Spring and Breathing

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“The Spring”

By Thomas Carew

Now that the winter’s gone, the earth hath lost

Her snow-white robes, and now no more the frost

Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream

Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;

But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth,

And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth

To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree

The drowsy cuckoo, and the humble-bee.

Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring

In triumph to the world the youthful Spring.

The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array

Welcome the coming of the long’d-for May.

Now all things smile, only my love doth lour;

Nor hath the scalding noonday sun the power

To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold

Her heart congeal’d, and makes her pity cold.

The ox, which lately did for shelter fly

Into the stall, doth now securely lie

In open fields; and love no more is made

By the fireside, but in the cooler shade

Amyntas now doth with his Chloris sleep

Under a sycamore, and all things keep

Time with the season; only she doth carry

June in her eyes, in her heart January.

     “JUST BREATHE…,” they say.

Happy May!

In this post I would like to address the connection between breathing and the way we feel, as well as the similarities of breathing methods in Tai Chi and Yoga.

Firstly, I must admit that May is my favorite month of the Spring season. That is not only because many of my dear family members were born during May or because all mothers can celebrate their special day, but mainly, because we safely made it past the cold days. Everything comes back to life again, birds are back from the South singing happily, bees are starting to come out and collect pollen and new animal babies are being born. Also, it finally feels like Spring is in the air! (Of course, I do not mean it just because all the pollen is flying and causing all possible allergies to us.)

Maybe the last time you walked outside, you noticed the buds on trees and their intricate shapes and colors, such as Dogwood. Or perhaps, you’ve smelled the sweet aroma of Lilac or Honeysuckle. Or you admired the vast variety of Daffodils and  Tulips. The air truly smells like flowers! 

Often, we do activities and move around without even noticing our breath. Only when we have a hard time breathing or are bothered by allergies, we notice the lack of it. Then from being outside we move back inside into the safety of our homes with closed windows, filters and AC, where we can breathe. 

As I am writing this, I have realized how the practice of Tai Chi and Yoga brings our awareness to our breath. Both arts are practiced for health and relaxation reasons. But it is not just the movement from form to form or pose to pose that makes one calm down. It is the breath, Qi or Prana. It is seen as the life force without which our bodies would be just an empty shell. We call it Qigong if we practice moving the Qi and every Tai Chi practice has some Qigong elements in it. In Yoga when we practice different types of breathing we call it Pranayama. 

 Although, we think we know how to breathe, many times we tend to hold our breath at the wrong moment, or breathe too fast or breathe with the upper part of our body tensing our shoulders and neck areas. As Dr. Paul Lam mentions, “Stress tends to increase the rate of breathing. An increased breathing rate leads to taking in too much oxygen and releasing too much carbon dioxide. Since carbon dioxide is acid, the pH levels of the blood rise, disturbing our body chemistry. This can cause the blood vessels to tighten, increasing blood pressure (Dr. Paul Lam, “Teaching TC Effectively,” Tai Chi Production, 2006; (138)). Even though we heard many times that with this kind of breath we are stressing our whole system (activating our flight-and-fight response, causing anxiety, clenching our jaws, etc.) we continue doing it.

And yes, I am not a pulmonologist, but what I’ve learned from years of practicing yoga and tai chi, we have the ability to change the way we feel if we bring our attention or mindfulness to our breathing and in that way take control of our breath.

“More efficient breathing improves gas exchange, massages body tissues, including internal organs, helps regulate the nervous system, improves mood, and balances and moves Qi within the body and between the body and environment”(P. M. Wayne, PhD et al., “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi,” Shambhala; 2013(30)).

One of the ways to relax is through breathing. It is well known that we can connect our body to our mind through mindful breathing. In Tai Chi and Qigong we practice so-called dan tian breathing or Diaphragmatic breathing to help us sink the Qi. As we focus on an image of an inflating balloon, we are fully inhaling air into our lungs pulling the Diaphragm down. Thanks to this visualization our breathing causes our abdomen to rise and our lungs can expand sideways. With practice, we can enlarge our lung capacity up to 20 %.

In Yoga, one of the first breaths a student learns is the three-part breath. We fill up the lowest part of our lungs and in that way, allow our tummy to rise first, then fill up the middle lungs and expand our ribcage to the sides and lastly, fill up the top lungs. As we exhale we empty the top part of our lungs first and then we descend towards the deeper parts of lungs exhaling the stale air from them. In addition to that, if we focus on the name of the part of our lungs (lower lungs, middle lungs, upper lungs) we can help ourselves stay in the present moment. We can practice three-part breath seated, standing or laying down. This way of breathing is very similar to the above mentioned dan tian breathing. 

As we focus on fully inhaling and exhaling without force, we can extend our breathing-out time, which leads to more relaxation. What always works for me is if I place my hands on my abdomen and my chest, following the rise and fall.


Spring (Kapha) Season Recipe

Quinoa Asparagus Salad:

Pour water into a saucepan and bring to boil

Add quinoa and salt, stir, cover and reduce heat to low

Simmer mixture until quinoa is tender, approximately 15-25 minutes.

Remove saucepan from heat and let quinoa rest for 5 minutes, fluff up it up with fork



For Salad:

1.5 cups of water

3/4 cups of quinoa

1/5 teaspoon salt

1 bunch fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1.5-inch pieces

4 ounces crumbled feta cheese

⅓ cup toasted slivered almonds

2 green onions, thinly sliced, or to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 lemon, zested

For Dressing:

¼ cup lemon juice

2 tbsp. Olive oil

1 tbsp. Honey

1 clove garlic, minced

1.5 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Freshly ground black pepper to taste


Quinoa preparation

Pour water into a saucepan and bring to boil

Add quinoa and salt, stir, cover and reduce heat to low

Simmer mixture until quinoa is tender, approximately 15-25 minutes.

Remove saucepan from heat and let quinoa rest for 5 minutes, fluff up it up with fork

Veggie mixture preparation

        • Stir asparagus, feta cheese, almonds, green onions, parsley, thyme, and lemon zest into quinoa.
            • Pour water into a saucepan and bring to boil
            • Add quinoa and salt, stir, cover and reduce heat to low
            • Simmer mixture until quinoa is tender, approximately 15-25 minutes.
            • Remove saucepan from heat and let quinoa rest for 5 minutes, fluff up it up with fork

          If you do not have a steamer:

          • You can bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil
          • Add asparagus and cook uncovered until tender
          • Drain in a colander and immerse in ice water for several minutes to stop the cooking process
          • drain

           Asparagus preparation

        • Steam for 3 minutes so it is still crisp

        • Dressing preparation
            • Whisk lemon juice, olive oil
            • Add honey  and garlic,
            • If you like, add Dijon mustard, and black pepper together in a bowl until the dressing is smooth.

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