However, there are plenty of other ways in which the respiratory function - or the Qi of the lungs, in traditional Chinese medical terms - can be compromised. Someone was just telling me about a radio program which, he said, was suggesting that social isolation is even more detrimental to health than the dreaded cigarette. I can believe it.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), in fact, the lungs are very much to do with connectedness. After all, breathing involves a constant give and take between us and our immediate environment. We need to be taking in air every minute, we are that dependent on our environment for survival, so breathing is perhaps the most obvious way in which ‘no man is an island unto himself’. Talking also is partly dependent on the lung Qi; one of the signs that a patient is deficient in lung Qi is that they speak a bit too quietly. The lung Qi, therefore, is likely to be one of the first things to be affected by social isolation, and indeed TCM suggests that feelings of sadness or grief can particularly damage the lung Qi. Of course such feelings are part of life, but the problem comes when they become the default emotion, so that we almost do not notice that sadness is oppressing our life.
Sadness is like smoking in that it is not so easy to give up. It is not much use flippantly telling someone who is habitually sad to cheer up, just as it is not much use flippantly advising someone to stop smoking. In both cases it may be that a really major change is required, one that will not come about without a great deal of effort and support (although some people can give us smoking easily.)
Something else which affects the lung Qi is posture. If we spend our days hunched over a desk or a laptop, with our chest caved in, the lung Qi will decline. (This may also link with sadness; think how a sad person holds their body.) Again the problem arises when poor posture becomes habitual.
Breathing itself, however, is habitual. Well, it is automatic. But it is worthwhile actually paying attention to how we breath, as is done in some meditation and Chi Kung practices. That way we can start to notice if there is a sense of restriction in our breathing; maybe we are not breathing as freely or as fully as we could be. Exercise, especially things like Chi Kung and T’ai Chi, help to open the chest and free up the breathing. I can’t help thinking that fresh air is important too, although I’m not sure how far you have to travel these days to find it! Singing is also an excellent way to enhance the lung Qi. In fact I would go so far as to say that if someone can’t give up smoking, they should at least take up singing!
So, rather than only focusing on smoking as that which damages the lungs, maybe we should learn to value the lung Qi, the life-giving breath, and teach ourselves to breathe well.