There is an old Chinese adage that proclaims, “Where there is movement, there is life!” But for most of the average American population, this invocation to move functions as more of a tease than it does an incentive. Many office professions have tethered their employees to the confines of a narrow cubicle, while other more physically laborious occupations push their employees to a level of movement and activity that is bound by complete exhaustion. Both of these extremes are injurious, both are marked by significant levels of stress, and both can truly benefit from the one constant, and omnipresent “exercise” of breath training.
As the conscious ambassador between the higher and lower levels of the nervous system, breathing, itself, is the quintessential exercise to remove stress, reduce pain, and restore health and healing. If there is life in movement, then there is illness and ultimately death in stagnation. Therefore, the extent and severity of all injury, be it from either external or internal sources, is dependent upon the mind’s ability to hold and retain tension, or “lack of movement,” within the confines of the physical body. More specifically, this sequence of “tension-retention” is called pain. Even more specifically, it is called “pain that you care about.”
Considering the gamut of life roles we participate in throughout our daily routine, how do we move without tension? Or, for those of the more sedentary obligation, how do we move… without moving?
Obviously, the answer is in the way we breathe. If there is no breath (aka internal movement), there is no animation to the body-- no life! This is not just obvious, this is instinct. So therefore, as you breathe guide your breath throughout your body. Pay special attention to the areas where stress most readily harbors, where injury retains your pain. Don’t confine the flow of “air” to the anatomical boundaries of the throat, chest and lungs, but instead breathe through these regions and restore them. Whether your personal bias is to label the intangible movement here as air, energy, Qi, psycho-somatic awareness, or just plain “imagination,” your body will still reap the benefits of this transformative work with or without the appropriate choice of vocabulary word.
The physical mechanics of breathing with exercise should actually resemble the pendular sway of a clock or the ebb and flow of the tide, where there is perfectly uniform movement in both directions. The inhale and the exhale should be of equal volumes of air, with only the tiniest of pauses during the transition state from one cycle to the next. It is especially important not to get fixated on the idea of a “perfect” breathing pattern while exercising, since most functional activities will never mirror the ideal training circumstances of your gym or home living room. Instead, breathe continuously and learn to manipulate the flow and speed of your breath to create strength or softness as you see fit.
I can tell you from personal experience, the most important consideration when beginning to undertake any breath-work routine is not to obsess over it. Breath training at its most fundamental level is meant to be restorative and rejuvenating. It is important to relax and be natural and fluid, leading the air in through your nose and out through your mouth. If it looks like you’re trying to “do something” then you are doing something wrong, that is, with too much effort. Many times a quick, full inhale followed by a hard, pursed exhale is enough to “reset the system” before beginning breath-work again.
The first, and ultimately only one, real, true rule about breathing is to NOT STOP breathing. By adhering to the multiplicity of variations within this broad directive and the few aforementioned caveats, you will find a colorful way to reinvent your exercise program and invigorate your work life.