Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Conscious breathing: living beyond survival

The human body cannot survive long without air
Air is essential for life, it is in fact the only thing that we need at every moment in order to stay alive. The human brain becomes oxygen-starved after just a few minutes without air, after which the rest of the body dies. Despite this, the intake of air – breathing-, and the quality of this air, are totally taken for granted by most of us.

Although the actual exchange of gasses between the body and the environment pertains to the respiratory system and to some extent to the skin, breathing is an action performed by every single cell in the body. At a superficial level, there is a seemingly simple exchange of gasses, we take in air and retain its oxygen and expel carbon dioxide and other gasses our body cannot use. At a deeper level, this action has the essential function of providing every cell in the body with oxygen. Oxygen is the fuel mitochondria need to turn nutrients into the energy needed for proper functioning of all cells, and for the elimination of waste products - such as carbon dioxide - which could otherwise interfere with cell activity.

Just as at the cellular level respiration is related to energy production and elimination, at a systemic level dysfunction in breathing mechanisms or insufficient intake of oxygen are bound to affect energy production and are likely to lead to an accumulation of toxic or waste products. Thus, if we fail to breathe properly or the quality of our air is poor, we may encounter problems of increased toxicity and dysfunction in energy production at every level. This may be a contributory factor to the host of “syndromes” -  collections of symptoms - of unknown cause or cure which plague modern societies.

TCM views:

"Air Qi" is one of the basic ingredients for health
Although mitochondria and cellular respiration were not understood in ancient times when TCM theory was developed, the concept of “Air Qi” (Kong Qi) - the basic nourishment we extract from air - as necessary for the integrity of the body appears in the ancient texts. In fact, Kong Qi is seen as essential for life as a basic ingredient in the production of the Qi that fuels the functioning of all organs of the body and that provides protection from disease. When Kong Qi mixes with Gu Qi (the nourishment extracted from food) they combine to become Zong Qi or Chest Qi, the energy behind the functioning of the Lung and Heart and by extension of the Respiratory and Circulatory systems. Catalysed by Yuan Qi (the essential energy from the Kidneys) Zong Qi then becomes Zhen Qi or "True Qi" which will provide fuel to all tissues of the body, to all organs and systems,  and will also provide protection from disease.

Coming directly from the air, Kong Qi is most closely related to the Lungs. How much nourishment or Kong Qi we receive, will depend not only on the quality of the air but also on the ability of the Lungs to absorb and process this nourishment. This is very much like the digestive process where the nourishment extracted from our food depends not only on the quality and nutritional value of what we consume but on our ability to extract and metabolise its goodness. This is in Chinese Medicine the realm of the Spleen. The health of our Lungs and our Spleen are thus the most basic constituents of the health and integrity of our whole body and mind as these organs provide the basis for optimum functioning of all organs.

Just as in the West we have grown used to being “under-nourished” by virtue of consuming foods that are high in toxicity but which contain little in the way of nutrition, we have also become habitually under-oxygenated not only because of air pollution but because we have forgotten how to breathe.

Making an effort to breathe:

Breathing can be affected by our life-style and environment
You may wonder here, how come since breathing is mostly an involuntary action, do I say we don’t breathe properly? Although breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system and mostly occurs involuntarily, it is a function over which we can also exert voluntary control. Breathing is thus linked directly with the conscious mind and its “automatic” functioning is designed to keep us alive but we need conscious effort to go beyond the surviving into the optimum health level. Banking on the involuntary process of breathing for our “air nourishment” may provide us with enough Kong Qi to subsist but not necessarily with enough to enjoy full health.

When we do not "make the effort" to breathe correctly, our breathing can easily be negatively affected by the following:
- Too much exercise: Although moderate exercise can enhance breathing capacity, too much or exercise that is too demanding can in fact have a detrimental effect on breathing. It is a well-researched fact that athletes are more likely to develop lung problems than the general population (1).
- Lack of exercise: While moderate exercise encourages deeper inhalation and strengthens the Lungs and Heart, doing no exercise at all will not only result in bad posture which in itself affects the way we breathe, but also results in shallow breathing and subsequently poor oxygenation in all the cells of the body.
- Air pollution: As a natural reaction, we do not inhale deeply when the air around us is laden with fumes, bad smells, or dirt. These may be characteristics of the air in some of our modern cities which have the consequence of inhibiting our breathing and damaging our health.
- Emotions: Sadness, fear, anger, stress, anxiety, etc., make us breathe shallowly and prevent us from oxygenating fully. As emotions affect our breathing in many different ways, leaving our breathing “unattended” will allow them to control our oxygen intake and affect the whole of our health.
- Poor nutrition: Poor nutrition affects respiratory health in more than one way. When we do not get all the nutrients we need, cell reproduction and the functioning of all body organs are compromised. In addition to this, when we overwhelm the body with foods which have little nutritional value but are high in fats or chemical additives that the body does not know how to use, a build-up of these chemicals may affect mucous membranes throughout the body and result in inflammatory processes even in the respiratory system (2).  
A lack of balance in the diet and excessive intake of certain foods such as milk derivatives and wheat-based products can also result in excessive production of mucus which can end up blocking the air passages. I have seen countless cases of people who have a moderately balanced diet but consume large amounts of bread, pasta, milk, cream, and cheese, and as a result spend their lives gasping for breath as the amount of mucus in their air passages impedes proper breathing, More often than not, stopping wheat and dairy products completely results in clear air passages and an improvement in respiratory symptoms.


