Whether you’re taking a Hatha yoga class or sweatin’ to the oldies in front of your television, trainers from both East and West will remind you to breathe! How is it that in the throes of an intense work out, we forget to focus on something as fundamentally important as breathing? Breathing properly during a workout will not only give you strength to complete the exercises, but more than that, breathing deliberately helps focus your mind and will power, allowing you to achieve feats your body didn’t even know it could do.
Qigong is one such deliberate breathing method. This ancient Chinese practice literally means “Life Energy Cultivation,” and instructs practitioners to align breath, movement and mental awareness. This Taoist tradition seeks to create a circular breath that rises first from deep inside the belly. These breathing exercises may be performed while sitting, or in conjunction with Qigong exercises, but, like other forms of exercise, the Qigong physical movements mean nothing without proper breathing strategy to harness the power of the practitioner’s mind, and bring it in line with the goals of the body.
So what does it mean to “breathe from your belly”? Without realizing it, most of us breathe from our chests, but we’re only getting a small percentage of our total lung capacity as long as breathe so shallowly. Try it for yourself and experience the difference. First find a comfortable sitting or standing position – just make sure your shoulders are not rounded so that you can maintain relaxed but proper posture. Then, place your tongue comfortably behind the tops of the front teeth and gums. (Correct tongue position is believed to connect your “Internal Energy Switch” – imagine you are turning on a light switch!) Finally, breathe in through your nose, feeling the air move through your nasal passages, down your throat, into your lungs and filling your belly.
The technical term for what is happening when you breathe from your belly is “diaphragmatic breathing,” meaning the muscle underneath your lungs and across your chest cavity called the diaphragm is contracting and expanding to involve your whole torso in the act of breathing. As you breathe in, imagine and feel your diaphragm moving downward to make room for as much air as possible, and notice it contract gradually as you breathe out.
Don’t just stop with filling your lungs and belly – visualize your breaths filling all sides and corners of your torso – even in your kidneys and lower back. Patrick Dougherty, American-trained psychologist, notes that visualization and imagery are key to effective Qigong breathing – if you can VISUALIZE the deep breaths filling you, then you begin to feel it as it happens. Visualization is also key to involving the mind more intimately in the process of breathing, and when accompanied by physical movements, exercises.
As Dr. Dougherty concludes, “Eastern traditions have taught us the importance of the mind-body connection for optimal health. Deep relaxed breathing is the simplest and most direct method of connecting mind and body.” Don’t be the last Westerner to discover the benefits of something as simple as better breathing – you’ll be delighted at the immediacy and efficacy of the results!
Understanding Qigong DVD 3: Embryonic Breathing
Here’s a video instruction by a Qigong instructor.