The Chinese character for breath is the same as the character delegated to chi. We are breathing chi when we breathe air. When we inhale, we “take in the spirit” or so they say. The focus of a number of multi-centennial old practices is on breathing. Breathing is how we maintain life minute by minute. It goes on without meaningful pause or stoppage from the moment we are born until the time we take our last breath. Breathing, in many qigong activities is consciously performed and done in a certain manner.
The basic method utilized in a lot of initial qigong exercises is simple natural breathing. However, in our current modern way of living, most of us have chosen inverse or truncated techniques of inspiration. Proper body mechanics should be used in all qigong exercises in order to progress correctly. Many qigong techniques espouse natural body movement. Before we move on to higher level breathing techniques, we need to begin with the firm foundation of natural anatomic breathing.
Anatomic breathing is mostly about the breathing through the diaphragm and the lungs and to a lesser degree, some neck and rib muscles. Your diaphragm is a flat and thin muscle that divides your lungs and heart from the rest of your organs. It’s connected to the rib cage’s lower portion and the front of your spine. Your diaphragm is short when flexed and long when relaxed, just like all muscles. It’s shaped like an umbrella when it’s relaxed. When the diaphragm is flexed, it flattens. More often than not, the muscles in our body are connected to joints. The bone attached to the joint moves and the joint itself bends when the muscle is flexed. Within the body cavity is the diaphragm which is not connected to any joints, so other than the joints, something has to move when the diaphragm flexes.
Keep in mind the shape of the diaphragm (shaped like an umbrella) when it’s relaxed. The heart and lungs are above the umbrella and the others are under it. In regard to the lungs, they are also connected to the diaphragm. The shortening (flexing) of the diaphragm causes the bottom of the lungs to go down and the diaphragm to flatten. When bottoms of the lungs are pulled downward, it creates a low-pressure area in the lungs and the urge move in from the outside is quite strong where air pressure is high. It’s important to have a basic knowledge of the mechanics of breathing since some of us may need to make adjustments to our style of breathing in the midst of training.
Just as relevant to your qigong practice is what transpires under the diaphragm. You’re probably sitting if you’re reading this article. And when you’re sitting, you are sitting on your pelvis which is more or less shaped like a bowl. Your pelvis naturally has a hole in the bottom for excretion functions; otherwise, it won’t permit any movement in relation to it. On top of your pelvis are your abdomen, intestines, liver and spleen and other major organs. Your diaphragm is above these organs. It flattens when it is flexed and is shaped like an umbrella as mentioned before. The pelvis is on the bottom, the diaphragm on top, and the spine, on the back.
When the lungs are pulled down when the diaphragm flexes, the organs under it ought to move down as well. With the pelvis below and the spine in the back, the only way for the organs to move is towards the exterior. Simply put, the stomach goes out when we inhale appropriately. The stomach flattens and moves back when we exhale. All this occurs solely from the force of our diaphragm. No stomach muscles are involved. The stomach moves out when we breathe in. We breathe 2400 times in a single day. This means that besides the obvert benefits of inhaling oxygen, your cells and vital organs all receive a small massaging effect 2400 times, 24/7, for the rest of your life.
This natural mode of respiration can get confusing for a number of reasons and your vigor and vitality might suffer when it does. Pause for a moment and observe if you’re breathing correctly, which means breathing in, stomach out. If not, keep on practicing till you get it right and until it becomes second nature to you and happens even when you’re not consciously aware that you’re doing it. If you already naturally breathe this way, you can refine it even more by performing slower and bigger breaths. This is the correct anatomical basis for fundamental qigong breathing.
Next to be discussed will be certain basic “energetics” of qigong breathing.
There’s a Chinese saying that goes, “Yo qi yo yi,” which means, “the chi goes where the mind goes”. This will be a vital matter later on in practice. At the moment, it’s enough to state that the chi is directed by the mind. There are an endless gamut of methods and techniques to put this into action. Let’s discuss some of the basics as they refer to the practice of qigong.
Even though it’s considered gas, air still contains substance. Keep in mind that air and chi share the same Chinese characters. Through the nose air is inhaled into the body then goes into the lungs where it is converted. Oxygen is taken out where it can be utilized for other bodily functions and the “impure” or “used” air is discharged in the form of carbon dioxide. While chi has no substance, it does have ertain functions. It undergoes the same process as air. Chi is eaten or inhaled into the body where it is converted into something useful. The negative or impure chi is also discarded. Unlike air, chi does not contain any substance and is not limited to where and how it enters the body.
As your lower stomach holds chi, so does your lungs hold air. This region in your lower stomach is known as the Elixir Field or in Chinese, the “Dan Tien”. One qigong breathing technique is to visualize that with each inhale, chi enters through the top of your head then goes down to your lower stomach where it’s stored for further conversion and utilization. With each exhale, any unclean chi is breathed out through your nose or mouth. This technique is acceptable throughout the entire session or at the start of a practice session.
One other effective breathing technique is to visualize breathing through each pore of your skin. Visualize that your pores open when the breath starts to enter as you inhale, and that air moves through your pores and enter your body. The opposite occurs when you breathe out. Your breath moves out of the pores of your body. With this technique, you can immediately sense the feeling on your skin that this technique is actually working or you may opt to imagine the air moving outward and inward your body through the skin.
Both techniques are generally applicable to the practice of qigong which do not in any other way, specify a certain kind of breathing. They also can be used alongside the natural breathing technique that was mentioned earlier in this article.