So we’ve decided we’re going to take care of ourselves. Wahoo! Now you might be thinking: “Uhh... Where’s the best place to start?” This question can be super overwhelming when it feels like everywhere you turn there are a million recommendations for a new product or self-care program. I’m here to tell you: you don’t need any of that. To answer the above question quite simply, we’ll start with the one of the smallest building blocks that makes a body healthy and happy.
Exercise? Think smaller.
Food? More simple.
Let’s start with something our body does by itself that we might rarely even notice: our breath.
We all know that deep breathing greatly benefits all of our internal organs and overall body systems (the kidney is the root of the breath after all – thanks, Dr. Wu!); we also know that deep breathing can be used to calm the mind and the spirit. No surprise here, but as Chinese Medical students, we need all the calm we can get.
Since we know it helps, why don’t we do it more often? As it turns out, we have a ton of stress in our lives (no kidding!), and the resulting tension and anxiety often have a negative effect on our breathing. Add this stress over a long period of time and our body becomes accustomed to these negative affects. Usually, we can’t even tell.
All the stress from studying, traffic, exams, and clinic shifts take a serious toll on our nervous system, too, because it activates our “fight or flight” response. We constantly stay ready for the next event. Unlike animals in nature, however, our threat never recedes – with phone screens inches from our face and textbooks piled on our nightstands, we have a hard time truly relaxing. When we enter this fight or flight response, our body demands more air. Our bronchioles literally dilate, requiring more oxygen so that our muscles can react if necessary. To make it worse, the brain doesn’t discriminate between the adrenaline that comes from a tiger stalking us and a looming final exam; therefore, we adapt to survive. Small amounts of adrenaline are released due to stress and our breath speeds up in an attempt to consume more oxygen. Consequently, when we breathe faster, we breathe shallower. After a period of time, we acclimate, and therefore continue to take in shallow breaths. All of that is to say that making a serious effort to control your breathing has an enormous amount of benefits.
How do I do that?
1. Find a place to sit comfortably (even in class). If you’re home, find a place to lie down. Start by taking a few normal breaths.
2. Next, try to take a really slow, deep breath. Take in air through your nose and try to send it down to your lower belly. Your stomach should fully expand!
3. Now, breathe out through your nose or your mouth (whatever feels comfortable). Try to see if you can alternate your regular breathing with deep breathing and pay attention to how you feel with each. Do you feel tense or anxious? Maybe you feel more relaxed or at ease?
4. Practice that deep breathing for several minutes. Relax your belly so that each breath can expand it fully. Place your palm just below your belly button and notice the rise and fall of your abdomen.
What did you notice while you were breathing? Did you notice the pauses between your breaths? Maybe next time you do your breathing, pay attention to that pause. You might even find that this is the place where your body stills, and so does your mind. It is in these spaces, where stillness of body and mind occurs, that we experience the soul recharge we need to begin healing from our environment and rock our exams the way Dr. Shen knows we can.
When you feel like you have a good handle on the process of deep breathing, you can move on to a regular breath focus practice. This can become the cornerstone of a solid meditation practice upon which you can build for a lifetime. Stay tuned! Next, we’ll discuss how to deepen your breathing practice and reap all of the wonderful benefits of the conscious breath.