Breath Regulation Modes in Various Stages of Qigong Practice

Si Hongyu, Shangqiu Normal University; Li Jun, Party School of CPC Shanxi Provincial Committee

While popularizing and promoting Health Qigong, it is beyond doubt that the instructors or coaches should emphasize the dominating role of natural respiration before the teaching activities. As the exercisers get more and more familiar with the routines, the authors believe that: during the differentiation stage, the instructor or coach should intentionally explain breath regulation and stress its common properties: inhalation is usually used during opening and ascending movements; exhalation is usually used during closing and descending movements. Inhale while lifting and exhale while dropping. First inhale and then exhale. During the automation stage, abdominal respiration and anus-lifting respiration should be consciously coordinated with the limbs so that the exercisers can truly experience the essential properties of Health Qigong.

Body regulation, breath regulation, and mind regulation are three fundamental elements of Health Qigong. Breath regulation means actively and consciously regulating and control respiration in order to change its frequency, rhythm, and depth and thus gradually meeting the requirements and accomplishing the goals of the exercise. Of the “three regulations”, breath regulation is the one of the main criteria for judging the efficacy of Health Qigong exercise. Different exercisers should apply different breath regulation modes in different stages.

Generalization Stage of Exercisers

During the early stage of Health Qigong exercise, the exerciser can only obtain a perceptive understanding according to the explanation and demonstration by the instructor or coach and his own exercising practice and still cannot fully understand the intrinsic motioning rules of Health Qigong. The influences from the external environment will be transmitted to the cerebral cortex through the perceptive organs (especially proprioceptors) of the exerciser and cause excitation of the cells in the cerebral cortex. In addition, as the internal inhibition of cortex has not been established, the excitation and inhibition in the cortex are both diffused. Therefore the conditioned reflex is not stably connected for the time being and generalization is caused. During this process, the muscles of the exerciser will usually be stubborn and poorly-coordinated. Muscles that are not supposed to contract will be contracted and have unnecessary movements which are quite laborious. Therefore the exerciser will begin to sweat after just a few movements. At this point, the instructor or coach should not put too much emphasis on details of the movements or explain the modes of coordination between breath regulation and movements. Too much explanation will cause exercisers to quit for fear of the difficulty of Health Qigong before they even benefit from it. Therefore the starting stage should be focused on the standardization of basic movements and less explanation of breath regulation should be made. The coordination of respiration should be based on natural respiration. And the main form of natural respiration is thoracic respiration, which is characterized in that the breast expands during inhalation and contracts during exhalation. The foothold of thoracic respiration is positioned in the chest which coincides with the natural physiological structure of the human body because the main respiratory organ of the body-lung-is exactly located in the chest. During this stage, Health Qigong exercise is basically not different form any other sports. Therefore it is certain that no “uniqueness” of Health Qigong will be felt. To interest the exercisers and bring them into the next stage of study and practice, the instructor or coach should have certain skills and theoretical knowledge. The development of Health Qigong requires a number of instructors or coaches having the necessary skills and theoretical knowledge.

Differentiation Stage of Exercisers

As the practice goes on, the beginners will form a preliminary understanding of the intrinsic rules of Health Qigong and some poorly-coordinated and unnecessary movements will be gradually eliminated. During this stage, the excitation and inhibition processes of the motor center of the cerebral cortex will be gradually concentrated. Due to the enhanced inhibition process and especially the development of differentiation inhibition, the motion of the cerebral cortex will enter from the generalization stage to the differentiation stage. Therefore most incorrect movements during the practice will be corrected and the exerciser will be able to smoothly and continuously complete the entire exercise. During this stage, the instructors or coaches should explain breath regulation to the exercisers. If they fail to explain breath regulation, Health Qigong in itself will be meaningless. But they should not go into too many details. In this stage, the exerciser can experience the benefits brought by Health Qigong through the simple coordination between the limb movements and respiration, and thus boost their “emotional” demand for Health Qigong. They he or she will naturally enter the next stage of study and practice.

Automation Stage of Movements

This stage is the best embodiment of the characteristics and nature of Health Qigong exercise and a stage in which the exerciser gains the greatest mental and physical benefits. This is because during the automation stage, the exerciser can practice in an unconscious state but the practice cannot be completed without the participation by the cerebral cortex. It is fair to say that this stage is the best moment for the exerciser to practice breath regulation. This is because automation occurs with the exerciser’s practice which provides the “conditions” for the respiratory activities of the conscious and active operation. And actively-handled respiratory activities are only a small part of it, i.e. the part of gas exchange between the lungs and the external environment during external respiration. In addition, the gas exchange between the thoracic respiration and pulmonary capillaries in external respiration cannot be perceived. And the transportation of oxygen and carbon dioxide in blood and the internal respiration can neither be perceived. Therefore they cannot be actively regulated or controlled. Therefore, all kinds of breath regulation can only be based on and act on external respiration, the perceivable part of the respiration process, i.e. the intentional regulation of the gas exchange between the lungs and the external environment. Breath regulation does not result in obvious external and observable morphological changes and cannot be simply imitated like “body regulation”. Peaceful respiration basically results in no significant change sin the external body. Therefore breath regulation in this stage is mainly focused on mastering the internal changes. The internal changes include changes in the mode and position of respiration, changes in the speed, intensity, and destination of respiratory currents, and changes caused by respiration in the sensation of related viscera and muscles.

