By Jane Barthelemy.
This article explains three basic ways of breathing for Qigong practitioners:
- Chest Breathing,
- Buddhist Breathing,
- Daoist Reverse Breathing.
Breathing is a timeless internal practice.
In ancient Daoism and Yoga, the masters developed highly refined breathing techniques in very precise ways, such as Pranayama. They considered conscious breath control to be a type of meditation, an internal alchemy leading to strength and balance. Their practices went far beyond relaxing the body and reducing stress. Ancient breathing was considered a portal through which a practitioner could achieve higher awareness, and discover the mysterious meeting point between life and the material world. In other words, the breath was seen as the link between life force (Qi or Prana) and physical existence. This is what makes the body a sacred temple, very different from an inanimate object like a table.
When you can control your breath, you are the master of your Qi or life force. You can use the breath to dissolve impurities in the body and the mind. You can awaken the spirit. You can heal many otherwise incurable diseases. This is the power of the breath.
The breath is in constant and intimate connection with the organs and body functions: the lungs, heart, digestion, elimination, liver, kidneys, and nervous system. It regulates the deepest energy exchange systems in the body that transform food into thoughts, oxygen into expression and movement. When the breath is under control, your nervous system can no longer be manipulated by outside forces. You’re simply immune to mind control and the swaying winds of changeable society.
“Breathing control gives man strength, vitality, inspiration and magical powers.” Zhuang Zhou 369—298 B.C.E.
Breathing is your link to the divine. By controlling the act of breathing you can most efficiently control all the systems in the body, including your emotions, instead of being controlled by them. This is within your reach with slow and regular practice.
Ancient practices show a direct correlation between one’s level of health and the body’s oxygen level or O2 uptake. Even clearer is a direct correlation between your level of health and your ability to take long deep breaths and retain them. The purpose of this article is simply to outline the three basic breathing types. The specific breathing practices to count, hold, and move Qi and Prana through the body for specific purposes are not discussed here.
What is Breathing?
Inhalation: When you breathe in or inhale, your diaphragm contracts (tightens) and moves downward. This increases the space in your chest cavity, into which your lungs can expand. The intercostal muscles between the ribs also open to allow the chest to enlarge.
As your lungs expand, air is drawn in through your nose or mouth. The air travels down your bronchial tube and into your lungs, filling the alveoli (air sacs). Through the very thin walls of the alveoli, oxygen from the air enters the capillaries. At the same time, carbon dioxide passes out of the capillaries into the alveoli air sacs.
When the air expands and fills the body, displacement happens. This means the body can move and expand in various ways to make room for the air in the lungs. Displacement can cause expansion in the chest, in the ribs in every lateral direction, in the back, and the entire abdomen can enlarge.
Exhalation: When you breathe out or exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, making the lungs and chest cavity smaller. Any displacement in the back and abdomen can return to normal. Exhaling requires only relaxing. It is not effortful.
What are the Three Types of Breathing?
Everyday Breathing is often called “Chest Breathing”. This is the most common type of breathing. When you inhale, the upper chest expands. When you exhale, this movement is reversed. Everyday breathing is generally short and shallow. It uses a small fraction of your whole breathing capacity. The oxygen it gives you may be enough for normal everyday living, however the oxygen it absorbs is often suboptimal. Everyday chest breathing will sustain life. But it will not build higher awareness, or cultivate a deep level of health. As we age, the diaphragm often becomes lazy and disconnected, so that we take in far less oxygen than we truly need. Deep breathing practices and aerobic exercise can tone the lungs and diaphragm to avoid this problem.
Yogic or Buddhist Breathing
This is often called “Abdominal breathing”, “Diaphragmatic Breathing”, or “Belly Breathing”.
Yogic breathing uses your entire mechanism. It will create a relaxed feeling in your body, quiet your mind, and oxygenate your blood. Go ahead and try it now.
- Start by relaxing your body. Especially the face, neck, jaw and shoulders. Use the Daoist Inner Smile practice.
- Rest the tip of your tongue on your upper palate just behind the upper front teeth. This connects the Du Mai and Ren Mai meridians for healthy energy flow.
- Sit with straight spine, eyes closed, and explore your breath with an attitude of patience and curiosity. Yes, stay focused on the practice, but without over-focusing or tensing your body or mind. Take your time.
- Observe your breath. Just notice the natural rhythm of your inhalations and exhalations, without changing anything. Follow the breath in this way for twelve inhales, and twelve exhales.
- Now, place one hand on the front of your chest, and another hand on your lower abdomen, known as the lower dantien. On the inhale, allow your chest and ribs to expand laterally all the way around gently. And allow your abdomen to relax and expand outward into your hand. Keep it gentle without forcing. This should be very relaxing. You will notice that your body begins to receive greater oxygen, and a sense of wellbeing comes into you. Do not push yourself or allow tension to creep in. Relax Huiyin, the perineum. Breathe this way for nine inhales and nine exhales.
Daoist Reverse Breathing
This is an advanced and specific breathing practice developed by ancient Daoist masters. The purpose is to intensify the meridian energy flow in the body, and to increase the purification of the body and mind during meditation. I find a huge difference in the quality and depth of my meditation and movement practice when I use this method. Daoist breathing is gentle, however it adds intensity. Daoist Reverse Breathing should not be practiced until Buddhist Breathing is relaxed and comfortable in your body. When you’re ready, try it.
Follow the first 3 steps of Yogic Breathing above (relaxing, tip of tongue, straight spine)
To practice “Daoist Reverse Breathing” place both hands on your lower dantien, with the left hand on your body and the right hand covering it. This hand position helps you feel your lower abdomen move. On the inhale, allow your chest and ribs to expand all the way around gently (like Yogic Breathing). At the same time as you inhale, gently contract your lower dantien (lower abdomen) to draw the lowest portion, the part below the navel, gently inward and back toward your spine, away from your hands. This is the “reverse” of Yogic breathing. Like a gentle scooping, inward and upward along the front of your sacrum and spine, draw that lowest portion of your belly inward. Then on the exhale, relax and allow your abdomen to naturally expand outward, back to its starting position. Keep Huiyin relaxed and do not allow any tension to creep into the perineum as you contract the dantien. Once again as you Inhale, expand the chest normally and fully while you draw the lowest belly inward. On the Exhale, relax. Repeat for nine inhales, and nine exhales.
The gentle scooping up the inside of the spine is a subtle invitation to allow the energy to move up your spine along the Du Mai Channel. This scooping movement also matches the shape of a Yin Yang symbol turning in your body. Visualize the Yin Yang symbol on its side turning up your spine with each breath.
Daoist Reverse Breathing takes a bit of practice.
Try it in your daily meditation. When it is truly comfortable in your body, you can begin to incorporate it into your Neidan Inner Alchemy practice, your meditation, Qigong and Taichi. In Qigong and Taichi movements, in general when the hand or body moves backward or inward, we inhale. When the hand or body moves forward or outward we exhale. Use this as a guide in your practice.
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The Science of Pranayama
What is Pranayama?
Abdominal Breathing, Reverse Breathing, Gate Breathing