One afternoon of many years ago I was on a semi-desert hill of California’s inland with a group of people who many people would think strange, and we all were doing some movements that many would consider bizarre. The burly guy who guided us – weird too – sometimes had us take a break and tell us something. That afternoon he told us of a man who had left the office after a day of hard work on computer and phonecalls, had driven for an hour in the traffic, arrived in a gym, changed clothes in a hurry, and had practiced for another good hour some frantic movements rhythmed by a thumping music. Then, sweaty and tired, with the few forces left he finally had driven home, taken off his shoes, and throwing himself on the chair in the living room, had exclaimed just before falling asleep: “how am I relaxed now!”
Our burly type – in fact one of the most effective teachers I have had the luck to know – told us: “You know what was happening to that guy? He was not relaxed, he was just dead tired!”. Still now, after many years spent to learn, practice and teach Taoist disciplines and deepen the meaning and nuances of stress, tiredness, fatigue and their consequences for our health, I find that this story fits like a glove to dispel some myths about stress and relaxation.
First, we need to try explaining what stress is, because we are accustomed to consider it only for its emotional aspects, such as: “Today I am really stressed out, I was flooded with useless phone calls and my boss has even threatened to fire me.” But perhaps not everyone knows that every activity that goes beyond the maximum of our forces creates stress, in form of “fatigue” of the peripheral nerve fibers first, that if continues will later get to the central fibers. The physiological reserves have been used, and if this pressure becomes a habit it may shorten our life span.
Therefore the first good rule to avoid harming ourselves by getting tired beyond our limits is a constant listening of our being (body and mind) and the signals it sends to us. Avoid to push it to the maximum, or beyond the maximum, whenever possible. Taoists of the Water Method call this concept the 70% rule. For example, let’s say that under normal conditions I am able to run 100 meters in 15 seconds. I decide to run them in 20. Doing so, the five seconds that I have given myself become a space of relaxation that expands throughout the duration of the whole run. Though: if I have a fever, the 15 seconds of my normal range may become 30, and the 20 that were appropriate before the fever become now 40. That is the 70% of my maximum possibilities of that specific moment, with a fever. For mental activities the same rule applies: computers are tiring because the today’s super-speed processors induce our mind – if we do not listen to ourselves – to go to a speed higher than our physiological maximum. Now, professional athletes excluded – who need a different approach – how many times in life we act as if we were doing a race “to the finish line”, without a real need?
It’s always best to try staying just one hint below our limit, because if we get to our 100% we pass it easily without being aware of it, and when we pass our 100% the mess is done: our nervous fibers start getting stressed, their capacity of electrical signals conduction diminishes, and they will take them some time to go back in shape, granted that we make them finally rest. Or, if we insist on pulling the rope, we can end in a nervous breakdown: the tip of an iceberg that could have started to form in a wearing out physical activity after a day of intense work, after we had already exceeded our limit several times.
This may lure criticism from fans of all those typical gym exercises. But this is not a criticism of physical activities which in themselves have nothing harmful or bad for our health. The element that can transform them from healthy to not healthy is only when practicing them. This is so true that even for the “soft” and slow Eastern practices such as Qi Gong and Tai Chi – which take great care to avoid any form of stress – the good rule is: “If you’re hungry, eat. If you are tired, rest. Practice afterwards.”
And if we are in a situation where it is impossible to avoid going to the maximum? Let’s see what happens when a person is stressed out, in a frantic rush: short and rapid breath, sometimes broken, with the outbreath shorter than the inbreath, as in a gasp for air… there it is, the air, our breath: this is the tool available to everyone to decrease stress and its consequences. Because we all have a breathing body, and we all have a breath we can listen to!
Let’s start from it and put in place a conscious corrective act as a good daily habit: a long breath, continuous, with outbreath longer than inbreath. It’s a practice that can be learned in the blink of an eye or so, and is the first level of stress reduction process. Breathing as taught by the Taoist means in fact manage every moment in the opposite direction to the stress automatic reaction. A habit that puts us in a position of great advantage when the jolt comes suddenly and unexpectedly, just as an earthquake-proof house does. Let’s just breathe, with our entire body, from head to toe, consciously, all day. In fact, as we did when we were infants, even though we don’t remember it anymore.
Taoist breathing is a breath that reduces respiratory rate from the 12-16 physiological breaths per minute according to Western texts to 6-7, often 3-4, even down to one per minute. Like crocodiles. Have you ever noticed how a crocodile breathes? It looks like is not breathing. Because it breathes so slowly and deeply that from the outside it looks still like a log. Yet when shooting it is so fast that you cannot follow it with your eyes…
This is called a “Long Life Breath”. When it becomes the background music of our day, the stress founds the door always closed, so that relaxation and life within us can continue to sprout. After all, the ancient Vedas say that each of us is born with a fixed number of breaths, and once ended them we leave this body… do the math of how we would live if we were breathing once per minute instead of twelve.
Translated from Cosimo Mendis’ article published on New Martial Hero Magazine (italian edition) n. 5 – 2011.