It was a typical bedtime: no one wanted to sleep, though we were all overtired. Suddenly my kids “remembered” that they still had some homework. Both of them. Homework that would require mental clarity and focus.
“Oh no,” my voice went up. “Are you serious?”
Don’t get me wrong—as a young student, I procrastinated, but not as graduate student studying Traditional Chinese Medicine. The homework was challenging, but for me, the philosophical shift was even harder. As the daughter of a Western physician, I had difficulty perceiving myself as an energetic being that could help shift Qì, or energy, in others. I hadn’t previously considered the intangible side of the medicine.
My voice kept building. “Why didn’t you do it earlier?”
“We were busy,” said my son. “I forgot,” said my daughter flatly.
I checked the clock. For kids their age, it was already too late. Ideas bounced like popcorn until my mind felt charred.
“Ugh, it’s fine, Mom,” my daughter said. “Breathe.”
Advice can be a command, told for the sake of exercising power or for the sake of cruelty, like a chainsaw out to fell your Qì. But advice can also be a hug. Within someone’s word choice, facial expression or body language, you can tell he or she truly cares. My daughter did, and I shut my worry playlist down and listened.
I took a few deep breaths, making sure I felt them down in my abdomen. It felt good. I took a huge breath and released an even bigger sigh. When I spoke again, my voice was lower, slower, more even.
“You’ll have to do it in the morning,” I concluded.
Both kids groaned.
“Can’t we do it now?” my son begged.
“Nope, move it along,” I said, like a traffic cop. To my surprise, we actually resumed bedtime, and both kids managed to fall asleep. I even had some energy left. All thanks to the power of deep breaths!
It was a small deal, but the lesson still holds: when stressed, breathe deeply.
In Western medicine, the “stress response” helps the body deal with emergencies by increasing the breathing and heart rate and releasing stress hormones. The downside is that if we perceive everything from a traffic jam to forgotten homework as a disaster, then we send our bodies into a constant emergency state that is not warranted. Excess stress can impair both our physical and mental health. Breathing deeply can help calm the nervous system. By releasing the “panic button,” we gain both peace of mind and better health.
Our breath also matters in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where our mental and physical health depends on the Lungs (capitalized to indicate a different definition than in Western Medicine). In TCM, the Lungs take in Qì (energy), and transfer it to all other organs. Whether we are trying to improve our digestion or our sleep, we can benefit from breathing deeply and evenly. The rhythm of our breath reveals our transition from Yīn (taking in, observing) to Yáng (pushing away, reacting), a cycle that underscores our entire lives.
We all have a different proportion and evolution of Yīn and Yáng, which changes throughout our lives. As a result, no two people experience stress the same way. Over time, our reactions and habits can change. This means that regardless of our medical history or current circumstances, change is always possible. Particularly by building healthy habits, we can have greater balance, stability, and strength.
We can begin by learning to breathe more slowly. First, exhale as much as possible. Then, try to inhale and exhale for a count of six. It’s a goal, not an ultimatum! The significance of counts in multiples of three is derived from a traditional Chinese myth. Out of chaos, a trinity emerged: Yīn (the earth), Yáng (the atmosphere), and humans. To experience health, humans must live in harmony with Yīn and Yáng, rather than try to control them. Every facet of our lives, from food to exercise to mental activities, can be qualified as more Yīn or Yáng. Yīn is quiet and cooling, and Yáng is active, warming, and energizing. Relative balance of these properties can lead to fewer and weaker symptoms. To reduce any symptom, including stress, we can pursue Yīn and Yáng balance in our lifestyle by breathing deeply.
Now, we don’t need kids or a challenging bedtime to remember to take care of ourselves. We can build balance into our lifestyle and make a habit of breathing deeply.
Licensed Acupuncturist Trina Lion just returned from a decade in Shanghai, China, as a Traditional Chinese Medicine specialist. She worked as an acupuncturist at Shanghai Humanity Hospital and as a TCM faculty member at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She was featured in the cover story for Shanghai Family magazine and appeared as a featured expert on the ICS-Shanghai TV show “Culture Matters.” Trina has also lectured on TCM globally at institutions including Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, New York University in Shanghai, University of Maryland Medical Center, L’Oréal China, and NFL China. Learn more about her work at trinaliontcm.com.
To learn more, join NAMI Metropolitan Baltimore for an information session on January 12th, Lose Stress with Traditional Chinese Medicine, presented by Trina Lion.
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