down. (I have covered this already in “Change Your Breath. Change your brain.” so I won’t get into detail here.)
2. Each time you consciously FEEL your breathing, you take the non-volitional preconscious action your body does normally and make it conscious and volitional. In doing so, you activate different parts of your brain and shift to a superconscious state. It is a proven and effective tool for shifting from the default mode network to a whole-brain coherence. (See “Psilocybin Research and Whole-brain Coherence.“)
3. When you breathe diaphragmatically, you get 2-3 times as much air into your lungs. That means more volume of air in the system, and that helps reduce a preconscious stress on a body that may be anxious about where that next breath will come from. When we integrate more air with more oxygen saturation and better circulation, then good things happen.
Three Steps to Mindful Breathing
This is not a complete guide to breathing (that would fill a library); it’s a few tips to make what you are already doing more efficient. You will increase your blood/oxygen saturation. When combined with taijiquan or qigong, it will dramatically improve the microcirculation in your body, bringing more oxygen to all the cells and removing waste for exhalation.
As I wrote above, when you breathe intentionally and FEEL it in your body, something remarkable happens: you quickly shift your mind into a superconscious state. The dominant chatter of the brain’s default mode network is subdued for a while and an a body-mind-spirit integration starts to happen. You stop dwelling on the past or worrying about the future and shift attention to the present moment.
Breathing is not ordinarily volitional, but it can be. It is preconscious, controlled by the medulla oblongata in the reptile brain through the autonomic nervous system, in response to the perceived need of the body in the moment. However, when we do take the process off autopilot we bring mindfulness and control to it to correct our course. We awaken for the moment to do something different.
(In the video below, I walk you through it.)
Step One: Three Seconds
This is something you can do anywhere at any time. It doesn’t have to be three seconds, and can be lengthened or shortened to taste.
- Inhale through the nose for three seconds.
- Softly hold for three seconds.
- Exhale three seconds, either through nose or mouth.
- Softly hold the exhale for three seconds.
The key to this is to FEEL the process and the effects each stage of each breath has on your body and mind. (Don’t worry about diaphragmatic breathing yet. Breathing through the nose starts to retrain the body to do just that. We’ll get to that in the next step.)
Try doing ten breaths and notice its effect.
When you are comfortable with three seconds, you can lengthen the time. Don’t force it. If three is too much, try two seconds.
Step Two: Control the Diaphragm
One of the easiest ways to bring your ANS into a dynamic balance is to take control of your breathing as often as possible. That means controlling the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a powerful muscle that forms a dome inside the lower part of your rib cage and extends down to the upper part of your abdomen. When we inhale, the diaphragm initiates the process by flattening downward into you belly and presses against your internal organs. This creates space for the lungs to expand downward and that pulls in air. Then the intercostal muscles expand the rib cage outward creating more space for lung capacity. During exhalation, the intercostals relax, the ribs return to their resting state, and the diaphragm returns to its dome shape.
How deeply we breathe, when it’s done preconsciously, depends largely on the habits we have established over time. When the breath is shallow, the diaphragm hits that initial resistance of the organs in the belly and immediately triggers the intercostals to expand the chest. This is called thoracic breathing because most of the work is being done by the chest. Since it is shallow, it requires more breaths per minute to sustain you body activity. Like when we pant after sprinting for the bus. Shallow thoracic breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. It also stresses the body-mind by raising the existential question, “Where will my next breath come from?” If habitual, thoracic breathing leads to a stiffening of the diaphragm and chronic decrease in lung capacity.
Abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing doesn’t stop when the diaphragm hits that initial resistance of the internal organs. Rather than immediately initiating movement by the intercostals and expanding the chest, the diaphragm continues to push down on the belly, causing it to expand outward. More space is created below the lungs by this movement allowing them to expand downward (inferiorly).
It’s better for most beginners to focus on abdominal breathing for a long time, since thoracic breathing has dominated for decades and it’s a tough habit to break. After abdominal breathing becomes easy and quasi-automatic, then you can integrate the two by first filling the belly and then expanding your lungs.
So, how do we bypass that preconscious urge to activate the intercostals so that deeper breathing is not just possible, but becomes comfortable?
Give yourself a hug and feel your ribs with your hands. As you inhale, override the impulse to expand your chest to expand you diaphragm into your abdominal cavity. Feel it pressing down on your internal organs, massaging and stimulating them. Your belly will expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale. It may feel uncomfortable at first, as you create internal space for the additional breath. That’s okay. Just feel it and know that you are increasing your blood oxygen levels with each breath. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
Step Three: Open the Huiyin
The Huiyin CV-1 (“Meeting Place of Yin;” “Sea Bottom”) is located at the perineum, between anus and genitals. It is the most yin point on the torso and is the meeting place for the Governing, Conception, and Penetrating vessels. Targeting the huiyin with your breathing has the effect of deepening your diaphragmatic breathing as well as unblocking the yin qi. Stressful times like these often create an excess of yang qi in the body, creating a yin deficiency. Profound healing occurs in Polarity Therapy when you release the perineum.
CV-1 can be stimulated externally also, but learning to reach it via your breathing has its advantages. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to do anywhere. It can help you relax in stressful situations. A few breaths on retiring at night can set you up for a very relaxing sleep. It connects up your Penetrating, Conception, and Governing vessels to fill the resevoirs of your meridian system.
To get there, we want to increase the downward pressure on the abdominal cavity even more. Not only do we calm the intercostal muscles and not expand the ribs, but now we want to restrain the belly from expanding too. As the diaphragm pushes downward, massaging the organs, it creates even more internal space. You want to feel the pressure reaching all way to the perineum. Those who are sensitive to energy may notice the yin meridians in the legs filling with qi.
You want to be comfortable with Step Two before training this one, because now we are restraining the outward expansion of both chest and abdomen. So, after you can relaxedly calm your intercostal muscles and start to enjoy the feeling of diaphragmatic breathing, try giving your belly a hug and hold it with your hands. At the point where it would ordinarily expand, continue to breathe in and feel into the downward pressure on your organs. It may take some practice before you learn to actually feel the pressure with your perineum, but that’s okay. It’s doing its work anyway.
Please check out this video where I show these three simple steps.