Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
– The Dhammapada
If you cannot breathe correctly you cannot control your mind, so how could you develop even the most rudimentary internal skills if your mind is not subservient to your intentions. The first key is learning to breathe correctly. Breathing is the one thing we all do naturally, however just because we take in air and expel air does not mean we are making use of this powerful energy component for health, longevity, and power.
To have these things we must make correct breathing our natural way. Breathing properly will greatly enhance the health potential of all internal martial art and health practices. There are many forms of breathing practiced in Indian and Daoist yoga, meditation and other disciplines that focus on particular results. The following practice should, in my view, be the first method learned by anyone to help relieve stress and bolster the immune system in meditation practice and during martial arts training.
The Natural Breath – Tian-Bixi (天鼻息)
I am talking about what is known in Daoist Yoga (Daoyin) as natural breathing (Tian-Bixi), Post Natal Breathing, or Diaphragmatic Breathing. Detailed studied worldwide conclude that diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress-induced hypertension it also increases oxygenation to all cells of the body and augments our immune system response. This method does not have to be a part of meditation practice although it can be the very foundation of sound training in Zen or Daoist practices. Tian-Bixi can be practiced as a simple exercise in breathing trained until it becomes the way you naturally breathe twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. Before undertaking any other health or martial skills we should first perfect Tian-Bixi way as our normal breathing pattern.
Medical science has shown a direct correlation between stress and suppression of the immune system. As we experience higher levels of stress our immune system creates fewer antibodies and we become more susceptible to invasions of bacteria and viruses. Proper breathing also helps to increase vascular circulation. Learning to breathe correctly with Tian-Bixi as explained in this article you can obtain many benefits for your health and internal arts practice.
Tian-Bixi aids in supplying an adequate supply of oxygen to the bodies’ cells. This is a major component in longevity and energy production. When there is not enough oxygen to supply the needs of your cells, you begin to feel tired and run-down. This tiredness may eventually lead to irritability or nervous tension. Your thoughts may become clouded and you may begin to suffer from lack of concentration and a loss of memory. This depleted oxygen condition leads to more tension and stress. As our system experiences stress energy is needed to combat it. Sound breathing practices that relax the body and mind are essential to developing energy, longevity and an enhanced immune system.
When practicing meditation, standing practice (Zhan Zhuang) or internal martial arts for health, or just sitting quietly practicing the method. Your primary goal is working to make this breathing method the way your body breaths naturally all the time. To achieve this diligently practice the method every day for at least fifteen to twenty minutes mindfully for a period of no less than 21 days. Also after practice while going about your daily routine breathe this way as often as possible throughout the day. After a month or so of consistent practice, you should notice that you are breathing in this way without having to think about it.
Tian-Bixi is also known as Post-Natal breathing because it is the way an infant breathes when first born. We continue to breathe this way after birth for a few months; however, as stress begins to invade our lives we use the diaphragm muscles less and less and eventually most of us become shallow chest breathers. We can reverse this process and perhaps as Lao Tzu, author of the Daodejing says, “return to the relaxed state of a newborn” if we practice diligently for 21 days.
It is best to begin sitting upright in a chair or on the floor. Later it can be trained during standing exercise. Start by taking a deep breath through the nose. Then slowly exhale all of the air in your lungs out of your mouth. Lean slightly forward and push the last of the air out. This is a cleansing breath to start with your lungs full of fresh air. Sit up and inhale normally.
Now inhale slowly, focus on your body, and feel the air passing through your nostrils. Follow it as it travels down your airways. Imagine the air sinking deeper into the lower abdomen down into the lower belly and filling the area often called the center point or lower field (Dantian). Experience the feeling of the abdominal and low back area expanding due to the upper diaphragm pressing downward. It is important to pay attention to these feelings.
Before you exhale pause for a second then exhale slowly through the mouth and notice your low back and abdomen contracting slightly as the air pours out of your mouth. Do not exhale completely, just enough to feel the emptiness in the lower abdominal area. Before you inhale again pause for a second and notice how the body feels now, what has changed from before when you were filled with air.
Begin again inhaling as before and experience the entire process of inhalation, slight pause, and exhalation followed by a slight pause. Continue in this way for some time concentrating on how it feels to breathe correctly. Be aware of the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the lower abdomen, sides, and back.
Also, notice how the body feels stable while sitting and breathing in this manner. It is important that you do not try to stop your thoughts. If your mind wanders gently bring it back to feeling your breath and the sensations caused by Post-Natal breathing.
Use this for your beginning training in standing meditation or sitting practice for at least 21 to 30 days. You should allow your mind and body time to adapt to the diaphragmatic breathing method replacing your previous breathing manner with Tian-Bixi as a natural habit.
Breathing and Forms Training
Tests show that the best results are obtained when the Internal martial arts student learns to breathe in a chosen manner independent of forms practice and then leaves that breathing to the automatic adjustment made by the brain as the need for oxygen increases and decreases during the exercise. Sports science shows that once the pattern of breathing is established it is best to let the body do it for us and not interfere.” The respiratory center of the brain, which receives chemical, reflex, somatic and cerebral inputs, is a good computer in automatically regularizing the rate, depth, and pattern of respiration under various situations. Artificial regulation during physical exercise is not the best for health.” – (Journal of American Medical Association 246:1967, 1981)
Some instructors recommend matching breathing with internal martial arts forms training. They claim that they are following the Daoist practice. But Daoist philosophy emphasizes inaction or non-interfere (Wuwei). There are however a few exceptions such as when using so-called reverse breathing (Fan Huxi) during the delivery of a powerful strike. For the most part, Taijiquan and other forms of internal practice for health should use the Tian-Bixi as the base and let the body regulate the rate of breathing. This is true natural breathing.