Breath – the Centre of Qi Gong practice

‘Qi Gong’ can be translated as ‘working skilfully with energy’. It could equally be described as working skillfully with the breath – or even as “breathing exercises” (Ken Cohen)

The breath is one of the few physical functions that we have some control over. It is intimately connected to our emotions and is crucial to our physical health. So the breath can act as a vehicle for integrating our mind and our bodies, our thoughts and our actions for the benefit of all.

These benefits work at three different levels, the physical, the emotional and the spiritual.

The physical

Student – “Master, what is the secret of a long life?’

Master – “To keep breathing as long as you can!”  ( Tai Chi joke !?)

At the physiological level the breath involves the exchange of energy with our environment, the taking in of what we need from outside and the recycling of what we have used. Every breath in renews and energies, every breath out relaxes and releases. Energy is carried inwards by oxygenated blood by the vascular system to every limb and organ, even down to the cellular level through the penetrative connective tissue which is postulated to be the vehicle by which ‘Qi’ is transported (Peter Wayne with Mark Fuerst, p.135 – 137).

The abdominal breathing which is practiced in much Qi Gong also acts as an internal massage through which liquid pressure waves are transferred through connective tissue encouraging flexibility and responsiveness in limbs and organs.

The slow and full breath of Qigong influences the balance between the sympathetic (arousing) and parasympathetic (calming) aspects of the nervous system, thus influencing blood pressure and immune function amongst others.

The mental – emotional

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor” – Thich Nhat Han

The quality and variety of the breath is intimately associated with the emotions. Whether laughing, screaming , sobbing, yawning or sighing, whether in agony or  ecstasy, we express and experience emotion through our breath.

Discovering and exploring the variety of the breath and how to save, develop and direct the energy therein is crucial for emotional well-being. For developing the resilience to external and internal change which is central to our health.

We can do this by developing variety and flexibility in the breath through physical and mental exercises. This involves not only the the lungs/heart and the muscles of the upper abdomen but also the diaphragm and abdominal muscles and organs in the lower abdomen.

The ‘lower tan tien’ or ‘elixir field’ , located just behind and below the navel area, is central within the body and within the practice of Tai Chi/Qi Gong. It is seen as an energetic centre in which we can store, and from which we can direct, energy.

The energy of Qi Gong practice can be directed through the use of internal imagery. We may use quite simple and straightforward images (e.g. a tree, casting a net, splashing water)   with the intention of integrating our emotions into our movement, and the associated hormones (e.g. endorphins) within our bodies. We can use words as metaphors to communicate these images, the internal  visceral experience however is less cognitive and more emotive.

The Spiritual

the real aim of the practice isn’t to keep your mind on the breath. Your real purpose is to change your mind – to develop serenity, concentration and other fulfilling ways to be”. Vessantra – ‘The art of meditation – the breath’

The spiritual is concerned with our place in and relationship to the universe as we experience it around and within us. This includes the physical, the biological, the social, the psychological aspects of experience and any meanings that we find for ourselves at these levels. It may or may not include overtly religious or political ideas and institutions.

Meditation is recognised as one way in which we can explore and appreciate our experience of the world in a relatively ‘direct’ manner. Meditating with the breath is a fundamental practice. There are a number of reasons why this should be so.

* the practise is simple , it does not require any particular philosophy or belief

*the breath is always available

* it’s practise has been found suitable for all personalities

* it has been tested through personal experience for over two and a half mellenia and ,more recently, through scientific study

The practical and metaphorical importance of the breath is acknowledged in many traditions;

* ‘pneuma’ in ancient Greek, which has been rendered as “holy spirit” in the New Testament

* ‘spiritus’ in Latin, hence ‘inspiration’

* ‘bruach’ in Hebrew

* ——- in native American traditions

* ‘prana’ in Yogic / Vedic teaching

* ‘Qi’ or ‘Chi’ in Chinese, ‘Ki’ in Japanese traditional medicine

All these traditions will have their own formulations and metaphors for the role of the ‘ Breath’ in their spiritual practices. The Buddhist tradition for example suggests that there are three important characteristics or ‘lakshanas’  to our existence. These characteristics can a each be clearly seen within the breath:

* Impermanence – clearly each breath is not here for long , it is changing even as it is experienced and close enquiry will find that it has no clear boundaries

* Insubstantiality – where is the essence of this breath , does it have a centre or a separate existence from the next one?

* Unreliability – crucial as it is, our breath will not last for ever and though it will carry us along for some time, eventually we will have to relinquish it.


So whether your interest in Qi Gong is focused on the physical, the mental or the spiritual it will benefit you  immensely if you keep the Breath at the centre of your practice