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2015 May 16 to 23 Bar Harbor 052

Root to the earth and rise to the sky like a tall straight tree.

It is difficult to feel centered sometimes. We are scattered by all sorts of distractions – perseverating thoughts, loud noises, flickering lights, and most often these days from electronic devices like phones and tablets. There seem to be multiple things at any given moment getting us scattered mentally and emotionally, and also physically. Pay attention to your body when you are feeling scattered. Are you grounded and relaxed and in harmony with gravity? Or are you tense, stiff, tilted forward or to one side with gravity pulling you down.

 

Our bodies and minds are one and when you are scattered in one, the other is out of balance as well. In taijiquan and qigong, your center is your lower dantien. That is the energy center about three finger widths below your belly button and three finger widths inside your body. Essentially, it is your center of gravity, and we move around and breathe from that center. I sometimes say in taijiquan class that life is a struggle in finding balance with gravity. It is always there. Astronaut Scott Kelly was two inches taller after spending about a year in space. Gravity compressed his body back that two inches after his return to earth. When you are out of balance with gravity, your body pays a price. Your neck, your lower back, and your spine all struggle to keep you upright. The outcome is increased pain and an increased risk of falling.

When you are out of balance, you also do not breathe as efficiently. Beginning about age 6 or 7, our breathing tends to start moving from our belly towards our upper chest. This style of breathing is less efficient. We get less oxygen, we have to work harder to breathe and tend to breathe more quickly. This “upper chest” breathing engages your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight/flee/freeze/faint system. Your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and breathing rate all rise. You get tunnel vision. Your blood moves from your internal organs and brain out to your arms and legs to get you ready for action. Your ability to think and improvise goes away and you automatically “go with what you know.” Your adrenalin and cortisol levels rise and form a feedback loop between your adrenal glands and your brain that causes the levels to continue to rise. Take a moment and put one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Now breathe like you normally breathe. Which hand moves? Are you breathing from your abdomen or your upper chest?

You can practice getting your center – finding your balance and breathing efficiently. You will move better. You will feel better. You will function more from the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest way of being. You might even be more likely to use the other response to a threat – tend and befriend – when you are balanced.

This is an exercise we do at the beginning of classes to find balance with the earth and harmony with gravity.

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Many of the people I see have problems with anxiety and stress.  There is always stress in one’s life.  What matters is how we frame it and how we manage it.  We frame it with our life narrative, our central organizing principal.  Those are the words you say to yourself as you live your life.  It may be something like, “no matter what happens, I will always land on my feet” and you take a problem solving approach anStress managementd see stress as opportunity for growth.  On the other hand, the mantra may be “I am always a failure and everybody can see that.”  The lack of self efficacy and self confidence can really raise one’s anxiety level.

When we perceive something as threatening, the amygdala springs into action sending messages to get stress hormones moving to get us ready to fight or flee.  We may be overwhelmed and freeze or even faint. The emotion hits first milliseconds before we are able to think.  There are a couple of techniques to practice to help cope with that rush, and to help you move towards another possible reaction to stress – flow. Flow is more akin to the reaction that the person who sees a crisis as an opportunity for growth and who actively problem solves will use.  Some of these techniques involve breathing and grounding.  You can practice by getting relaxed in a chair sitting so that your body parts have good blood circulations and don’t “fall asleep.” Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Breathe to your diaphragm.  Place one hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach.  When you breathe, only the hand on your stomach should move.  Breathe slowly – count to four as you breathe in, hold it for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four.  Practice the breathing technique several times a day. You can pair a word with the exercise, something as simple as “serenity” or “relax” so that eventually you can just say the word to yourself and the relaxation begins.  Grounding is the process of getting yourself into the present moment – “be here now.”  Feel your feet on the floor, the way your clothes feel upon your skin, notice the colors of your environment, the shapes, the sounds, the smells, etc.  Focus on the surroundings to take yourself out of that vision of stress and into the present.

We will look at other techniques in later entries, but breathing is a good place to start and is fundamental.  When you slow your breathing down, it slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and reduces the stress you feel.  Then you can approach whatever the issue is with a clear mind.

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