Developmental Breathing Exercises: A Breath of Fresh Energy

There are only two ways to make more Qi (pronounced, “chee”) or life force energy in the body: by breathing and eating. There is so much confusion with this simple concept that even students who are training for a few years still sometimes get confused.

Exercise doesn’t make energy, it spends energy. Qi Gong, which is more refined and meditative, will likely spend less than more physical cardiovascular types of activities, but it is still a form of exercise (therefore it spends energy). The energizing effect one feels is from the circulation produced by exercise. It is not new energy. It is utilizing what is available from food and air.

Which is more important? Well, people have gone weeks, even over a month, without food. Just try to go more than four or five minutes without air!

If there is a deficit, and we are spending more energy than we are taking in, then there is a third, less desirable source of energy known as our Essence, Original Qi, or Jing.

I will save the subject of Jing for a future article, as my focus here is to teach our fundamental and developmental breathing exercises as taught through the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association.

Our lungs are divided into five sections, or lobes, three on the right and two on the left. Although we should use all of this, most people use only the top two lobes of their lungs and have a very shallow breathing pattern.

X-rays of older people have been known to show great amounts of atrophy in the lower portions of the lungs due simply to non-use. Use it or lose it is a literal term for the body.

If any joint or muscle in your body is neglected, the brain will stop sending energy there and it will shrink, stiffen up, and atrophy. Your body figures it isn’t needed and so sends its energy elsewhere. It is quite good at conserving energy.

The inner surface of the lungs is filled with millions of finger-like sacs called alveoli where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. Here is where oxygen (and other components of Qi) enters the bloodstream through inhalation and carbon dioxide and other waste materials leave the body through exhalation.

Picture your open hand with the fingers spread compared to if your fingers were kept together. The difference in surface area exposed to this oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange is dramatic. The surface area inside the lungs is no different: if you don’t breathe to open up and reach throughout the surface of all five lobes, it will become less and less available for use as time goes on.

With over 400 million alveoli within this surface area, doesn’t it make sense to want to use as much as possible? Do you think there may be a reason for having so many?

The five lobes of the lungs can be compared to bowls filled with food. If you had to feed a hungry group of people it would be much easier and efficient with five bowls rather than just two. You could reach up to 2 1/2 times the number of people at a time. Thing is, most people only use the top two lobes of their lungs for respiration. Not very efficient.

Getting Started
During breathing and/or meditation practice, you can choose from a few comfortable positions, based on your preference and experience.

Standing is doable, while placing both hands over the lower Dan Tian (just below the navel), but not optimal because there is effort involved in standing. It is not as relaxed as sitting.

Lying down is doable, also with the hands on the lower Dan Tian or placed over the heart (if you want to bring energy there), however the lungs aren’t able to expand towards the back due to the pressure there. Also, most people will fall asleep in this position.

Various sitting postures are best as you can be very comfortable, upright, and not fall asleep. Use of a proper cushion for your body is essential for comfort and to allow circulation into the legs. As a martial artist, the legs are considered that much more and so you do not want to constrict the circulation there. A kneeling posture or some form of crossed-leg posture will work well with the right size cushion for your body.

Probably the most common position used in our style and also usually most comfortable for Americans is in a chair or bench that allows you to sit with your legs at approximately a 90 degree angle.

With the chair or bench, sit toward the front third, away from leaning back. Place both feet flat on the floor, directly below your knees, and comfortably apart about shoulder width. The back is straight with the head gently lifted and the nose directly over the navel. The spine is straight but not stiff and the hands rest comfortably with palms down on the knees.

About the Exercises
The following three breathing exercises are generally taught to all beginners of Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang and are essential to increase the vital capacity and breath control for more advanced levels of training. It is imperative to remain relaxed and comfortable through these exercises. Nothing is forced and if any discomfort or dizziness occurs back off, go back to normal breathing, and then try again. If it continues, try again either later in the day or wait until the next day. It just might not be a good time.

The best time to practice breathing exercises is a half hour before sunrise until about 9am or so. The air is cleanest and most full of oxygen at this time and the energy is considered most balanced through the transition of night to day (yin changing to yang). Sunset is also a good time as it too is a balanced “day changing to night” occurrence (yang changing to yin).

Generally, avoid the extremes of midday or midnight. Midday, especially in the summer months, is too yang, or hot in temperature, and active (making it more difficult to relax and focus). Midnight is too yin, or colder, and can have negative results on health. These extremes make it more difficult to relax and actually can cause more tension in the body, right down to the organs.

Do these exercise at least once per day, preferably in the morning but any convenient time is always better than not at all. If you can get in three times per day, then some time around midday is a good time to take a break from your day to recharge. As discussed, this is not an optimal time, but is okay for extra practice and to recharge when necessary.

The Cleansing Breath:
Imagine a balloon filled with water but an air bubble remains. The water represents “good Qi”, “good energy”, or simply what you want. The air bubble represents the bad chemicals in the air, pollution, or simply what you don’t want.

