The Physiology of Relaxation and Breathing
If you're reading this blog, chances are good you've heard of the multitude of health benefits that can be gained through practicing yoga. Increased mindfulness, mental clarity, more energy, increased circulation and cardio health, and better flexibility, athletic performance and muscle strength and tone have all been touted as benefits of yoga in recent years.
Likewise, the advantages of meditation have also become more publicized and validated in mainstream media through the last decade or so. Regular meditation, which is a component of yoga, provides many of those characteristic benefits, in addition to decreased stress and anxiety, and improved feelings of well-being and immune functioning.
In both processes, the practitioner is generally encouraged to focus on breathing and muscle relaxation to fully realize the benefits. However, I believe the health benefits of these two components – nervous system relaxation and breathing – as standalone practices are still overlooked by the "new age" health community.
In traditional Chinese medicine, relaxation and breathe are paramount to achieving improved health and Qi flow (circulation), and I have discovered through my own experience that there are reasons why this importance has been stressed in Eastern medicine for three thousand-plus years.
Aids in releasing blocked Qi, healing
Traditional Chinese medicine hold the belief that obstructions in Qi, or one’s internal life energy, can be corrected through acupuncture or, the needle-less version, acupressure. These blockages of Qi, which occur along the body’s meridian lines, are said to be buildup of toxins in the body. Both practices insist on the patient relaxing the body (specially the spot being treated) and breathing deeply into the afflicted area.
While the breathing element of mindfulness practices has gotten a lot of praise in recent years because of its positive effects on mental processes, the aspect of awareness of the sensory nervous system and relaxation of the muscles and subtle bodies in order to restore flow in Qi channels has been an even greater benefit to me.
As far back as I can remember, I'd had issues with neck and shoulder stiffness, and joints throughout my entire body cracking spontaneously. I had always heard knots in the muscles of the back come from stress, which was partially to blame in this case. Another culprit to some degree was likely poor diet creating a buildup of toxins in my joints. But, as I’ve learned through muscle relaxation techniques developed from meditation, the largest cause was me tensing my muscles, without even realizing what I was doing.
Muscle relaxation, acupressure and massage loosen toxins stored in joints and muscles, and deep exhalation can release them from the body. These practices are what have given me insight and allowed my nervous system correction to take place, and in turn, my breathe is only the stronger because of it.
The autonomous nervous system plays a large role in meditation. One of its two components, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response to stimuli, and primes the body for action. In other words, it is essentially the body’s stimulation mechanism in charge of reacting to external, stressful or threatening stimuli. It controls such functions as heart rate, sweating and adrenaline secretion.
The SNS works in tandem with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and when the SNS engaged, it is thought to counteract the parasympathetic system, which generally works when the body is at rest or in relaxation mode.
In my particular case, there seemed to be a direct correlation between anxiety-inducing or stressful situations and my tendency to tense up. In order for me to alleviate all the built up tension and strains in my muscles, I needed to disengage my overactive SNS, instead putting the parasympathetic nervous system in the driver’s seat, and allowing my body to enter a state of relaxation.
Through repetition of several mindfulness exercises that sought to relax the body, and by breathing into certain areas of my body, was able to achieve this result. Once I became better trained at relaxing my body, I was finally able to sense when I was tensing up. When I would go to treat those tender areas using gradually-deeper massage, most times other linked areas on my body would loosen up, and I could crack seemingly-unrelated joints. Like, for example, I would massage my neck and feel something in my shoulder or lower back pop. Many of these tender spots I previously had not known correlated with other areas, and were constantly under stress from my tendency towards tensing.
But now that I was aware of them, I became conscious of my tendencies and begun to work out the deep-seeded tensions. Those readers who crack their knuckles know it’s an unbelievably gratifying and relaxing sensation to release pent-up stress like this. Imagine what happens when it’s joints that have been constantly under stress for years.
There’s been times when I swear it felt like my collarbone broke after I had worked out a bit of a knot in my neck through basic massage, but the sensation was instead a feeling of relief and stress leaving the body, rather than pain. Another time, it felt like I gained three ribs on my left side that had been missing, after getting my lumbar to crack and correct itself through deep massage of my lower back/tailbone.
I’ve even been able to partially heal an inguinal hernia I’d had for years on the left side of my pelvic bone, simply through relaxing the muscle and tendons in that area. Once I became aware of my tendency to favor that side and tense up there in moments of high-stress or anxiety, the condition begun to improve.
Yoga and body scan meditations are your best bet for starting to explore your body and its various ailments. Calm and Headspace are popular apps that offer a basic body scan relaxation exercise, and can begin to put you in tune with your body and the weak points throughout your nervous system.
