Breathing in Deep...
Breathing methods are often mentioned matter of fact in discussion of different qigong practices with little to no explanation as to their how or why. The two main methods found in qigong breath work are the Buddhist and Taoist styles of breathing although others like Treasure Vase, Tortoise Back Breathing, Fire and Water Breathing and so on also are used for specific exercises. Each of these methods however all rest on a working knowledge of Buddhist and Taoist breath work as their foundation. Buddhist Breathing
Abdominal breathing or Buddhist breathing is normally the first method taught to qigong and meditation practitioners when they begin breath work. In this method the belly is expanded during inhalation as though it was filling with air and contracts during exhalation. Numerous visualization methods are used when teaching this to students like imagining the air filling the lower abdomen. Another common method is to describe the lower abdomen as Dantian, the storehouse for post heaven Qi, and drawing in Qi from outside the body and bringing it down to the sphere of Dantian for it to be stored and ultimately refined there. Physically the same process happens of inhale and expand, exhale and contract no matter what mind intent is used.
Buddhist traditions concern themselves a great deal with looking inward during meditation to calm the mind and delve into oneself. To find the inner quiet many things must physically in place. The posture must remain erect for the bodies weight to be distributed throughout the bony structures of the skeletal system, requirements like the ears above the shoulders, the back straight and the use of a raised cushion to sit upon to get the sitting bones of the body to form a tripod with the knees for stability must all be observed diligently. This causes the body to gain a feeling of weightlessness and allows the conscious mind to no longer worry or need to examine the physical body due to aches, pains and poor posture. This can take months or years for the body to become accustomed to sitting in this way naturally.
Once the body has become comfortable the breathing itself becomes a focus of attention. First looking at the movement of the muscle in the torso to expand and contract the lungs to create a small vacuum that sucks air into the body and squeezes it back out again. Breathing becomes something we at first thought was something different, it is not a “thing” we do but the creation of a “non-thing” that allows air to enter the body. The thought or intention of the breath moving into the lower Dantian or belly area causes a physical movement of expansion during inhalation. This expansion should take place spherically, moving outwards in all directions. The belly moving forward, the back backward and so on. With this the breath we draw in has more room in the lungs as the abdominal muscularity expands and allows the lungs to be filled from their very bottom. While normally a person will breathe only with their chest rising and falling and the lungs only used to approximately sixty percent of their capacity, this extra space from the expanding lower body allows the lungs to be filled. The lower lungs should fill and then the chest rise slightly as the air reaches the upper extremities of the lungs just under and behind the collarbones.
Deep breathing in this way affects the body by allowing for a deeper level of relaxation activating the parasympathetic nervous system which inhibits or slows many high energy functions. This deep activation of the parasympathetic system brings another level of removal from the physical body and effectively helps to remove it from the mind’s eye another step. This brings the practitioners focus deeply inwards on the mind and its movement with clarity so that Buddhist internal work can begin with less distraction from the outside world. In the case of meditative work this means that a person can focus on observing the mind as it races from thought to thought and allow it to relax over time. This leads the meditator towards the state of what is sometimes called “meeting the soul” or true self (Hun 魂) and onwards through the various absorptions towards emptiness in some traditions.
In the case of Buddhist moving qigong practice the correct posture and breath allows for the practitioner to be more fully aware of the goings on within rather than the shape and movement of the physical body. The physical shapes are meant to lead the practitioner to inner movements and feelings and not be a distraction from them.
Reverse breathing, Taoist Breathing, sometimes called Bellows Breathing is the reverse of the Buddhist method regarding the expansion and contraction of the body. During inhalation the belly contracts and during exhalation it returns to its’ normal ‘expanded’ state. From this foundation the method can be expounded upon in more detail as it is a complex thought method that arrives at this form of breath work and it has profound effects and possibly dangers; and to understand fully what Taoist breathing is working to accomplish one must consider the way the body is viewed by the Taoist / Medical approach itself.
Qi can be categorized in many ways and is not a simply ‘catch -all’ term. Qi is a term used to represent a relationship between two things like the qi (relationship) of talking and listening, or the qi of attacker and defender, or teacher and student. The two categories or yin/yang pair of qi’s we must discuss are Yuan Qi and Zhen Qi.
Yuan Qi or Pre-Heaven Qi is what you inherit from your parents. Before you see heaven by being born your Yuan Qi is already determined which includes things like your eye color, height, sex and fundamental vitality. Pre-Heaven Qi is a set thing and cannot be changed in the Post-Heaven (after birth) world. You cannot change the color of your skin or eyes by willing it to be so and, so it is considered unchanging. It is also the determination of any inherited conditions from your genetics like heart disease, an extra toe and so on. People in relatively good health who do not smoke or drink too much and have a child in their 20’s will likely have a child with strong Yuan Qi. Yuan Qi is stored in Ming men 命門 translated as the ‘life gate’ or ‘gate of destiny’ which is commonly placed between the kidneys in qigong traditions. Ming men is like the Emperors vault of treasures overlooked directly by the emperor himself.
