The fall season is associated with the lungs in Chinese medicine. It is also related to the color white, the emotion sadness, the flavor pungent, and environmental dryness. Aside from enabling and carrying out respiration so that the body takes in oxygen and gets rid of carbon dioxide waste, the lungs in Chinese medicine do even more: they control the qi (or vital energy) of the whole body through respiration and in the formation of what we call Pectoral qi. This type of qi is created from inhaled air mixed with the essence of the food and water we ingest. It is then dispersed and distributed throughout the body. Because the lungs sit at the top of the thorax, their qi has a descending movement towards the lower organs and tissues. In this way, they assist in the circulation of qi and fluids throughout the rest of the body. The lungs dominate the skin and hair, and open into the nose and the throat and larynx. They regulate water metabolism and have a close relationship with the large intestine.Many syndromes pertaining to the lungs exemplify the roles they play in the body. Sinus infections, hoarseness, acne, cough, shortness of breath, edema and so forth, may all be symptoms of lung disorders.
Recently, I’ve had many conversations with patients concerned with unconsciously holding their breath. This often happens when a person experiences stress. At my last annual physical, I noticed that I, too, was holding my breath while my oxygen levels were being tested: the number hovered at 94 until I took a deep breath and it slowly climbed to 98-99. I was not feeling nervous, but I was trying to be still and focused while the tests were being done. I was shocked at how a few moments of hesitation could affect blood oxygen levels.
When we feel threatened, holding the breath is natural while we ascertain a situation; if no threat is determined, the breath should return to normal: a fluid, effortless and continuous inhalation and exhalation. If there is a threat perceived, rapid breathing may assist with a fight or flight response. But pausing the breath also may happen with situations that simulate a threat and cause our muscles to tighten: combative sports, for instance, or anxiety, during which rapid shallow breathing might take hold. Even non-threatening activities may cause shallow breathing or breath-holding, like intense concentration or weightlifting exercise. This is completely counterproductive! Proper breathing with exercise, whether it’s weightlifting (exhale with exertion) or yoga, is integral to proper form. In the case of anxiety, holding the breath may aggravate feelings of stress or panic.
Mindful breathing is a good practice to counter this bad habit. It is a form of meditation that might sound ridiculously easy, but I assure you, it is not. Nobody is immune to intrusive thoughts, whether they are scattered and repetitive or mundane. The act of mindful breathing (intensely focusing on each inhalation- pause- and exhalation) enables you to be in the moment in your body. When intrusive thoughts enter your mind, notice them and let them go.Re-focus on your breath: how it feels, the movement of your body, the sound of the breath, and simply being with each part of the process. Another nice technique to practice is belly (diaphragmatic) breathing: sit comfortably in a chair; as you inhale, allow the breath to travel down towards your abdomen so that your belly expands; when you exhale, contract the belly to help push out the air.Placing a hand on the abdomen may help you notice how much your belly expands and contracts during this. The goal is to fill the lungs fully, to be mindful of the process, and to physically grow accustomed to taking big full breaths.When you notice yourself breathing shallowly or pausing the breath altogether,remind yourself to JUST BREATHE!
For formal training on meditation, check out the classes and resources at New York Insight Meditation Center. https://www.nyimc.org/