If you try to force the air bubble out quickly, it will likely get all mixed up with the water and both water and air will come out of the opening. However, if you allow the water to settle, and the air bubble to rise to the top, then you could easily let the air out without losing any water. You would get rid of what you don’t want and keep what you do. It is helpful to visualize something like this during the Cleansing Breath.

Inhale through the nose, and allow your lungs to fill comfortably. It is natural for your body to move with this deep breathing. The chest, the back, even the top, bottom, and sides of the thoracic (chest) cavity will feel the expansion. Then smoothly exhale through the mouth, through a small part in the lips. The exhale is generally at least 50% longer than the inhale. If the inhale is 2 seconds, the exhale is about 3 seconds. If the inhale is 4 seconds, the exhale is about 6 seconds. This is a general guideline and comfort is always first. Nothing forced. The exhale should be as slow as is comfortable.

Repeat 15x. (Note: You would want to do more of this exercise if you are exposed to excessive pollution or chemicals in the air based on your regular environment-i.e. metro areas and work related chemicals, etc.)

The Filling Breath:
Imagine you are preparing for a party, and you open a brand new package of balloons. When you first attempt to blow up the balloon, you will notice a certain amount of resistance against your breath. However, if you were to fill it to capacity, let the air out, and then proceeded to blow it up again, you would notice that it is now much easier to fill that same balloon. The balloon has been stretched and is now more accommodating.

This visualization is useful for the Filling Breath. If you routinely practice deep and full breathing, your lungs will get used to this and using all five lobes will become the norm. In effect, you will increase your vital capacity and your efficiency of respiration. You will have more energy available.

This exercise is done as follows: Inhale through the nose and focus on filling all the space available in your lung. Imagine every little nook and cranny being reached by this breath. Your whole torso will feel as though it is full with this breath. Feel the front, back, top, bottom, and sides opening up. But do not force. It should be a comfortable stretch. It is not that different than the Cleansing Breath except that your focus is more on the stretching than it was on the cleaning out, and you exhale through the nose here, not the mouth.

The same ratios apply: the exhale is about 50% longer than the inhale. Repeat 10-15x.

The Prescription Breath:
The Prescription Breath is as it is named: by prescription. Just as it’s been said, “One person’s medicine is another person’s poison,” so it is with certain breathing exercises.

A student’s Prescription Breath should change over time with practice. As the student develops, the breathing exercise should be changed. This is similar to further challenging a muscle with heavier weights. Always using the same weight will become too easy for the muscles and they will no longer respond. Higher levels of breath control and development is determined by making the right changes to breathing exercises once the student is ready.

The main reason for so much precaution is the issue of “forcing”, or when a student who is not experienced enough to know when they are doing harm before it is too late. Always allow for natural development, which takes time, as opposed to being in a hurry for results and hurting yourself in the process. If you pull on a sapling to rush it into becoming a tree, you will kill it.

In Korea, one student of my teacher, Master Park, experienced dizziness and double vision for at least ten years after taking it upon himself to practice an exercise he overheard being taught to another student and then was specifically told not to practice it.

The most common breathing exercise taught as the third breathing exercise to most healthy students of Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang is the Holding Breath.

A person with high blood pressure, or even a person who angers easily and is under a lot of stress (ready to “blow their top” so to speak) does not want to hold their breath and create more pressure. This could be counterproductive. A person with these challenges needs to be very careful with breathing exercises. There should be no break or holding of the breath until a more relaxed state of mind and body can be achieved through simpler breathing exercises and meditation. Only an experienced teacher should be your guide for prescription breathing.

That said, the Holding Breath is very similar to the Filling Breath. Think of it as an extension of it. The only difference is after the inhale, you hold for a few seconds before slowly exhaling. How long you hold is determined by how comfortable it is. If the exhale is not slow and easily controlled, you are holding too long.

The Sequence
It is not always easy to just sit down and start practicing breathing exercises or meditation. You come in from a stressful experience at home or at work and then you expect to be able to just sit and turn it off. Maybe if you practice regularly you can get there much easier, however, it is really never easy.

If you plan to get serious with breathing and meditation, ideally, you would at least go through your 13 Exercises warm-up, and some Dou Zhang (basic palm exercise) to get the blood moving and loosen up the body which would help change your state of mind. You might even go through a whole physical practice first. Then, you would settle down and transition into your breathing exercises. (Settling down after a more physical practice can be done with some easy Qi Gong such as Fan Zhang).

Once settled, take your preferred posture (based on comfort and environment) and begin with the Cleansing Breath (about 15x or more), followed by the Filling Breath (10-15x), and then go to your personal Prescription Breath (15x or more). The Cleansing Breath and Filling Breath are also designed as a “warm-up” for your Prescription Breath practice, as this is the one designed for your personal development.

The breathing exercises will help to relax your mind further so after you complete these exercises is a good time to meditate.

Breathing makes more energy and meditation further calms the mind and stores (or saves) the energy so now is a good time to do more Qi Gong to circulate that energy.

This sequence is ideal and does require a longer block of time to complete. Doing what you can consistently is what gets results.

Originally published April, 2004 under the title “A Breath of Fresh Energy”

Author:

Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.