Zhen Qi or Post-Heaven Qi is the energy your body uses for fuel after you are born. The intake of food, air and water is taken to the Dantian (stomach and digestive system) and ‘burned’ to release the energy to do work. Post-Heaven Qi is the type of thing a person can control through diet, exercise, breathing clean air, breathing deeply and so on. Zhen Qi is stored in the Dantian 丹田 and with a bit of thought it is easy to understand how ancient people came to an understanding such as this. To quote my gongfu brother Professor Kevin Wallbridge “Ancient people would have realized that when they became hungry they felt bad in their “Dantian” and had no energy. When they would eat something, they felt better and would begin to have energy again.” Without any knowledge of human anatomy, it is easy to see how Dantian became a place that stored the Post-Heaven Qi, and it does. The storage battery of Dantian is refilled and used daily and so is the main source of our day to day activities. Dantian is like the General who oversees the workings of the entire army and distributes resources as they are needed for its functions and maneuvers.
Taoist breathing retreats the Dantian during inhalation upwards and back towards Ming men, this is the action of the contraction of the abdomen and should gently lift the perineum or in the classical language “close Huiyin”, contracting the pelvic floor. This is like the General coming to the Emperor to receive orders directly before carrying them out with his troops. Reassured in his purpose the General can confidently give out orders. The Dantian then is moved directly forward from Ming men towards the front of the body and then settles back to its original and natural place during exhalation causing the relaxation or expansion of the abdomen. Here the General gives out his orders for the troops to carry them out once again, distributing the Post Heaven Qi throughout the body to do its work.
Another important metaphor is that the Dantian is like a flint and Ming men like a steel. As the Dantian is raised and pulled back and upwards to Ming men it contacts the storehouse of the Pre-Heaven and releases a spark. This spark is the Pre-Heaven qi itself which then will be loose in the body and follows the important to understand rule of “yi ling qi” or “The Mind Leads the Qi”. Once again to quote my Gongfu brother Professor Kevin Wallbridge “The mind leading the qi is not the instructions, it is the warning label on the bottle.”
This bit of advice is profound as it takes the idea of leading the qi purposefully further into the understanding that the qi will do and will follow where the mind leads it. If the mind is scattered or concentrating on nonsense the qi will follow. To do qigong well and use the Pre-Heaven during the practice one should be completely familiar and comfortable with the practice before ever working with the Pre-Heaven or leading the qi in general. The intention in each posture or movement or exercise should be clear and understood deeply to avoid creating qigong bing or Qi Sickness.
The spark of Pre-Heaven qi released in the body acts like the Emperor inspecting the troops during work. The troops will always attempt to follow orders but when the Emperor himself attends and inspects their work they are completely on task and get more done more quickly. Using Taoist breathing during a qigong is like bringing the Emperor to inspect the troops each breath, each intention, each phase of the breath or qigong or movement. The settling of the Dantian back down to the belly as one exhales and expands is a release of intention as well and is meant to draw the Pre-Heaven spark back to Ming men at the end of the breath.
Taoist breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system which prepares the body for intense physical activity and is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. Doing it during qigong practice is a more intense experience and brings a great deal of the body and its’ resources to bear to any movement or intention during practice. This intense state is focused more on the interaction with reality and the outside world as would be seen in a fight or flight response. Immediate gathering of information and decision making as to how the practitioner fits into that reality they are experiencing. Taoist qigong practices tend to be based around the idea of studying and observing reality and working to understand and fit in to the same.
It can be said that the Buddhist and Taoist breathing methods therefore are a Yin/Yang pair. One meant to bring the practitioner inwards through relaxation of the nervous system through breath allowing for a deep study of the inner self. The other meant to increase sensitivity to the self and outside world to allow for a deep study of the self and how it fits into reality. Both methods are ways to work towards what is sometimes called ‘enlightenment’ which is another loaded term. We as practitioners must delve into ourselves to see who we are truly are, work to meet and understand our true selves and at the same time look outwards into the world around us. Look at the reality we live in and how it ebbs and flows and how we fit into this reality, ideally as a part of the flow and change rather than working to fight it constantly.
I would venture to state that both methods are equally important for different practices and that the mindful student will by looking at the qigong, meditation or exercise practice they are engaged in be able to determine which is most appropriate. Balance is the key in all things if I can say my decades of practice have taught me anything it is that.
Neil Ripski 2017
I write whole BOOKS of this stuff!