Healing Breath: Remedies for Stress


“The perfected breathe all the way to their heels, unlike ordinary folk who breathe only as far as their throats.” Zhuangzi, 3rd century BCE[1]

 “Take a breather,” or ”Slow down and take a deep breath,”  are common things we say when someone is in an acute state of anger, fear, frustration, or anxiety. In fact, there is solid physiological science behind this advice. According to Katie Brindle in her new book Yang Sheng: The Chinese Art of Self Healing, ”deep breathing  relaxes the body because it stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the neck to the abdomen and is in charge of turning off the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. This is a hormonal reaction involving the stimulating hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These are adrenal hormones, also called ‘adrenaline,’ that is secreted by the medulla of the adrenal glands to prepare us for dealing with stress or the “fight or flight response.” [2]

In traditional Chinese medicine, these medullary adrenaline hormones are part of what is described as “kidney yang.” They serve a positive purpose such as when our ancient forbears needed to deal with the sudden appearance of a saber-toothed tiger. Even though these fearsome animals have long been extinct, there’s plenty of modern-day stress to take their place. Job insecurity, unstable relationships, horrendous traffic congestion and threats of terrorism, not to mention the many expectations we put upon ourselves to meet our own or others’ standards, plus assorted irritations and fears keep our adrenals firing off stress hormones.

Literally, stress begins and ends with the brain. However, the effects of stress can have lasting harmful repercussions that affect all aspects of our psycho-physiological well-being.  Life involves a certain amount of stress. This occurs as we try to move our joints, or even break down food as part of the digestive process. When confronted with reasonable levels of stress necessary to survive, we want to be sure we have enough adrenal medulla hormones in reserve (kidney yang) to function and adrenal cortical hormones (kidney yin) to sustain the effort. However, unreasonable levels of stress that we don’t take measures to alleviate can injure our health and wellbeing by depleting our reserves and flooding the body with cortical hormones or cortisol.

Besides the body-mind experiencing the ill effects of too much cortisol, such as dampness, overweight, foggy thinking and fatigue, it is total adrenal exhaustion that gives rise to a plethora of inflammatory diseases, many of which are chronic including arthritis and cancer. At these stages extreme compensatory drug intervention is used which, while alleviating one level of disease, also exposes us to more serious conditions.

It is best to adopt a lifestyle with minimum stress and the ability to utilize a large number of compensatory methods to limit the negative effects of stress. These can include herbs (especially herbal nervines), a non-inflammatory diet limiting inflammatory foods such as sugar, processed and refined foods, and physio-therapeutic measures such as acupuncture, massage and meditation. These all take time to alleviate the effects of stress on the body-mind-spirit.

There is however, one remedy that is immediately effective: deep breathing. When we experience severe stress and anxiety, it not only affects our temperament and mood but also our digestion, elimination, cardiovascular system, blood pressure, and depending on the severity, shortness of breath.  Nobody knows why with anxiety and stress we develop shortness of breath, but shortness of breath then creates a negative circular effect since there is a lack of energy to deal with anxiety or stress; then the shortness of breath itself becomes a cause of anxiety and stress.

Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing

Belly breathing,  also called diaphragmatic breathing, is a readily available way to transform the “flight or fight” anxiety-stress response (yang) into one of relaxation (yin) by activating the vagus nerve which switches us from sympathetic mode to a parasympathetic mode of being. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body running from the head down the neck, through the chest, and to the large intestine establishing the relationship of stress and irritable bowel disease (IBS). Activation of the vagus nerve first occurs in the gut in consequence of the upward expanding and downward contracting motion of deep diaphragmatic breathing. The result is a quieting of thoughts, calming and consequent anxiety-stress relief.

One way to be sure you are doing this type of deep breathing correctly is to place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. As you inhale and exhale be sure the hand on you belly is rising and falling while the one on your chest remains still.

There is abundant research substantiating slow deep diaphragmatic breathing as an immediate way to alleviate the effects of stress and anxiety. Dr. Katherine Rosa of Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine states, “If you ever watch children sleep, they all breathe from the belly and not the chest. This relaxed state is the more normal way to breathe.”[3]

Dr. Rosa then recommends a strategy to teach yourself mindful belly breathing: “Every time you feel stressed, simply take three slow and controlled deep belly breaths… Over time, belly breathing can buffer your resistance to your fight-or-flight response, so you are not as sensitive to stress triggers.” She suggests “belly breathing through the day, like once every hour of up to 10 to 15 times per day. As it becomes a habit, you can automatically engage belly breathing whenever you have a stressful event.” [4]

