A healthy diet and regular exercise are both key components to a healthy lifestyle. However, the way we breathe is equally important in maintaining our health, perhaps even more so than diet and exercise.
There is no cost for the air around us, and therein lies part of the problem. Because we work hard to earn our food and struggle through pain to exercise, we naturally see eating and working out as having intrinsic value. We see these two activities as the core of our health, two components of a system that work in tandem to keep us in shape and feeling great. Some of us even devote an incredible amount of time and money to optimize the synergy between the two – following specific, and often costly, diets and exercise regimens designed to enhance performance in the gym, in the ring, or on the mat.
But since air is free, we forget about its importance, take it for granted. It is telling that we can live for days without food or water, and many people go years without regular exercise, but we die very quickly without air. Therefore learning to breathe properly and training our breath is something that should be practiced as much as we exercise.
There are many breathing techniques for improving health and cultivating a deeper connection between mind and body. The techniques listed below are Taoist techniques that can be used in meditation, martial arts, or daily life.
Natural Breathing (breathing as we do our everyday life): This type of breathing should pull downward as we inhale into the diaphragm, pushing the stomach out and expanding our lungs. As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, the air leaves the body and the stomach contracts inwards. Breathing should be slow, relaxed, and deep.
Reverse Breathing: Find a comfortable place to sit with your spine in the upright position. Close your eyes and bring your attention to the breath. Inhale deeply, contract the stomach and fill your lungs with air. As you exhale, push you stomach out and release the breath from youbody. Reverse Breathing tends to infuse breathing with power.
Dantien Breathing: This breathing method is based on traditional qigong techniques. The dantien is roughly located in the lower abdomen. When inhaling, allow the lower abdomen area to expand, let it bulge out, making sure that the abdomen and pelvic muscles relax. As you exhale, contract the muscles in the lower abdomen and pelvic areas. Do this in a relaxed and slow way, so rather than concentrating on the areas, just be aware of how they feel and any tension.
Embryonic Breathing: This is part of a meditation process. The practitioner will hold the breath and allow it to circulate around the body. This doesn’t actually mean holding the breath in the western sense, however its more about breathing effortlessly, as infants do. Not using energy to breathe. Rather than using the mind to focus on the breath, which can over emphasise the breathing, you learn to make breathing totally calm and subtle. To do this type of breathing I try to make sure my chest does not move or feel no air moving into my body.
The state of our breath is reflective of our state of mind. If we think about our somatic responses to our emotions, we realize very quickly how much out breath is tied to our emotions. Anger is characterized by rapid breaths with forced inhalations and exhalations. Anxiety is displayed by erratic and fast breathing patterns, generally breathing high from the chest. With such a close relationship between our bodies and our emotions, it makes sense that changing our breathing can have a dramatic effect on our state of mind. With practice and proper training, our breathing can usefully be used to bring us down from a heightened emotional state to a state of calm within seconds. For a martial artist of any other active person, paying proper attention to the breath has major benefits. Its keeps the mind calm and focused in the present moment. Try becoming angry while taking in slow and deep breaths – it is virtually impossible. In confrontational situations, becoming angry wastes an enormous amount of energy. Proper breathing allows one to respond to a threat appropriately rather than reacting anxiously and making the wrong decision.
But the connection between breath and body begins with how we think of the breath and where it originates in the body. We are typically taught to breathe from our chest, as we are supposed to hold a posture characterized by standing puffing our chests out. A good deal of energy is actually used to maintain this structure, and if this position is held for a length of time, it’s easy to notice how much tension and fatigue this creates within our bodies.
Martial arts takes a different approach to breathing. Rather than focusing on breathing from our chests, it trains us to breathe from our abdomen, which is seen as traditional source of power and stability within the body. Any one of the above Taoist breathing techniques can be used during training to keep the body relaxed as well as to generate power for explosive movement. Breathing from the abdomen keeps the center of gravity low for improved balance. Breathing from the abdomen compared to breathing from the chest provides more efficient oxygen delivery to the body, increasing capacity by as much as four times, thus creating more potential for physical action.
When practicing forms, one can begin by breathing from as low in the body as possible, using a combination of natural, dantien, and embryonic breathing. The aim is to let the body feel relaxed and to fill with energy while moving through the forms. For any action that requires energy such as a strike, push, or block, use reverse breathing to generate more power, as this allows the whole body to tense without sacrificing the fullness of breath, ultimately allowing us generate power.
Jeremy Gallion is a writer, martial artist, yoga practitioner,and club member at Wing Chun Brotherhood in NYC. A believer in the benefits of meditation, he has practiced Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques for the past 8 years.
Nicholas Gregory is the instructor for Wing Chun Brotherhood in NYC. Nick completed the Wing Chun system under Leo Au Yeung and has trained in a variety of martial arts, including Muay Thai, Tai Chi,and Brazilian Jiujitsu; he is also professional scuba diver.