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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Benefits of Breathing

Pop Quiz! (You will not be judged or laughed at if you screw up.)
Fill in the blank: One of the hardest aspects of your martial arts practice is_______:
A)     Muscle conditioning
B)      Flexibility
C)      Breathing
The acceptable answer I am looking for is: C) Breathing

What’s so hard about breathing?! It’s something all living things instinctively know how to do, from the moment we are born to the last thing we do before we die. Think of it this way: you can gradually build up your muscle development and flexibility through the proper exercises and your formwork, but nothing feels worse than losing your breath while working out.
Whether you do sports, yoga, martial arts, or just need to catch a bus, proper breathing is key. When you learn to control your breathing, you are introducing many self-healing properties to your body, including:
-          Increases oxygen levels to your blood cells
-          Relaxes the central nervous system
-          Lowers blood pressure
-          Provides gloating rights to all your friends that you can breathe better than they can
Here are a couple of key things to keep in mind when breathing properly:
1)      Breathe through your nose, not your mouth. Your nose is a wonderful filtration system, with membranes and hairs that are meant to trap foreign matter (like dust) and allow you to intake cleaner oxygen into the body. Keep your mouth closed during your breathing practice, unless otherwise taught by your instructor.
2)      Keep your spine straight, especially in the lower spine. To feel whether or not your lower back is straight, put your fingers on your lower spine area. Naturally, there is a slight curvature to the lower back. To prep for the breathing exercises, tilt your hips slightly forwards and upwards until you feel your lower back become straight.

Another way to try and feel your spine align is to stand with your back facing a flat wall. Your spine should be able to feel the entire wall, from your shoulder blades all the way to your tailbone.

3)      Locate your lower “dan tien”. This area is widely believed by most cultures to be a well of your energy, similar to what yoga practitioners call “chakras”. Your lower dan tien is located near your lower abdominal area, where your breathing should really begin. To find your dan tien, keep your fingers together and align both palms of your hands to your lower belly area. Your thumbs should touch your belly button. Your own dan tien is around the area of where your pinky touches. 

When you breathe with your dan tien in mind, you are utilizing more of your diaphragm and therefore allow your lungs to intake more oxygen. Ideally, your chest should not be moving; all the action should be felt in the dan tien area. 

Sifu Hill taught us an exercise where we gently massage the dan tien area by gently (GENTLY!!! Do not whack yourself hard!) chopping the area with the outer blade part of your hand for about a minute or so. When you stop, you will feel the lower abdominal muscle to be warmed up, which makes it easier to recognize the area where we should be focusing our breath.

4)      When you breathe in, your dan tien area should expand outwards. When you breath out, you should feel your lower abdominal pull inwards towards your body.

You don’t have to crunch in your abdominal muscles until it’s as tight as you can pull it in. The in-out motion of the lower abdominal area should go with the flow of your inhalation and exhalation. Breathing from your “dan tien” like this will allow you to take more oxygen into the body.

5)      For a few minutes a day, try breathing deeply through your dan tien area. Ideally, you should do this standing up, but you may also try a seated position as long as you maintain the straight spine. You don’t have to close your eyes, or surround yourself with candles in a dark room (unless you REALLY think that will help). However, you can do it any time during the day or night. If you think you don’t have the time, here are some suggestions on when you should try:

ü  During a commercial break
ü  After your workout
ü  Reading brilliant entries from the Systems within Systems blog :D
ü  Waiting on line for….whatever you’re waiting for
There are lots of different schools that have more advanced breathing techniques meant to stimulate your nervous system, increase stamina, even control your heart rate. The Systems within Systems school teaches the Tai Chi and Qi Gong style of breathing, but each school has their own breathing techniques for different purposes.
Keep in mind that if you are going to learn more advanced breathing exercises, make sure that you are following a teacher who can explain to you how to do it. Like any exercise, if you aren’t trained properly on how to do advance breathing, you may end up hurting yourself.
However, the steps above are the basics of good, effective breathing, which everyone can benefit from. A couple of good, deep breaths will make a world of difference to your health and your Shaolin practice.
Grow , learn, teach!

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