We are faced with many kinds of stress every single day. Modern life is fast-paced. The images we see in advertising and on TV are flashy and rapid-fire. The media and Internet blast millions of images before our eyes and minds every day. Prime-time television is cynical and obsessed with action, murder, and mayhem. The war, work, family, friends, healthcare … there is always a source of stress in our lives.

How you choose to react to stress and how you choose to internalize it affects your health and the health of those around you. Realize that when you are stressed, even at a very low level, you are hurting yourself physically. The moment you are stressed even slightly, your blood chemistry changes for the worse and your breathing becomes shallow. You are moving to negative hormone production, such as overproduction of adrenaline and away from positive hormone production, such as the production of endorphins, serotonin, and endostatin.

Your reaction to stress is a choice that you make daily, perhaps without realizing it. Awareness is the key. You can choose not to internalize any stress you encounter, not let your emotional mind race, not raise your heart rate and blood pressure, and not constrict your breathing. Strive to maintain equilibrium under all conditions. Breathe slowly and deeply when you encounter stress.

Learn to Breathe Deeply

We are shallow breathers. Most of us need to make a conscious decision to breathe more deeply until over time we develop a healthier habit of breathing deeply all day, every day. Breathing deeply is not just good for you; it is the single most important aspect of your practice of tai chi for health as well as relaxation. Shallow breathing will make you sick, reduce your energy, hamper your productivity, and shorten your life span. When you breathe deeply, every one of your internal organs functions better, and you feel better.

Every minute, millions of cells die in our bodies. With a healthy diet, the respiratory system should be responsible for eliminating 70% of your metabolic waste. The remainder is eliminated through perspiration (19%), urination (8%), and defecation (3%). If you do not breathe deeply or sweat regularly, that waste elimination is slower, or worse, it stays in your body and your circulation slows to a halt. We need to exhale deeply to get rid of dead cells and carbon dioxide, and inhale deeply to provide optimal oxygen levels to make the cell replacement process as efficient as possible. When your elimination is as efficient as possible, your physical aging slows down, and you may even appear to reverse the aging process.

Stress vs. Shallow Breathing

Do we have shallow breath because we are under stress, or are we stressed because we have shallow breath? Both. Certain typical breathing patterns trigger physiological and psychological stress and anxiety reactions. Many of these unhealthy breathing patterns are just bad habits, and they can be re-trained. Do not take this recommendation lightly. Find some time each day to practice deep breathing and build some healthy breathing habits, and an improved quality of life will be your reward.

Stress is sometimes confused as being only on either a physical or mental level. But actually stress is often both mental and physical. We have different ways to stress ourselves physically. For example, bad posture, improper alignment will create stress on the joints and the vertebrae. A collapsed spine can create stress on the individual vertebrae and on the internal organs. Our body is not designed for leaning or collapsing into the joints. It is designed to use the muscles to support the bones. When we lean into the joint, we put stress on the ligament. Over a certain period of time, this stress can take a toll on the ligaments leading to swelling, shortness, and atrophy of muscles, as well as arthritis. If you do not use certain muscles, you lose them, and that creates stress on other groups of muscles.

Three Levels of Relaxation

The first level is that you appear to be relaxed, but you are not relaxed either physically or mentally. You give an impression outwardly of a relaxed person, but you are unstable mentally. You may even have physical backache and neck ache, but you look relaxed. Looking relaxed comes from an outward perception.

The second level of relaxation is that you feel relaxed, but physically you are slightly stressed because you are not maintaining proper alignment; you are leaning into the joints and collapsing into the organs. That is not the most relaxed posture; it is a little bit of relaxing but much collapsing. There is a tendency for some to be confused about the difference between being relaxed and collapsing. Collapsed does not necessarily mean relaxed even though there is some relaxation within collapsing. Feeling relaxed, but still being unaware of the stress caused by your alignment, is not true relaxation.