Digestion and Lower Dantian
In Daoist theory, the body’s internal energy, or dan, is said to be found in three areas called dantians. The lower dantian - or the lower abdomen from the genitals up to the kidneys - is believed to be the primary location where this energy is stored, as it is the structural center of the body. The area encompasses most of the digestive and reproductive organs, as well as the majority of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
These two components of the autonomous nervous system, unlike the central nervous system, are largely unconsciously controlled. However, Daoists believe that through mindfulness of the lower dantian area, one can assist autonomous system functioning, thus improving health and vitality.
The gut has long been referred to as “the second brain” in traditional Eastern and more recently in Western medicine, and there is scientifically evidence to back up this claim.
Western medicine suggests that the parasympathetic nervous system specifically is responsible for digestion. However, there is a third component of the autonomous nervous system, the enteric nervous system (ENS), which can operate independently from the brain and the PNS and SNS. It is housed in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, starting at the esophagus and extending down to the anus and contains over 30 neurotransmitters also found in the central nervous system, including serotonin and dopamine transmitters. Taking into consideration that 90% of these serotonin neurons and 50% of dopamine neurons found in the body are located in the gut, the gut in general, and ENS in particular, truly is the “second brain”.
The motor neurons of the ENS serve to churn and break down intestinal contents, while other neurons are responsible for secreting enyzmes.
I've found that simply relaxing the lower dantian area helped alleviate longstanding digestive issues. I used to have a pretty gnarly case of what I thought to be indigestion or acid reflux. By practicing meditation and relaxing my stomach and lower back specifically, I was able to locate the real source of my problem. I had a condition called plum pit syndrome, or the "heart in the throat" feeling. Plum pit is characterized by the feeling of a lump in the throat and the inability to swallow.
According to traditional Chinese medicine,“plum pit syndrome is a result of a situation that is figuratively too hard to swallow, so it gets caught in your throat. That’s why almost everyone who suffers from this condition is also struggling with some kind of life stress, change, or mental health issue.”
Once more, stressful and anxiety-inducing situations and stimuli seemed to be the root cause of my problem. In general, plum pit indicates emotional energy stagnation between the liver and spleen, usually resulting from stress or frustration, and can signify future chronic digestive problems, or be an indicator that larger digestive issues are already at play.
Traditional Chinese medicine recommends acupuncture/pressure to combat this ailment, and an herbal formula Ban Xia Hou Po Tang, consisting of pinellia and magnolia bark, was created specifically to treat this condition.
But, as I mentioned, relaxing certain parts of my body - specifically the lower back and stomach - has proven to be an effective remedy on its own. Relaxing my stomach muscles during eating and swallowing food, while breathing in deeply from the stomach to allow air in has really cleared up my digestion issues.
It totally makes sense that these two spots are connected, hence the British “heart in my throat” idiom, but I had never suspected the connection prior to learning and applying relaxation techniques.
Finally, another physical benefit to digestion I've personally experienced is the ability to counter constipation right on the spot. Mindfully relaxing my stomach, specifically the spot three finger widths below the belly button, pretty much does the trick every time while plugged up on the toilet. Ill spare you of anymore details...
Again, there are simple relaxation and breathing practices you can use to combat digestive issues. The 4-7-8 breathing technique, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil has been proven to be effective way to put your body into a relaxed state; it also can benefit the body in several other ways, such as helping with insomnia, anxiety and hear rate/blood pressure. This technique changes the “tone” of the ANS by decreasing parasympathetic tone, increasing sympathetic tone and ultimately your body’s relaxation response.
Essentially, by using your voluntary system to impose rhythms on the breathe, gradually they are induced in the involuntary nervous system, which one can’t get at directly.
Translating Relaxation Techniques to Other Aspects of Life
Dr. Weil once said during an interview on the Tim Ferriss Show, that “meditation is not about mindfulness in just a given sitting. It is about carrying those experiences and training into all aspects of your life.”
This quote stuck with me, and has had a profound impact on my outlook regarding mindfulness practice.
I’ve long been able to recognize when the mental benefits of meditation and breathing were being applied in my life while not actually in practice; in the sense of focus, presence, and introspection into my thoughts and tendencies.
But more recently, since discovering this quote and beginning to practice Wing Chun, a form of kung fu, I’m become more conscious of how the breathing and relaxation aspects of yoga and meditation transfer physically to all sorts of different situations and activities.
One of the basic principles of the first form of Wing Chun is relaxing your upper body. When I first begun training, my Sifu would get frustrated with me - although he concealed it well - because of my learned behavior of subconsciously tensing my back and shoulders. Once he and others in class called to attention what I was doing, I was able to transfer the principles I had picked up in other relaxation practices, and my form improved significantly.
To me, one of the most fascinating things about Wing Chun is that by relaxing your muscles directly after contact with your opponent, you gain the upper hand because you can sense the timing of their next strike. When your body is in a relaxed state, rather than one of SNS fight-or-flight panic, your sensory perception and awareness are heightened.
This last benefit may be the prime example of how nervous system relaxation and breathing practices benefits the sensors and motor neurons of the sensory nervous system, and why you should start practicing these techniques.