Deepen Your Breath with Tai Chi

A Tai Chi joke:

Student: “Master, what is the secret of a long life?”

Master: “Keep breathing as long as you can!”

Strong lungs and efficient breathing are central to overall health and well-being and living a long life.

In fact, on average, we breathe more than 20,000 times per day, so it naturally follows that efficient, mindful, and freer breathing patterns have the potential to enhance and sustain your health.

Part of the reason breathing so centrally impacts health may be because how we breathe is regulated and intertwined with nearly all core physiological systems, including the musculoskeletal, nervous, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems.

The slow, deep, mindful and rhythmic breathing developed in Tai Chi potentially impacts the efficiency of breathing and lung health.

It also impacts other multiple physiological systems that control cardiovascular processes (such as blood pressure), nervous system processes (such as involuntary control of blood flow to organs or muscle contraction in the intestines), perception and tolerance of pain, and mood and stress, says Peter Wayne, PhD, Director of Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Programs, Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center.

Breathing in Tai Chi serves more than the function of bringing oxygen into and expelling carbon dioxide out of the body.

“Breathing provides as an internal massage, serves as a tool for sensory awareness and focus, balances the nervous system and emotions, and regulates and enhances the flow of qi,” says Wayne.

“More efficient posture and increased inner awareness and flexibility with Tai Chi exercises deepen breathing in a natural way.”

Muscles, including the diaphragm and intercostals, play big roles in mechanically expanding and contracting the lungs, and thus drawing in and expelling air.

The diaphragm is the primary muscle of healthy breathing.

When the diaphragm is relaxed, it assumes a domed, upward shape.

When it contracts, it pushes downward.

Along with some help from the intercostal muscles (which pull the ribs upward), the downward movement of the diaphragm opens the rib cage, decreases pressure on the lungs, and creates a vacuum (negative pressure) that draws outside air in all the way to the bottom of the lungs.

As you exhale, the diaphragm returns to its relaxed, upward domed shape, compressing the lungs and squeezing air out.

When you adopt this breathing method, inhaling makes your diaphragm expand outward as well as downwards to the abdomen, which can give your lungs more space.

During Tai Chi the air that is breathed in and out should have a fine, continuous flow.

The idea is to attain a level of natural breathe that flows regularly, lightly, slowly, and deeply.

As the Tai Chi classics say, “Let the body breathe you.”

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