To sum up, limb movements of different routines of Health Qigong has to be accompanied by conscious active operations during this stage. Breath regulation modes mainly include: Abdominal respiration: Abdominal respiration requires that the exerciser feel the respiration in the abdomen. This feeling can actually be induced during operation but it does not mean that the respiratory Qi has truly reached the abdomen. From the modern scientific point of view, the respiratory Qi can only enter and exit the lungs and will never descend to the abdomen. The so-called abdominal respiration is just the result of the expansion of the lungs that presses the diaphragm and presses the internal organs in the abdominal cavity. Air cannot really go through the diaphragm and enter the abdominal cavity. If it really does, problems will take place. It includes the following two types:

(I) Obverse abdominal respiration: During the practice of obverse abdominal respiration, it is required that the lower abdomen expand during inhalation and retract during exhalation. In other words the respiration is moved from the chest to the abdomen. In order to achieve obverse abdominal respiration, we first need to find the changes in the respiratory sensation. Our usually respiratory sensation takes place in the chest. It is only when we gradually move the up-and-down movements of the chest to the abdomen that we can gradually form obverse abdominal respiration. If we fail to find the sensation that Qi enters from the chest into the abdomen and simply expand and retract the abdomen during respiration, we will not be able to achieve obverse abdominal respiration but have discomforts and mistakes instead, just as the old saying goes: haste does not bring success. With regard to the internal sensation of respiration, the breath of obverse abdominal respiration directly enters the abdominal cavity. The intake breath also goes through the chest cavity but does not stay in it. The chest cavity is only used as a channel for the breath to pass by, like an extension of the nasal cavity. From the physiological perspective, this is a process in which the diaphragmatic muscles actively contract to form negative pressure in the chest and store the air in the lower part of the pulmonary lobes. The descent of the diaphragm will increase the pressure in the abdominal cavity and compress the organs in the abdominal cavity. Externally, this process will be reflected by the expansion of the abdomen. This is the understanding of the basic theory of obverse abdominal respiration. In the practice of Health Qigong, the preparative routine (staring posture with breath regulation) of Wu Qin Xi and preparative routine of Ba Duan Jin are exactly provided with obverse abdominal respiration. The changes in the pressure of the chest and abdominal cavities will powerfully massage the internal organs, improve the blood circulation in the viscera, extend the lung capacity of thoracic respiration, and properly mobilize the functions of the body to lay a good foundation for the successful completion of the following movements.

(II) Reverse abdominal respiration also stresses the operation of the respiratory Qi by the diaphragmatic muscles. It is actually an enhancement of thoracic respiration. The exerciser can effectively cultivate the internal breath and guide it along certain routes in order the exercise both the body and mind. Reverse abdominal respiration means pulling back the abdomen and lifting the anus during inhalation as opposite to obverse abdominal respiration, in order to lift the diaphragmatic muscles, enlarge the chest cavity, and retract the abdominal cavity. During exhalation, the intercostal muscles will be relaxed and the diaphragmatic muscles will descend. An internal breath will be sensed and guided downward and then sent to the abdomen. Breath regulation is a method for lifting Qi and improving Yang Qi. Obverse abdominal respiration is a method for guiding the descent of Qi and can nourish Yin. Therefore when we practice the ending routine of Health Qigong, we should perform reverse abdominal respiration or obverse abdominal respiration according to our own Yin-Yang equilibrium, so as to strengthen the abdomen and improve the practicing results.

There is also anus-lifting respiration which actually means consciously lifting the muscles in the anus and Huiyin during inhalation of reverse abdominal respiration and relaxing muscles n the anus and Huiyin during exhalation. Anus-lifting respiration is applied in the practice of “Ape Lift” in Wu Qin Xi, “Holding the Hands High with Palms Up to Regulate the Internal Organs” in Ba Duan Jin, and “Pulling back Tails of Nine Bulls” in Yi Jin Jing.

To sum up, long-term conscious breath regulation practice during the automation stage will help exercisers better experience the unique features of Health Qigong and further improve the practicing results.

Reference: “Breath Regulation” Modes in Various Stages of Health Qigong Practice

2 Replies to “Breath Regulation Modes in Various Stages of Qigong Practice”

  1. Thank you dear Thomas for the interested articule!

    Breaht controling is extremely important, not only during practicing, but in ordinary life. I have had heath problems with a lot of stress and Breath Regulation has helped me a lot!!