This month I want to explore how bringing our conscious awareness and intention to the breath, specifically to our exhale, can be a pathway to deepening any internal arts practice. One of my Tai Chi teachers was once asked about how to focus on the breath in the Sun style form we were learning. He responded that you do not need to think about the inhale. Put all your attention on your exhale and let the inhale take care of itself.
One thing I have observed in my own breathing, and in many of my clients, is that Western culture is very focused on Inhaling. We take shallow in-breaths with, at times, non-existent out-breaths. The more stressed I feel, the more I move into fast, shallow breathing. Even deep breathing exercises have us focusing on bringing in more air, on filling up our bellies and then our chests. The focus is on making sure we get enough of the essential element of oxygen. The assumption is that the exhale automatically follows and does not need our attention. This focus is aligned with the sympathetic dominance, the scarcity driven and stressed out nature of our culture. And what is more, I am realizing that this way of breathing actually perpetuates our experience in this fight or flight mode of existence.
Breathing can be involuntary, instinctively done by our bodies, but it is also something that we can choose to do consciously. This is unusual among bodily functions; we do not, for example, have the ability to consciously take over our digestion, heart rate or blood vessel dilatation. In this interface available to us through our breath, there is the gift of being able to consciously modulate our nervous systems, and consequently our experience, in the world of this moment. Physiologically our exhale is a signal to our nervous system; communicating about the world that we find ourselves in, and telling our biology how to best respond to serve us in this moment. When we do timed breathing exercises that make our exhale even a few counts longer than our inhale, the vagus nerve signals the brain to turn up our parasympathetic nervous system and to turn down our sympathetic nervous system. This means that by putting our awareness on lengthening our exhale we can signal to our body that we do not need to be in fight or flight mode and we can initiate the transition into rest and healing mode. With a long exhale we tell our whole being that it is safe to rest a moment, it is time to digest now, there is time to repair what needs attention within us. Interestingly, because breath modulates the nervous system, it is also a way for us to influence the other automatic, involuntary bodily functions. By setting the parasympathetic tone we slow our heart rate, lower our blood pressure, dilate our blood vessels and turn on our digestion. Just choosing to attend to our breath with intentional exhales allows us to shift our whole body into a restorative mode.
Bringing awareness to our exhale is giving us a lesson in the value of relaxation and surrender. The exhale is about letting go and clearing out. Physically, when we exhale we release the metabolites, the toxins, and the used up air. The exhale is clearing out space, giving us the ability to receive during our inspiration. I am reminded of the story of students who travelled far into the mountains to seek a master teacher and were turned away because their cups were already full. How often am I wanting to experience joy, peace or other yummy energies but can’t receive them because I have not yet let go of previous attachments or experiences? Far from being a capitulation or defeat, the surrender of the exhale is a necessary first step to having what we desire or need. It is a giving up so that we can receive.
Another example of the important role that relaxation plays in our wellbeing and ultimate strength can be found in the heart’s pumping cycle. It is tempting to focus on the systolic phase of a heart pump as the source of power – the active phase of pumping the blood out to the muscles to fuel them feels like the most important part. We assume that if we can make the pump stronger, we will have more power. Instead, what Tai Chi has taught me is that a lot of my strength, and the place where I can optimize the amount of power in my muscles, comes from the relaxation phase of diastole. When the heart slows down (which automatically happens when we are in parasympathetic relax mode), diastole gets longer. During this longer resting phase, the heart relaxes enough to fill with a larger volume of blood. The next pump of the heart then has much more blood to deliver. It is more effective to have more treasure to deliver than to deliver it with more force.
Now translate this to the less visible realm of Qi. The relaxation phase, our opening and allowing the Qi to pour into our cells, is the rate limiting step in having more life force energy. It is more effective to focus on preparing ourselves to receive more Qi than it is to actively search out and try to gather more Qi. Until we attend to the receptivity, the bounty cannot enter. This seems like an excellent reason to practice making our Exhale the active, intentional phase of our breath.
Within my teacher’s words there is also a reminder that we do not need to consciously attend to and control the entire process to have it perfectly serve us. “Pay attention to the exhale and let the inhale take care of itself.” It is enough to set our intention on releasing our attachments, to letting go of what no longer serves us. We do not also have to grasp for and try to control what we receive. Honoring the work we have been given – to empty ourselves in every breath, to let go and put down what we are carrying – is enough. And in attending to this work we are rewarded with an effortless flow of fresh Qi and new inspiration into the space we have created.
A suggested place to start… Let yourself get quiet and still for a moment during your day. Direct your attention to your breath and just notice, without trying to control or change, the flow of air that is coming and going in your body. Then, invite yourself to breathe out longer than you normally do. You may notice that this is followed by an effortless, expansive in-breath that is deeper than those that preceded. You can also spend a few moments doing an exercise of counted breathing. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7 and then exhale for a count of 8. Doing this a few times will accomplish the shift into parasympathetic mode that we discussed above. Enjoy giving yourself this nourishing gift and know that it can have a cascade of healing benefits for your body, mind and spirit.
Best Good Care, Susan Lucas, M.D.