Conscious breathing:

Our breathing is affected by many things without us even realising and, as a result, most of us are not getting enough oxygenation, which in both Western and Chinese Medicine terms can only compromise our health. Because of this, breathing awareness or conscious breathing should be a part of our everyday life. Practising even just a few minutes of conscious breathing on a daily basis will not only remind your body of how to breathe properly but will also provide every cell of your body with more oxygen.

This is a very easy exercise which can have powerful effects on the breathing:

Sitting up on a comfortable position, make sure you feel your weight being supported by your sit-bones and, if you are sitting on a chair, that some of the weight is felt on the soles of your feet which should be placed flat on the ground. Place your hands comfortably on your knees. Take 3 or 4 deep breaths and become aware of areas of tension, trying to let go of this tension as you breathe out. After this, feeling more relaxed and comfortable you can perform this conscious breathing, try to do it for a minimum of 3 minutes: 
Inhale really slowly through your nose, first expanding your abdomen allowing it to fill with air, then expanding your chest to its maximum capacity without straining yourself. Stop for a few seconds. Exhale slowly through the nose gradually allowing your chest to come back to its normal position and emptying your abdomen by contracting it gently. Stop for a few seconds. Repeat as many times as it feels comfortable without feeling strain or discomfort. When you have finished, take a few normal breaths before you continue with your day.

Practising this exercise regularly can improve your Lung health and contribute to increase your energy levels, enhance your metabolism, and provide you with an amazing tool to achieve emotional stability. Deep breathing not only aids the oxygenation of every cell but returns us to the present moment where all the frustrations and resentments from the past do not exist, and where all the anxiety and fear about the future are irrelevant. Conscious breathing can provide you with a window into yourself; this is why observing your breath is one of the most basic meditation techniques. Deep breathing not only makes us aware of what our mind is doing but it gives us access into deeper levels of our being


Taking it further

Although just practising the above exercise will benefit your health, there are other things that you can do to literally “clear the way” for health-giving air and oxygen to reach the deepest levels of our body. These include:

- Exercise:  Moderate exercise such as walking, non-competitive cycling, and gentle swimming can enhance breathing capacity and circulation resulting in a more efficient respiratory system and increased circulation that will improve oxygenation of all the cells in your body.
- Diet: As mentioned above, foods laden with chemical additives and fats can contribute to inflammation in the respiratory tract and have a detrimental effect on Lung function. Avoiding these foods is essential for good respiratory health. In addition, wheat and dairy products which tend to have a strong presence in the UK diet, need to be either minimised or cut out completely at least for a period of time as they make the body produce excess mucus and can contribute to blocking the respiratory tract. If we eat these foods in excess on a daily basis, we give no chance to the body to process them correctly and end up with and accumulation of mucus that can result in serious illness.
Following a balanced diet following TCM principles can instead encourage good digestive and respiratory health.  

Breathing clean air regularly can benefit our whole health
- Breathing clean air: For those us who live in bustling cities full of fumes and other pollutants, it is important to have access to clean air if not daily at least on a regular basis. At home, house plants -apparently some more than others (3) - can do some of this work for us; as does keeping at least one room in your house smoke and dust free. Negative ions are also useful to clean the air of air-born particles that can cause allergies and blockage of the airways (4). Air purifiers or ionisers may be useful for those who live too close to big roads or in airless buildings. Most of all, making sure that you get out of the city regularly and breathe in deeply some pure air is the best way to ensure cleansing and energising breathing. Practising conscious breathing in the open air enhances its benefits and will also make you feel more in tune with nature and with yourself. 

"Nourishment" comes in different forms. Although there is much talk of nutrition and diet, breathing and proper oxygenation are often overlooked and taken for granted. As Air Qi (Kong Qi) and Food Qi (Gu Qi) are the basic ingredients to the functioning of the whole body, acquiring good eating and breathing habits is key to maintaining our health. We are not just we eat but also what we breathe!



(1) This article by Abbie Thomas discusses several studies that have found athletes to be more susceptible to lung disease (Accessed online 13/8/12) http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2000/09/06/171793.htm

(2) This study by doctor Lisa Wood shows the link between lack of proper nutrition and the consumption of junk foods with inflammation in the respiratory tract (Accessed online 20/8/12) 


(3) A suggested list of the house plants that produce more oxygen to help us keep healthy air at home (Accessed online 20/8/12) http://www.secrets-of-longevity-in-humans.com/oxygen-producing-plants.html

(4) This article from the Penn State University College of Engineering explains how negative Ions can clean the air (Accessed online 20/8/12) http://www.engr.psu.edu/iec/abe/control/neg_ion.asp

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