Breathing Exercises

Yang Sheng is more comprehensive, employing multiple methods of  using the breath for self-healing. In her book, “Yang Sheng,” Katie Bindle recommends a simple “One Minute Rescue Breath Ritual” as a way of quickly releasing negative (stress) energy and taking in life-affirming positive energy. It is powerful and can be practiced one or more times through the day as needed. She describes it an easy one-minute meditation. It is basically a Chinese version of the yogic Lion’s pose (Simhasana) which is one of the more under-appreciated Yogic asanas. Unlike most yogic postures it is not a strenuous pose and offers tremendous benefits. Here are Brindle’s instructions:

  1. Assume a comfortable seated, standing or lying down position. Breathe in the through the nose and sharply out through the mouth, sticking out your tongue and making a “haaaa” noise as you do so. This clears the stale air (negative energy) that accumulates in your lungs when you breathe shallowly. Repeat three times.
  1. With your eyes closed, breathe in for five counts through the nose and out for five counts through the nose. Think of inhaling the oxygen deeply, to fill your chest cavity and down to your abdomen; your heart rate will slow, your blood pressure will drop and your muscles will begin to relax. Don’t worry about whether you’re breathing right – the key is taking focus down into your body.                                                                                                          
  1. Visualize a smile happening in your lower abdomen. Do this by recalling the warm feeling you get when you smile, then imagine sending that feeling to your lower stomach. [5]

A method I recommend to quiet the mind during meditation is to start in a comfortable sitting or reclining position and perform five rounds of a full yogic abdominal breath slowly inhaling as you expand your abdomen to the count of five, hold for two seconds, and then slowly exhale with a controlled breath by first exhaling the breath from the abdomen followed by the chest for a count of five, hold for two seconds. Repeat this cycle five times. You may then continue meditation, watching your breath as you breathe normally. The diaphragmatic breath cycle can be repeated anytime throughout meditation you feel your mind drifting off in uncontrollable thoughts and as such offers an alternative to the usual, just allowing them to happen without attaching any significance, which is also a good method.

The goal of meditation is to experience a pure sense of being and mindful diaphragmatic breathing is one method that can be used to help quiet the mind.

Breath Healing is a vast subject and there are many methods that teach it such as “Swara Yoga” and “Qi Gong,” regarded by many as the Chinese counterpart of Indian yoga. Yang Sheng includes a variety of Chinese self-healing practices, including healing qi gong to heal emotions and specific organs in the body. Like many of these practices, they are simple and just require consistent and regular practice to achieve results.

Intention and Healing

However, even as a healer specializing in the use of herbs and acupuncture and related healing methods, true healing involves a full participation of one’s self to achieve lasting success. It may be strange to say that one may remove the symptom but the disease remains.

Following is a simple Yang Sheng  self-healing method that can be applied to heal any negative emotional imbalance or part of the body:

  • To heal your liver and/or dissolve anger, breathe and smile into your liver
  • To heal your Kidneys and/or dissolve fear, breathe and smile into your kidneys
  • To heal your lungs and/or dissolve grief, breathe and smile into your lungs.
  • To heal your Heart and/or dissolve sadness, as you breathe, smile into your Heart.
  • To heal your stomach and/or dissolve anxiety, breathe and smile into your stomach.

It should be obvious that to ‘smile’ means to transfer positive energy to a troubled area of the body.

This can be applied to any problem area of the body or in your life. Whichever you choose, repeat the process 10 times twice a day using the deep diaphragmatic breathing as the vehicle to energize the intention. It doesn’t need to be perfect to work, intention, however, is everything.

These simple practices are part of Chinese Qi Gong and should be first for self-healing, but also shared with students and patients.  Many, including myself, feel that thought carries intention and vibration, so that these practices can even be performed in absentia or distant healing on behalf of another.

Closing Thoughts

This short blog was inspired by Katie Brindle’s wonderful new book but it has its roots in deep in the wisdom of Chinese folk healing described in Peter Deadman’s book “Live Well, Live Long.”

I know there is a rainbow healing bridge between all realms of the visible and invisible reality of which we are all a part. I have often noticed how most patients who receive an acupuncture or qi gong treatment enter a very profound place of deep relaxation, which informs us both about one aspect of a successful treatment session. On the visible objective realm, we can say that they have switched from hyper-sympathetic to deeply relaxed parasympathetic mode. But  in some crazy way it can also be described in purely spiritual terms or objective terms involving hormones and vagus nerve activation. All terms intended to describe a feeling or state of being are inadequate as one of my earliest and most revered mentors, a man named Joe Miller often said, “To feel is for real!”

[1] https://www.pacificcollege.edu/news/blog/2018/07/12/transformative-power-deep-slow-breathing

[2] Brindle, Katie, YANG SHEN, THE CHINESE ART OF SELF-HEALING. Pub. Hardie Grant Books PG. 49-59

https://bit.ly/313vcTJ

[3] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/ease-anxiety-and-stress-take-a-belly-breather-2019042616521

[4] ibid

[5] Yang Sheng, Pgs. 38-39

** A taste of my mentor, Joe Miller – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAqL1xXQ4mw

 



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