Sensing relaxation is the third level, the deepest level of relaxation. It includes both the physical and the mental aspects. In sensing relaxation, you are relaxed mentally and physically, and you are correctly aligned so the stress on the skeleton, the joints, is reduced. Organs can be stressed from misalignment as can the vertebrae in the spine. Slouching and collapsing the thoracic spine, which is a posture that most of us carry when we sit at the computer, or at dinner, or with friends, is one of our worst enemies. Collapsing the thoracic spine compresses against the internal organs as well as the lung, and slows down the movement in the digestive system, which reduces the oxygen intake. When your thoracic spine is aligned and straight, the lungs are open and you can breathe fully. When the thoracic spine is collapsed, it compresses the lungs and could decrease your oxygen intake by half. In sensing relaxation, you are mentally and physically alert and aware, aligned, and calm.

There are a few keys to reduce or prevent mental and physical stress. On a physical level, the method of prevention and healing is through learning healthy alignment, finding balance between your strength and flexibility, increasing your lung capacity, and understanding the alignment within the spine and within the various stretches and resistance training. Once your alignment and balance between strength and flexibility are achieved, learning the correct use of the body alignment in the various motion and actions is the next step. You learn how to utilize the body in ways that reduce stress on the various groups of muscles and train your strength using optimal movement. An example is shoveling snow. Once you learn to lift snow using your legs rather than using your lower back, tremendous stress is removed from your lower back and shoulders.

Also, using the leg muscles and using the waist to turn to dump the snow reduces stress on the knees and the lower back. Correct action or movement is an important behavior to reduce stress on the joints and skeleton. Increasing your oxygen intake brings more oxygen into the bloodstream, which upgrades every cell in your body, leading to a better ability in dealing with stress.

Breath Can Help Control Stress

An excellent tool for dealing with stress is your breath. The breath is the way to quiet the frantic emotional monkey mind—the breath is the banana that will quiet the monkey mind. That is why it is very important to have correct posture especially in the thoracic spine, not pushed in and up like military posture and not collapsed down when we slouch, as well as in the shoulders in order to create the optimal space for the lungs.

Slow deep breathing is a strong tool for quieting the monkey mind when it is bothering you and creating stress within. Try it the next time you are much stressed. Put your attention on your breathing and surf the breath. Follow the air in and out for a few minutes. Some days when the monkey is very strong, you will need to use fire breath breathing. In fire breath breathing, you inhale with a sound through your nostrils and when exhaling whispering “ha” sound from your mouth. Fire breath breathing is useful in intense situations. It will help you move your thoughts away from the stressful situation and release tension.

Of course, sometimes you may need to take a few deep breaths and simply relax. Once you do that, you can then deal with the mental stress. First, use fire breath and eventually use a quiet water breath. You have options in different situations: a breath with a sound like “ha” or “oy-gevalt,” or a quiet, deep, long, peaceful breath.

The Mind Can Help Reduce Stress

The mind is the next building block or tool you need to develop to prevent or reduce mental stress. The ancient Chinese describe us as having two minds: the monkey mind, which is the emotions, and the horse mind, which is your wisdom. The monkey mind is the wild and scattered emotional mind. The monkey mind is also the mind that allows us to have passion, excitement, and other beneficial emotions as well. We cannot and do not want to get rid of the monkey or the horse.

The Chinese have a saying, “seize the monkey and train the horse.” Most of us train the horse over a lifetime, from our life experiences and by having individuals who we believe in and hold up their personality as an example for our behavior and path in life. Until we reach our mid-twenties, the part of the brain that commands our logic and rational thinking is still being constructed, and our emotional mind is in charge. The emotions are much stronger when we are children, and as we mature we learn to control them. Wisdom is acquired and eventually we develop deeper wisdom as we age if we tame our emotional minds.

In order to learn how to deal with stress, we need to keep emphasizing training the horse and seizing the monkey throughout our lives. For example, the horse decides, “Tomorrow morning I am going to get up at 6 a.m. and train.” But that night you go to sleep at the same time that you always do, so you are not really prepared for waking up early. At 6 o’clock when the alarm rings, your monkey mind says, “Oh, not today, let us do it tomorrow,” and then you push the snooze button and go back to sleep. This scenario is an example of how the monkey mind is controlling the horse mind and not the horse controlling the monkey. Each time you choose to listen to the horse mind and get up and train, you strengthen the horse mind.

The amount of energy that you can manifest is directly related to your breathing and to all of the building blocks.  You will gain control of your body’s energy levels as you continue on the path of tai chi.