I have written about the word sink in the context of sinking the qi. In this sense of the word sink, it means to relax the hips and waist, lower the pelvis bones, and allow your body to settle. Let your shoulders relax away from your neck. Allow your skeleton to support your body. Use your intention to lower your elbows.
A big part of sinking is developing song (relax/loosen) and jing (mental quietness) in your practice. Following the principle of song means to relax your body, without going limp, and loosening up the muscles, tendons, and joints. Jing means to focus your mind on your forms and avoid distractions. Proper breathing helps with both of these principles.
Last week I wrote about when to inhale and when to exhale and how that relates to storing and delivering energy. This week, I am going to focus on breathing techniques that help you focus your mind and improve your flow of qi.
Abdominal breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, helps you to sense qi. As you exhale, you should try to sense a warm, tingly, or heavy feeling in your dan tien. Don’t worry if you don’t feel this at first. That’s normal. Continue practicing to develop your ability to sense your qi.
For abdominal breathing, take several long slow deep breaths. Allow your mind to relax so you can begin to focus on your mind-body connection. Concentrate on the abdomen area below the diaphragm. When you exhale, gently contract the muscles in your pelvis and lower abdomen. Keep the chest relatively still. When you inhale, expand your abdomen. Again, keep your chest relatively still. In other words, exhale by contracting your abdomen. Inhale by expanding your abdomen.
This type of breathing uses your diaphragm to expand your lungs. As we get older, we tend to breathe shallower. This change is primarily due to sitting and hunching over. This exercise greatly expands your lung capacity and counteracts the bad influence of hunching over. This is very relaxing and improves your qi.
Continue to practice abdominal breathing during meditation or while practicing tai chi. Keep your attention on your lower abdomen in the area around your dan tien. With enough practice, it will become natural and comfortable.
Dan Tien Breathing
To learn how to breathe with this method, place one hand over your upper abdomen, above your belly button. Place your other hand over your lower abdomen, below your belly button. During both inhales and exhales, try to keep your top hand from moving.
When you exhale, gently contract your lower abdomen as if the air is leaving the balloon. Gently contract the pelvic floor muscles at the bai hui point along your perineum.
When you inhale, imagine that the air fills your lungs, bypasses your upper abdomen, and fills your lower abdomen and gently expands it like a balloon. Gently relax the pelvic floor muscles at the yin hui point in the perineum. You probably will not be able to breathe as deeply as you could during regular abdominal breathing.
This technique adds an additional focus on your perineum, the area between your anus and your genitals. Use your yi, or focused attention, to gently contract the muscles of the pelvic floor located at the midpoint of the perineum. Visualize that you are contracting those muscles toward your belly button as you inhale. Allow those muscles to relax as you exhale. If you get tired, just relax and go back to breathing naturally.
When you are comfortable with dan tien breathing, remove your hands and stand in dan tien. In addition, the Dan Tien Breathing method can be practiced while doing the Open and Close Hands form of Sun style tai chi. Dr. Paul Lam describes it like this (dan tien breathing):
“The dan tien breathing method is especially effective for relaxation and for healing. Whenever you feel stressed or nervous, take a gentle breath. Start doing open and close. Breathe in and out and you most likely will find your mind clears up and the stress eases off.”
Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming talked about this in his book TheRoot of Chinese Qigong: Secrets of Health, Longevity, & Enlightenment. He described it like this:
“... abdominal breathing is an important part of Buddhist Qigong training and so it is often called "Buddhist Breathing". To practice it, you must first use your Yi to control the muscles in your abdomen. When you inhale, intentionally expand your abdomen, and when you exhale, let it contract. In addition, when you inhale, you should gently push out your Huiyin (Co-1) cavity or anus, and when you exhale, hold it up. “
This type of breathing helps clear your mind (develop jing) and helps loosen and relax your body (song). It takes lots of practice. There are also other benefits to this type of breathing. According to Dr. Lam, the muscles closest to the spine work different than other muscles in terms of function and neuromuscular properties. Their function is to protect and strengthen the spine. In Western medicine and anatomy, these muscles are called the deep stabilizers. A way to strengthen these muscles is to use this type of breathing, as well as proper posture and alignment.
Traditional writings in tai chi refer to “pulling up the anus” or “contracting the anus”. I have never understood that idea very well. I think that this means the same as what I have been calling Buddhist Breathing. However, note that this does not mean contract the buttocks. These muscles need to be relaxed when not needed, just like all other muscles.
© 2011 Eric Borreson