MIND BODY BREATH
Taoists already knew about deep breathing as a stress reducer
The understanding of breath as a restorative force and tool of self-mastery came in its earliest incarnations from practitioners of Taoist arts over many millennia.
We know a universal theme in Taoism is restoring and maintaining balance in ourselves, nature, and all aspects of life. If one aspect of our mental or physical state is compromised, it adversely affects many other parts of our being in a sort of domino effect. However, breath is one of very few major bodily functions we can actually control. Taoists knew they could use breath to re-establish mental and physical balance regardless of environmental agitators.
Practitioners of breath-focused practices like SunDo understood something fundamental and primal about the way our bodies and those of our animal kin functioned — control of breath meant control of self. Scientists put this theory to the test, in animals not capable of consciously regulating their own breathing patterns, and the results, you might say, took their breath away.
The mice breathe easy
Mice have an instinctive behavior many of us are keenly aware of — when they find themselves in a new space (like an apartment), they scurry about wildly, sniffing and quickly trying to make sense of their surroundings. Their quickened breathing, activated by cells in their respiratory pacemakers that trigger sighs every few minutes, would swiftly elevate the mice to a nervous, agitated state in the presence of a new environment.
If they didn’t have this sighing impulse, though, would their behavior be different in a stressful situation? Scientists were able to test this theory by breeding mice with just one of these cells that could easily be disabled. When these mice were exposed to new cages, they remained calm and stayed put, grooming themselves without haste.
Scientists deduced that the respiratory pacemaker, doesn’t just regulate breathing function; it also checks its work by adapting brain activity to the status of the animal’s current breathing patterns. No choppy sighs — no nervous mice.
SunDo practitioners breathe their way to good health
In a class with forty minutes of breath meditation, SunDo students aim to breathe as smoothly as possible. Instructors monitor progress by checking the breath's motion. If it flows like a gentle wave, the student has good breathing. If there are stoppages or fluctuations, a student must remain lying down to practice breathing in a relaxed state until they are ready for postures with breathwork.
Early Taoist observed breathing done by young children and babies. They saw that the belly swells and then relaxes with each breath cycle. And that the belly was full and flexible. Unfortunatley, most adults living in these modern, more stressfull times have lost the ability to breathe smoothly. Lack of full deep breathing often leads to a range of illnesses both physical and emotional.
To reclaim the breath is to be able to control the rate and depth at which we breathe. Changing the way we breathe may change the way our bodies respond to stressors and the way in which we live our lives.
Tao Te Ching Chapter 76
The living are soft and yielding;
the dead are rigid and stiff.
Living plants are flexible and tender;
the dead are brittle and dry.
Those who are stiff and rigid
are the disciples of death.
Those who are soft and yielding
are the disciples of life.
The rigid and stiff will be broken.
The soft and yielding will overcome.
Physiologically, anxiety feels all-consuming. It's complex in its causes, so a simple remedy of slow, deep, controlled breathing often comes up short in our momentary reasoning.
But here’s the thing — breathing is actually the very thing that controls our anxiety. A cluster of cells in the brainstems of mammals, known as the “respiratory pacemaker,” appears to regulate our anxious responses by taking cues from the speed and depth of our breathing.
Until recently, the respiratory pacemaker, was something of a “black box” mystery to medicine; scientists knew it was active somewhere in the gray area between the mind and body, but didn’t understand how exactly it worked there.
This past spring, Stanford University published a study on the breathing patterns of mice, that changes all of this and begins to unravel the mystery that has long obscured the relationship between the brain and the physical functions of the body.
We’ve seen countless cultural traditions use focused deep breathing as an essential part of their meditation and wellness practices across history, and now, with a deeper look into the complex functions of the “respiratory pacemaker,” science has the clear evidence to show that deep breaths really are worth the hype.
At One World Wellness, breathwork is a part of everything we do from stretching to postures to meditation ... our studio speciallizes in teaching SunDo, one of the most ancient practices of Taoism. Known for obtaining perfection in breath retention ability, early Taoist practictioners found a way not only to balance the body and mind, they went far further to realize the pure experience of spirit through breathing.
Although we modern humans may not attain this advanced level, everyone needs to start somewhere! Reducing stress and curbing anxiety can be the first stepping stones on a healing path toward optimal dimensions of wellness. Because of ancient Taoist masters, we now have access to powerful breath practices in stressful times and science definitely confirms it.