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Do you ever find it challenging to sit on your meditation cushion and simply meditate, while thoughts continue to zoom by, hooking your attention? You’re not alone. It can be challenging to meditate with mind chatter, especially when the thoughts only seem to get louder the longer you sit. However, there are ways to relax the body and mind, and prepare for meditation.
Many different traditions use breath work and chanting to relax meditators’ bodies and nervous systems in preparation for meditation. And research indicates that intentionally working with your breathing patterns has benefits that extend far beyond your meditation cushion. Deep breathing can elicit a relaxation response that benefits the heart, the digestive system, and immune functioning. Meanwhile, breath work can also lower the production of stress hormones, and even be key to healing trauma.
My favorite breathing practice is a Healing Sounds practice from Qi Gong. Qi Gong is a series of movements developed in ancient China that are intended to move your “Qi”, or life-force energy, in ways that will revitalize you and help you experience harmony in your whole being. It’s a practice that is as old as yoga, yet lesser known in the west.
Qi Gong is known for improving flexibility, mood, inflammation, and anxiety. Plus, it’s particularly good for older people or anyone with reduced mobility because it can be practiced in an incredibly gentle, yet effective way.
Many of the principles at the heart of Qi Gong were developed by Qi Gong masters who studied the natural world and came to understand the deeper principles of how our bodies work in synergy with the changing seasons and cycles of the earth. In this way, Qi Gong masters attained a very sophisticated understanding of the natural rhythms of the body and how to return a person to a state of well-being in tune with his or her surrounding environment.
Of all the Qi Gong practices, my favorite is the healing sounds practice I learned from instructor Lee Holden, which I have found to be incredibly good for clearing stress and negative emotions in preparation for meditation, while also helping me to relax, sleep better, and enjoy life more.
Qi Gong’s Healing Sounds Practice is based on a few key principles. According to Qi Gong, there are five elements that make up our bodies and the natural world; each element has a corresponding organ system, color, sound, and season. When you make the sound in a purposeful way, it is meant to bring that element into balance in your being.
The elements are:
You’ll notice that these elements are set up in the same order as the seasons of the earth. When you chant these healing sounds in this order, you help bring yourself back into synchrony with your body and your surroundings.
And from a western medicine perspective, part of why this is possible has to do with the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system response. This is what you experience when you experience stress. But when you breathe deeply, it triggers your parasympathetic nervous system, telling your body that you are safe and that everything is OK. In today’s civilized society where we have so many sources of tension and stress, it can be incredibly useful to use the breath to relieve unnecessary stress.
The simplest way to work with Qi Gong’s Healing Sounds is to slowly chant them in the below order three times through:
Once you memorize these sounds, you can do this exercise before you meditate, at the end of the day before you fall asleep, as you walk around the office, or while you stretch. Because you can repeat the sounds as quietly as you want, even silently, you can basically do it any time you want. However, don’t do it while exercising intensely, driving, or during any activity where it’s crucial to stay focused.
To get a taste of the benefits of working with these healing sounds, take a few minutes right now to try chanting these sounds three times through.
The next step is to stand up and gently shake as you chant Qi Gong’s Healing Sounds. Why shake? Have you ever noticed that after a dog gets in a fight it will immediately shake its body? That’s how it lets go of its stress response and supports its body to a relaxed state.
Humans can do the same. When you finish your workday and return home, it’s a great idea to do even a short three-minute shaking practice to let go of the cares and concerns of the day that may be physically lodged in your body. And then when you make the healing sounds while shaking, I’ve found that it has exponential benefits for calming and restoring balance within the body.
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