Posted by Paul Cavel on 9 January 2018
In previous posts, I covered exercises for creating space in body, mind and qi to increase relaxation and release deeply bound tension. Now we’ll explore foundational breathing techniques to lull the nerves into a state of letting go and gently massage the internal organs to increase practice and health benefits. In later posts, we’ll discuss how to incorporate these breathing techniques in (nei gong) movement practices, such as qi gong. Breathing exercises cover a multitude of techniques, but what we aim to achieve here are the absolute requirements to allow your breathing to become full and profound.
While breathing is a powerful tool to foster health and wellbeing, you must take care not to induce strain and maintain a sense of softness. Breathing is directly connected to the nerves, the conduit through which the brain and body communicate. Therefore, breathing should be smooth and regular to allow the nerves to let go and thereby release restricted soft tissues.
Exercise 1: Breathe into Your Belly
In the Water method, the physical motion of the inhale-exhale cycle bypasses the chest to activate the belly, creating a gentle yet firm massage for the internal organs. Organ mobility is vital to health and wellbeing, allowing them to function properly and, equally important from the perspective of Chinese medicine, to release tension and stagnant energy.
So to begin, sit comfortably with a sense of your spine rising; you can rest your back against a chair, but do your best not to slouch or collapse. [Watch a video on sitting alignments >>]
Place one hand on your chest (above the diaphragm) and the other hand on your belly (below the diaphragm and above the naval). Take a few breaths and just observe your breathing pattern.
After a few minutes, as you inhale, slowly encourage the internal pressure from the lungs filling with air to bypass your chest by descending into your belly. When done correctly, the upper hand remains still in space while the lower hand moves as your belly swells. Often times students apply too much force when trying to follow this instruction, but that only strains their systems and diminishes their ability to relax and open. So resist any urge to practice perfectly and spend some time gently making the shift.
Important: As the lungs expand downwards, DO NOT push down below the naval. Instead, allow the belly to expand horizontally. This prevents the pressure from reaching the floor of your pelvis and sexual organs, which can be detrimental to your health.
Most Westerners breathe high into their chest due to conditioning and as a result of building tension in their diaphragm and organs over their lifetime. If you carry a lot of tension, you must work especially carefully and the development of true belly breathing cannot be rushed. Just maintain a gentle focus on relaxing and allowing yourself to let go as you breathe.
Exercise 2: Breathe to Let Go
To learn more about your breathing pattern, rest your hands in your lap, and:
- With each in-breath, fill up your lungs and belly with air to your maximum, comfortable range while maintaining a smooth, even inhale.
- On each following out-breath, release the air in your lungs and let your body return to a neutral position, consciously and fully letting go of all the muscles in and around your belly. The exhale should also be slow, smooth and even.
- When your belly completely relaxes, take the next inhale.
Once you are tuned into this aspect, move on to Exercise 3.
Exercise 3: Circular Breathing
This exercise is all about continuous changeovers from inhale-to-exhale and exhale-to-inhale to induce circular breathing — that is, without any stops or starts.
As you come to the end of your next in-breath, do not allow your out-breath to begin too rapidly or hold your breath in any way. In this way, the changeover becomes like a wave receding back into the water. The wave doesn’t bounce back like a ball thrown against a wall nor hang out at the highest point before fading into the sea. Instead, like a pendulum descends after its upward climb, the inhale naturally and smoothly flows into the exhale.
Once you feel you can manage a smooth, circular changeover from the in-breath to out-breath, apply the same principle to the changeover from out-breath to in-breath. Take a break if you feel flustered in any way or if you notice tension building in any part of your body.
When you have a handle on all three aspects, move on to Exercise 4.
Unify All Parts into One Whole
The aim of this exercise is to combine the three previous exercises into a single breathing practice, to seamlessly unify all parts into one whole. In the beginning you will probably find that you have to muster a lot of concentration, but don’t let that concentration turn to stress … just relax!
If you struggle with any aspect of the practice, go back and focus on that part solo for awhile. Once you feel more at ease, then reintegrate it back into the whole. If you find you cannot combine the components without inducing tension, then train them independently for a few weeks before attempting to combine them into one practice again. It’s much better to be honest with yourself and go slowly in the beginning than to rush ahead and leave holes in your skill set.
When these three aspects unify into one internal arts fabric, deep relaxation, an alert mind and more energy are always just a few breaths away!
2018 Breathing and Qi Gong
In London this year, I’ll teach a six course series on Taoist Breathing and Five Element Qi Gong (starting Saturday, 10 February 2018) that will help you train your breathing for deep relaxation in body, mind and qi. Learn more >>
For those of you who can’t make it to a live course with me, I also offer guided breathing and meditation sessions via Skype. Learn more >>