THREE ESSENTIALS IN QI GONG PRACTICE
Part 2- Respiration
Master Li Li Qun always emphasised the value of breath and the development of good respiratory habits in the practice of Qi Gong. He was fond of telling me that ‘one in breath, one out breath is Taiji’ and was emphatic that practice without a proper understanding of the role of breath meant that though you may appear outwardly to be doing Qi Qong, internally you were not.
In our ordinary daily lives most of us pay little attention to our breath as long as we do not ‘run out’ of it. When we get short of breath, for instance when we run up the stairs, have a cold or push our body to more extreme physical limits than it is normally accustomed we become acutely aware of its importance most specifically what it feel like to not get enough of it.
Our brain generally looks after respiration by setting a default rythm which allows us to undertake our normal tasks. This is biologically very useful and does not demand anything of our consciousness. However respiration can also be consciously controlled, this is directed from a different part of the brain, and this is very clever and important allowing us to respond better to our environment but crucially for our Qi Gong practice, allowing us to cultivate the ‘skill’ of breathing as well as harness the changing energetic and physiological state that occur as a result of inhaling and exhaling.
When we come to take stock of our respiratory habits and how breathing itself changes the body and internal landscape, which we must do in Qi Gong practice, we quickly realise that our old respiratory habits are not always adequate. Trying to change years of poor habit is a tricky business though and takes time and dedication. So much so that some Qi Gong teachers lay little emphasis on the ‘art’ of breathing and many students often neglect it, preferring to stick with posture alone which is easier in some ways to adjust. However they are intimately connected.
When you start Qi Gong you first build postural awareness and spend much time correcting it. Secondly you learn to ‘relax’ muscles (sung) combined with postural alignment and only later do you endeavour to integrate your breathing. Integration of breath at this stage starts with a simple mental observation late progressing to a focussing on the root sensation of breathing and then the combining of movement with the inhalation and exhalation. It sounds quite simple but it is often neglected in both class and personal practice since it is a subtle practice.
The acquired skills of ‘relaxation’ and ‘postural alignment’ allows the controlling muscles of respiration, the abdominals, the intercostals as well as the diaphragm the chance to achieve a full range of movement. In this way comfort and efficiency in breathing can be achieved which allows a more refined perception of breath and breathing which in turn permits a deeper level of relaxation, postural adjustment and consequent respiratory efficiency. It is both surprising how hard it is to adjust long held and detrimental respiratory habits and how much control and subtle adjustment can be achieved when you have achieved that first hurdle.
Typically most people who start Qi Gong with me have a ‘constricted thoracic’ respiratory habit. There are many reasons for this but the outcome is nearly always reduced efficiency in respiration. The consequence of this is often a stress response which if habitual can be very damaging. Poor posture and functional inefficiency, emotional stress, physical and mental trauma, hard physical work, no physical work, or just the daily stress all are contributing causes to poor respiratory habits. Poor respiratory habits, that is inefficient and constricted breathing impacts detrimentally upon us both physiologically and mentally. By studying our breathing we can refine our respiratory habits to have a very beneficial impact upon our health and our ability to cope with stress. The formula of ‘good posture, relaxation, good breath’
Is the very least we should aim for in our attempt to manage our health and wellbeing.
In Qi Gong, our default breathing habit should be abdominal breath and this is the first respiratory skill you will need to acquire to replace old habits.( it’s not the only one though)
It is the antithesis of Thorasic breathing and induces a calm and emotionally balanced state. Much effort and a keen self awareness is necessary and most importantly an unhurried and gently approach. Basically the skill is already there buried under habitual tensions and postural stress. Recovering it in daily life is hard since reverting to old habits is easier than constantly reminding yourself to adjust and we meet the triggers daily that revert us. Old and bad habits often feel strangely more comfortable until we break the cycle.
Getting to this level in our Qi Gong practice allows us to harness the sensations and effects of breath and of breathing. In the process of integrating movement and intention, breath is the fulcrum. In the process of cleansing, balancing and nourishing our inner landscape breath is the essential energy and breathing the ‘ vital movement’ that sets everything in motion. The act of breathing allows us to penetrate deeply the sensations of our living state that is the Qi Gong experience.
What we now call Qi Gong had many names before, one of which was ‘Tu Na’ meaning to breath in and out. This is the essence of Qi Gong and must never be neglected in your practice and most importantly in your daily life.