Breathing and stretching exercises for healthy practice and living
Compiled for Pianodao by Andrew Eales.
Here is a simple qigong practice that provides an easy hack for diminishing the effects of anxiety in our lives. It can help before performing, taking an exam, or simply enable us get through the basics of daily life.
Anxiety. It seems to be the curse of the modern age, inflicting and blighting so many of our lives. As pianists we often talk about “performance anxiety”, but the truth is that our anxiety about performing is often one element of a bigger picture, and shouldn’t lightly be isolated…
Anxiety in Chinese Medicine
Before getting into a simple but powerful practice that anyone can use, a few words about anxiety in TCM and Qigong theory.
Anxiety can have many causes but is generally associated with either weak or disturbed Qi (our “life energy” in this context).
There is a saying that anxiety and worry can literally “eat us up”, consuming the Qi of our digestion and absorption organs: the stomach, spleen and pancreas.
Western medicine seems, oddly, to have largely ignored this correlation for millennia, but today scientists understand the clear links between anxiety and stomach problems. And most of us know full well that when we “feel anxious”, that feeling is invariably seated in the stomach area.
On a personal note, I have been diagnosed with diverticular disease, and I often have anxiety problems. I can directly trace the link between the two, written indelibly in my own personal story.
My regular Qigong practice, moxibustion and acupuncture aims to diminish the negative effects of this two-way traffic between my digestion problems and “mental health”. They are an essential routine that keeps me well.
But our lungs and breathing are also linked. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (2nd century BCE) states:
“Anxiety blocks energy and injures the lungs. It congests the breathing apparatus and suppresses respiration.”
Quoting this in his classic book Guarding the Three Treasures (Shambhala Press, USA, 1995), author Daniel Reid says:
“Since the lungs govern energy through breathing, anxiety impairs energy circulation by inhibiting breath, and this in turn lowers resistance by weakening the body’s shield of protective energy. The shallow breathing and shortness of breath experienced during periods of intense anxiety are common symptoms known to Western as well as Chinese physicians.”
In tandem with these physical sensations, of course, we experience anxiety in our mental over-activity. In their excellent book Emotional Wisdom (New World Library, California, 2009), co-authors Dena Saxer and Mantak Chia vividly explain:
“When worry or anxiety takes over, we become unbalanced. We live in our heads. Our minds become “monkey minds”, endlessly chattering to us about dire consequences that will probably never happen. We waste our life-force energy, our Qi, on useless thoughts.”
Thus a vicious cycle can be set up, in which anxiety is the self-feeding monster in our lives. Our lowered energy feeds our anxiety, while in turn the “monkey mind” further depletes our Qi energy.
In his book The Qigong Workbook for Anxiety (New Harbinger, USA, 2014) Master Kam Chuen Lam explains:
“A very low level of energy leaves us feeling drained of vitality, but we are also susceptible to short rushes of energy. We feel unstable. We often wake up feeling like we haven’t slept. We feel hassled by family life and work. Sometimes we push ourselves late into the night. Underneath it all is constant anxiety…
It is almost like the vulnerability we experience if our immune system is weakened. Our emotional life shows the same patterns. We are vulnerable to inner turbulence. We are susceptible to panic and despair. All of this is the effect of weak, unreliable energy.”
Many musicians will recognise these descriptors as a factor of our daily lives. When we come to perform in public, play to others or make a recording, the short-term anxiety we experience can be the manifestation of a far more chronic problem.
Clearly in these cases the long-term solution to this is to strengthen our life energy (which can be done using regular qigong practice) and calm the “monkey-mind” (also possible using Qigong practice and other mindfulness and meditation techniques).
A short ten minute practice isn’t going to be more than a band-aid plaster on the wound, but in moments of crisis it can be exactly what we need in order to refocus. And for those who experience little anxiety away from the performing situation, the exercise I share below may well be all that’s needed to restore balance and control.
Master Lam has the following to say about disturbed Qi:
“The energy patterns we associate with anxiety have several forms. They can shift from one to the other, creating whirlpools of energy that leave us often feeling quite scattered. When people get into this state they often say, ‘I need to collect myself’.
Whether you are feeling that or not, it is always helpful to gather your energy. It naturally reorganises itself if it has a chance to settle – even for a short time. Sitting up, in the midst of everything, for a minute or so is one way to do this. It is simple but extremely powerful.
Anxiety and anxiety-related energy patterns often cause energy to get disturbed and blocked in the upper body and head. This contributes to confusion, increased tension and headaches. This simple practice of sitting up helps move that energy lower in the body, where it can be more naturally rebalanced.”
So much for the theory!
Master Lam goes on to outline a simple sitting and breathing practice that can take about five to ten minutes, progressing through three subtle stages. I have adapted and expanded the practice very slightly drawing on additional sources, but the full instructions below remain easy to follow and faithful to the essence of Master Lam’s teaching.
- Sit on a chair that has a back support if possible (although you can also practise this sat on a piano stool, provided you maintain an upright, relaxed posture). A supported back helps the flow of energy and relieves the torso and major organs of pressure.
- Sit up straight. Imagine a slender cord from the crown of your head gently tugging upwards. Feel the straightening of the spinal column.
- Your feet should be flat on the floor, legs slightly apart.
- While sitting up in this position, breathe naturally but slowly. Breathe out through the nose. Observe your breath. Don’t force it in any way, but do breathe deeply into the lower abdomen/stomach area.
- Keep your eyes open, or half closed. Quiet your senses.
- Rest your hands gently in your lap, palms facing down.
- Allow your mind to go where it will. You do not need to “meditate” in any specific way.
- When you are ready move on to Stage Two
- Continue as before but now cross your ankles.
- Make sure that your chest is relaxed: as you breathe out through the nose, allow your chest to sink a little.
- Also allow your shoulders to drop a little in this posture.
- When you are ready move on to Stage Three
- In this stage, move your knees a little wider apart.
- Open your hands, palm upwards, and rest them in your lap or on your thighs.
- Remain seated in this position, breathing steadily and observing your breath, for a few minutes.
Using the Senses to help with Focus.
If you are feeling particularly anxious, or are struggling to calm the mind while trying this practice, you can use the senses to help focus. In particular, the primary senses of sight and sound.
Place a glass of water (if possible, use one made of green or blue glass) on a low table just in front of you. Gaze gently at the glass. Don’t try to concentrate on anything specific – simply observe the glass and enjoy the stillness of it.
Alternatively, you could use a candle in a darkened room. This can provide a very soothing focus, and take your mind away from other concerns.
If you find it difficult to switch off other thoughts while trying this practice, you might want to use this recording of gentle waves on the seashore:
This exercise is essentially a very basic hack of our internal energy system, addressing the main concerns caused by anxiety.
The breath is regulated and becomes calm, while energy returns to the lower dantien, an area in Qigong theory located about an inch below the navel.
If it appears that this introduction incorporates complex theory to support what is a very simple practice, that’s because Qigong theory is indeed based on many centuries of careful, steady and systematic observation, albeit using a different approach to that of modern Western science.
Using approaches such as these, the Chinese have enjoyed many centuries of good health and longevity compared to Westerners – and I very much hope that you too with find this very simple exercise has powerful results.
Qigong for Pianists
PIANODAO includes more than 600 articles and reviews,
which are free for everyone, everywhere to access and read.
Please support the site by making a small contribution.