Here’s a question I was asked on “The Dao Bums” site recently, and my response:
“Is the suffocation response something you experience while sitting?”
It’s something I experience every sitting, along with the anxiety connected with the precariousness of posture.
The precariousness for me is mostly about support for the lumbar curve, from the middle lumber vertebrae to the sacrum. That’s why my description of anatomy starts with the ligaments from the pelvis to the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae, and focuses on the mechanisms by which the fascia behind the lower back is displaced in support of the lumbar spine.
My sitting is largely a matter of realizing a spontaneous breath in the midst of activity. I don’t know about anybody else, but for me that requires a recognition that I am staying out of suffocation, while relinquishing control of the precariousness of posture.
I know that the alignment of the spine affects my ability to feel. The spaces between the vertebrae allow the nerves that exit the spine to relay feeling from the various parts of the body to the brain, in a dynamic that changes as the alignment of the spine changes. The more I discover relaxation in the face of the suffocation response and calm in the face of the precariousness of posture, the more the things that come forward for me in sitting reflect a timely ability to feel.
Lately I tend to emphasize the relaxation of activity when I experience discomfort, and the calming of the senses that coordinate the placement of awareness when I experience unhappiness. That I can experience ease and not experience happiness, I think is an oddity of human nature.
On the other side of the suffocation response, comes ease and the experience of the senses that go together to make up the feeling of place in awareness. On the other side of the anxiety associated with precariousness comes a detachment from the placement of awareness, and happiness associated with a balanced ability to feel.
The more I realize ease through relaxation and happiness through calm, the more open I am to feeling my actual condition at the moment–even though such openness risks invoking the suffocation response or inducing the anxiety of precariousness. That is a gain for me, in the continuity of my ability to feel my actual condition at the moment, yet somehow the approach seems only natural.
(“The Dao Bums” has many participants who practice the martial arts of China, and for those with an interest in Tai Chi, I added the following.)
Cheng Man-Ching described three “stages of development” in the art of Tai Chi:
1) Relaxation from the shoulders to the wrists, from the hip joints to the heels, and from the sacrum to the headtop;
2) Sinking the ch’i to the tan t’ien, the ch’i reaches the arms and legs, and the ch’i moves through the sacrum to the top of the head;
3) Listening to or feeling (ligamentous) strength, comprehension of (ligamentous strength), and perfect clarity (“spiritual power, or power without physical force”).
(Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, by Professor Cheng Man Ch’ing, translated by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Martin Inn, pg 75-81, copyright 1985 by Juliana T. Cheng; except Part 3, “perfect clarity” from “Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan”, Cheng Man-Ching trans. Douglas Wile, pg. 53, in place of “omnipotent level”)
Again, relaxation through the suffocation response yields ease, and the experience of the senses that go together to make up the feeling of place in awareness. That is to say, complete relaxation (1, above) brings out the feeling of place in awareness, and allows the necessity of breath to shift the placement of awareness to generate activity that displaces fascia behind the sacrum and the spine (2, above).
Distinguishing ligamentous strength (as in 3, above) depends on the experience of reciprocal activity in the muscles and stretch in the corresponding ligaments in response to the placement of awareness in the movement of breath. To me, comprehension of such strength is the sign of the concentration, as voluntary activity in the movement of breath is surrendered. I would say that “perfect clarity” refers to the complete cessation of voluntary activity in the body, the cessation of action effected through the exercise of will but not necessarily the cessation of action. Cheng Man-ching describes it this way:
The ch’i can mobilize the body, but you need not will the ch’i in order to move it. The spirit can carry the ch’i with it.
(Ibid, pg 80)