I’ve been reading up on posture, breathing, and their relationship to well-being in the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. It may come as a surprise, but you can get healthier by standing up straight and breathing through your nose. Better breathing equals better health.
There are several simple changes you can make to improve your breathing habits. Like all the other postures and movements we learn in Tai Chi, they seem strange when you first encounter them, and they take some concentration, but eventually, they become second nature.
The first, and very important change, is to breathe through your nose. I discovered when I’m not thinking about it, I’m a mouth breather. Puttering around in the garage, intent on some piece of wood, I found myself with an open mouth. Now I’m mentally taking stock of my breathing on a more regular basis and reminding myself to shut my mouth and breathe through my nose.
Mouth breathing bypasses four important qualities that nose breathing brings to the air you inhale.
1. Nose breathing filters the air. It traps germs of all kinds on sticky mucus material (also known as boogers) which migrates via small hairs that point towards the back of your throat to the esophagus, where you swallow it, and all those icky things get dissolved by the acids in your stomach.
2. Nose breathing humidifies the air. This is especially important here in Colorado, famous for its dry air. By adding moisture to the air, the stress on your lungs is reduced.
3. Nose breathing adjusts the temperature of the air. Too cold – it heats it up. Too hot, it cools it down. Again making it easy on the lungs.
4. Nose breathing introduces nitric oxide into the system. In 1998 three American scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery that the paranasal sinuses have enzymes that produce nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a potent bronchodilator and vasodilator. The introduction of minute amounts of nitric oxide into every breath opens up the lungs to absorb more oxygen and reduces blood pressure. Nitric oxide is also antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial.
The more you breathe through the nose, the healthier you become. I think I already said that, but it’s worth repeating.
The second thing you can do is improve your neck posture. I am very dismayed when I see folks with their heads thrust forward and down intent on their cell phones. I see problems in their future.
By lifting the apex of your head (It is the high point towards the top back of your skull) so that it sits directly on top of the spine, you will draw your chin in. When you draw the chin in (nicely, you don’t have to force it) you straighten out the cervical vertebrae, reduce the pressure on your neck, and open up the trachea to allow more air to pass through easily.
Tai Chi folk make a couple of changes to the posture you see here in the middle. What you see here is more of a military posture. Chest out, knees locked. The Tai Chi stance allows the chest to come in a bit, still no rounded shoulders, and we bend the knees.
The head should sit upright on top of the spine. Remember the business of balancing a book on top of your head? It is actually good advice.
Even if it does bring up some sexually repressive images. This isn’t just for aspiring young stewardesses. This is for everyone!
The third thing is to rest the tongue on the roof of the mouth. When you do this, raise the top of the back of the head, which will bring back the chin, and feel the whole tongue make contact with the roof of your mouth. You will feel the throat muscles rise. By flexing these muscles, you will tone them and open up the throat. Toning up these muscles has two other happy by-products. It reduces double chins and reduces snoring.
So your homework assignment for this week is to breathe. Breathe consciously through your nose, with your head upright. You will know you are successful when you get compliments from people who think you have lost weight and gotten taller.