When you need to relax, the very first thing you do is take a deep breath. You do this unconsciously because deep breaths are the natural way to breathe. If you observe a newborn, you can see that the baby naturally breathes from the abdomen, not from the chest. The deep, natural breaths your body wants can only be achieved through abdominal breathing.
Japanese culture emphasizes the importance of the abdomen (hara). There are many expressions in Japanese that contain the word, hara. The most common one is hara wo kukuru, literally meaning “to strengthen the abdomen.” In common usage, it means to make a big decision. This hara tradition stems from bushido, which taught that the spirit resides in the abdomen. For that reason, when a follower of bushido, a samurai, made an unforgivable mistake, he committed hara-kiri, literally the cutting open of the abdomen, rather than the heart.
In Eastern Medical tradition, the lower abdominal region is called Tan Den in Japanese (Dan Tien in Chinese). This area is believed to be the source of our Qi, our vital energy. When a healthy person breathes deeply, he or she takes in Qi from the environment. This Qi is drawn down to the Tan Den to mingle with the internal Qi. This drawing down of external Qi is accomplished by the Kidney, which is also the source of our internal Qi. Acupuncturists often work on Kidney functions to treat asthma or allergies because a weak Kidney does not grasp and draw down the Lung Qi to achieve the healthy functions of the Lung.
Deep, natural breaths occur with the rising and descent of the diaphragm, the parachute-shaped muscle located at the base of the chest cavity (between the lower part of the ribs and the stomach). When we take a breath, abdominal muscles and the diaphragm in coordination cause the diaphragm to descend, which expands the chest. The increased volume in the chest stretches the lungs, the pressure in the lungs becomes less than that of the atmosphere, and air flows into the lungs (moving naturally from the higher pressure to the lower pressure). On the exhalation, the opposite occurs, and the air leaves the lungs. Most lung problems happen when the lungs are not at their full capacity. Just like any other cells in the body, the unused portion of the lung cells becomes atrophied.
Breathing also stimulates the circulation of blood throughout the body. The blood from the heart goes to the lungs for a gas exchange. The blood that is now rich with oxygen goes back the heart to be distributed throughout the body. The oxygen it delivers stimulates the metabolic functions.
As you can see, full and healthy breathing is very important to us. Unfortunately, a lot of us have acquired the bad habit of shallow breathing. Also, stress causes us to have tight upper abdominal muscles, which hinders smooth, full breath. When you need to relax, focus on the lower abdomen (Tan Den), visualize the diaphragm descending, and draw in a deep breath. When you stretch out your spine, you will find that the lungs are fully stretched. Breathe out, visualizing the diaphragm ascending. Do this several times and you’ll be amazed how relaxed you feel.