One of the hardest things to do in our society is to let the diaphragm drop and let the stomach just hang out. For many years we had been told to suck it all in, support your back by bracing your core. Tai Chi has a different philosophy. By releasing the diaphragm the body is able to position itself in the optimum place for strength and support.
Try a few things to notice your breath and your body. Firstly, notice what your breathing is like at this moment. If you are seated, what is the depth of your breath? Do your shoulders lift with breathing? Are your neck and shoulder muscles both held tight together? Does your abdomen open and contract with breathing? Do you feel your lungs are full of oxygen? Is your breath completely filling into the lungs and leaving the lungs? Now, tap your right hand along your left arm from shoulder to palm 3 times. Repeat on the other side. Notice your breathing now. Do you notice a shift? Do you feel a deeper swell of the lungs with each breath that you take? This little tool will help open the lungs, increase the oxygen intake, expand air for an asthmatic or someone with a lung disease or infection. Let’s explore this a little further.
As you practice the first of the foundation exercises for Master Moy, notice your stance. Notice all 9 points of the feet, notice the release of the ankle and knee joints, notice the freedom of the pelvis, notice the length of the spine and the lift of the head, notice your shoulders aligned with the hips and the feet, notice your breathing, notice your breathing as you release the diaphragm and open up the core of the body. Some people may feel bubbles pass through the organs of the core of the body, there may be some gurgling as well. These sounds are the happiness of the organs as they find room to move, become massaged by the movements and the breathing, and as they begin to work more efficiently.
The diaphragm is a muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity and is the chief muscle for breathing. It is significant to the body for its closeness to many neurological centers including esophagus, aorta and vena cava (large blood vessels), the vagus nerve and the large lymphatic vessel. The movement of the diaphragm passes over and massages the lymphatic vessel at the center of the body and moves more lymphatic fluid than any other muscle in the body. As well, if the diaphragm is moving, stress related chemicals cannot be released by the body – and that is a good thing!
In Kenneth S. Cohen’s book, “The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing”, he warns his readers that “efficient, healthy respiration is not the same as deep breathing”, (p. 111). He makes special note of the need for quality of breath, rather than quantity. Air needs to be exchanged with “ease, grace, and efficiency”, rather than with a “rapid expansion and contraction” of the lung cavity. If the air exchange is fast and forceful, the body reacts by constricting blood vessels. And, in return, oxygen can become glued to the hemoglobin molecules, and restricted from being released to the adjoining cells.
Avid sports enthusiasts may feel that they are breathing deeply and exchanging a maximum amount of oxygen with the cells, but this may not truly be the case. With a focus on breathing in a relaxed manner, the body can have a more productive exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that provides more nourishment for the body than extreme exercise. This is not to say that one should not engage in physically demanding exercise. This is important on many levels. It is to say that one should make sure that they take the time to really breathe with integrity for the health and healing components found in each breath. Warm up and cool down opportunities can provide such moments for the individual during a training session.
Lastly, in order to completely support the lungs to be able to expand completely, the spine must be completely aligned. Make sure that the top of the head, at the back by the crown, is pushing up to the sky while the feet are grounded into the earth. If the chin is lifted, the alignment does not produce the same effect. With full lift through the vertebra, the lungs will automatically open up and expand to their maximum capacity. With a drop of the diaphragm and the exchange of a good, deep breath, the lungs will be able to nourish the body as they were intended to do.