Two things are essential for health and well-being in Traditional Chinese Medicine: a strong body and strong Qi, which is why Qigong is such an invaluable tool. Qigong not only builds physical strength and flexibility, it also tonifies the organs and their energetic pathways by building up Qi to flow unimpeded through those circuits.
As I have discussed in a previous essay (“Bigger than Yoga, Only If…“) as well as throughout Cultivating Qi: The Root of Energy, Vitality, and Spirit (Singing Dragon Press), proper training of the body is essential, which involves attaining a state of “Song” or physical relaxation alongside proper structure and alignment of the muscles, tendons, and the skeletal system. “Song” in coordination with physical structure enables the body to properly root. These principles strengthen the body and open the energetic pathways of Qi.
The body is the physical structure wherein its softness, the openness of the joints, and the pumping action of the muscles circulates Qi, but it isn’t the main source of generating such energy, which falls under breathing. The ancients referred to the breath as the “bellows” that fuels the furnace (body) and the individual’s quest for purpose and value in life (the “Cauldron” or spirit of the mind).
As a great Taoist Priest known as the Preserver of Truth explains in Practical Taoism,
“Nowadays when Taoists speak of pumping the bellows, they do not mean pumping a bellows; they mean tuning true breathing. If you know the furnace and cauldron but not the bellows, then yin and yang are separated; even though furnace and cauldron be set up, they are useless. If you know how to pump a bellows but not how to tune true breathing, then you’re missing the essential subtlety whereby the pumping is done. How will you snatch the wholesome energy of heaven and earth and crystallize the elixir?”
The breath is the intermediary between heaven and earth or mind and body. The Qi of the breath fuels our body and mind, but to maximize that relationship, it is necessary to learn how to “tune true breathing,” which can be broken down into four essential training points.
1. Inhalation and Exhalation occur in and out of the nose to create a smooth circulation.
2. The physical characteristics of the breath can be described as being Deep Long Slow Soft Equal Tranquil.
3. The Dantian, Mingmen, and Huiyin points of the body are directly engaged in the act of breathing and are used like a physical pump to maximize the breath.
4. The breath should power movement and thought (furnace/body and cauldron/mind).
The basic principle is that breathing in and out through the nose creates an even flow which allows air to be circulated smoothly and silently. Air is not gulped through the mouth, and the deep, slow, soft breath directly relaxes body, mind, and Qi. The goal is for the breath to be deep and soft, which creates a sense of body and mind at ease—tranquility. Since the body, breath, and mind are deeply and inextricably woven together, smooth breathing impacts body and mind.
The breath, though, has an important physical component wherein the Dantian (below the navel), Mingmen (opposite the Dantian and in the back of the body) and the Huiyin (between the genitals and rectum) expand and contract to generate and circulate Qi. These three physical “gates” are used to “pump” the breath, which in turn generates and circulates Qi throughout the entire body.
To refine the true breath engages these three gates to maximize the breath and increase energy. To breath without using these three gates is like breathing through only one nostril: we will be able to get enough air, but that intake is impeded. To practice Qigong without using proper breathing is like driving somewhere new without a map: the drive will be interesting, but time and energy will be wasted. Our path to health, healing, and well-being is expedited if we use the tool of breathing correctly.
With the body and mind powered by the breath, the breath becomes the driving force beneath the movement of body and mind. It is the bellows that fuels living that creates a bridge between heaven and earth. Proper breath technique is one of the open secrets to Qigong’s power to reduce stress, increase circulation, and heal the body.