The two primary sources of the qi that we use every day are our food and our breath.  (I’ll talk about food in another post.) Eating and breathing are ways in which we take in energy from the outside world and make it our own. Breathing happens automatically, thankfully. It would be very hard to get anything done if we needed to interrupt ourselves every seconds to tell our bodies to breathe. Because it is one of those functions relegated to the background for us by our autonomic nervous system, we tend to overlook its importance.

Have you ever become so engrossed in working something on your computer that you fail to notice that your shoulders are tensing up around your ears, your back is rounded with your head craned forward?  This is not a comfortable position, but you find your way there because your attention is on your work, not your posture.  An hour later, you notice that your shoulder is kind of sore, and only then do you realize what an unnaturally uncomfortable position you somehow adopted.

An equivalent thing happens with breathing.  The breath gets rapid and shallow as part of the stress response.  Sometimes the breath gets held as the body tries to hold it all together.   By tuning into what’s happening, you shine your light of consciousness on what’s been going on behind the scenes.  Once you become aware of what’s happening, you can change it.  The first step, therefore, is to practice tuning into your breathing several times a day.  Starting now:

Take a moment for a 60-second inventory.  What parts of your body are breathing freely right now?  What parts are not?  If you close your eyes and visualize your body, what parts can you feel or see your energy flowing easily, and what parts are harder to sense?  Can you breathe into your lower belly? Your back?  Your brain? This is excellent information to mine.  Lack of free flow of energy is what leads to pain and other problem.  We call this “qi stagnation” in Chinese Medicine.  This right here is a simple qi gong exercise: practice of cultivating awareness of how your energy is moving within.  The simple act of bringing your awareness to that which is usually handled unconsciously can by itself lead to profound insights and changes.

I invite you to take breathing breaks at least three times a day. Most of us make at least a little time each day to eat — a primary souce of qi.  Why not take three minutes to breathe with awarenss, to mine this other overlooked source of vital energy? Try it and let me know how it goes.

In the Pacific Northwest, where I live and practice Chinese Medicine, the cessation of the long rainy season (late June this year) marks the dramatic start of summer, and people take off running. More than a few patients report that there is so much they want experience this summer that they pack their schedules full:  entertaining a string of out-of-town guests, tending enormous gardens, going on epic hikes and bike rides, lots of parties and cookouts. And yet, with all the doing of these activities which should add up to satisfaction from getting the most out of life, many people confess to feeling depleted.  They are exhausted as they attempt to keep up with the demands of the season.  Feelings of depression often accompany such fatigue — feelings which can be confusing because adding more “fun stuff” to their schedule is not actually increasing their joy—it’s depleting it! What is happening here is that people are getting caught up in the yang of the season, expending too much of their own yang qi, and burning up their yin in the process.

Summer is the most yang of the seasons. It is associated with the element of  Fire, the emotion of joy.  As we resonate with the season, the urge to do more, to get up earlier and stay up later, and to be more social is natural. But too much of that throws us off balance. Even in the summer, it’s not daytime all the time — we still have to cycle through nighttime. And living in a culture that already emphasizes yang over yin  — doing over being — no matter what the season, it doesn’t take much to tip the balance.

To help you make the most of this active, vibrant season while still feeling exuberant yourself, I offer four tips:

  • Begin the day with gratitude.  What do you appreciate about your life right now, without doing a thing?
  • Schedule in unstructured time.  Yes, I’m encouraging you somewhat ironically to plan to be spontaneous. Doing what feels right in the moment is one of the virtues of the Fire element.
  • Take time to be alone.  Some people need this more than others, but even the most natural extroverts need time to connect with themselves in order to connect authentically with others.
  • Balance your active, productive, busy yang schedule by adding yin items to your “to do” list.  Anything restful, quiet, and peaceful qualifies.  I suggest actually writing in the yin elements of your schedule.  Putting a check mark next to “sit outside and appreciate the flowers” helps to satisfy the need to accomplish something while ensuring that what you’re accomplishing actually leads to feelings of joy, rather than burnout.

May you enjoy the season to the fullest!