Reverse Breathing

What exactly is reverse breathing?  Is it actually baby-like breathing?  Do the kidneys actually "grasp" the qi from the lungs? Does the mingmen (lower back) expand to suck air in?  Does the bellybutton go in with the inhale or in with the exhale?  And what does it actually do? Why breath in reverse?

It is actually quite simple.

Normal breathing happens in the lungs, the diaphragm goes down, the ribs open to the sides, and the bellybutton doesn't change much.  When it is conscious, we just think "suck in" and "breath out."

Reverse breathing is when we move the body first, movement forces the breath inward, and then movement forces it outward. The breath begins by expanding the ribs to the sides. Most people can get this far on the first try.  

Cheetahs can run fast because ligament structures connect their diaphragm to the action of their legs, which passively forces huge amounts of air into their lungs.  Humans have this ability too, but it requires a particular engagement of the legs.  It is more than a simple bending of the knees or squatting.  To make this process conscious requires relaxing the legs and sinking downward while paying attention to the passive effects on the breath, and then playing with the result until it can be coordinated with the active-conscious opening of the ribs.  It isn't hard.

What is challenging is the exhale.  Once the lungs are expanded, an autonomic or habitual forcing of the air outward tends to take control.  So the inhale is "reversed," but the exhale is just normal.

To get fully reversed breathing, the spatial mind must initiate the inhale from outside the body.  (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with this idea.)  In this case a simple way to proceed is to look at the canopy of a tree above one's head.  Imagine that the leaves are breathing, going up and down, and out and in.  The visualization must sync up with the actual movement of the body.  

By this method it is possible to delay the exhale without creating compression.  The spatial mind (outside the body) can easily delay the exhale if it is more than six feet away from one's actual body.  If the spatial mind is too close to the actual body, it will force a compression of the ribs.  Compression involuntarily forces the breath outwards.  

Anyway, that's it, that is reverse breathing.

Why do we want to avoid the involuntary compression of the ribs? There are probably a lot of reasons, I will try to address a few. First, that exhale is used to solidify our identity, and the goal of acting and martial arts (as enlightenment) is to free oneself from any fixed identity--especially identity fixed by rigidity in the physical body.  The second, is that communicative social-methods of communicating power, all tend to rely on this forced compression exhale.  We want simple power, not socially expressive power. Socially expressive power is used for domination and submission.

That is what I have to say on the subject, but I would like to open it up to others who may have something to contribute here.

Here is a wonderful article about, vagal tone and the vagus nerve:

Vagal tone is measured by the ratio of the heart rate during the inhale over the heart rate during exhale.  A slower heart rate during exhale indicates greater vagal tone.  

Vagal tone is associated with a better functioning immune system. So that is the big question, how does reverse breathing effect vagal tone?  And I'm sure readers can think up all sorts of related questions.

Go for it!


Perhaps a little more contextual explanation will help explain the confusions about reverse breathing.  In the early twentieth century in China, there was a big push to medicalize Chinese healing practices.  Concepts of health were as much about religion as martial arts were; that is, they were a single subject.  Both were squeezed into anatomy and physiology.  The Red Cross and the YMCA were models used in China to make tradition seem more modern.  Reverse breathing was probably connected to Daoism, and Daoism was trying to make itself into a philosophical practice by discarding content related to gods.  This was framed as a search for "essence" or "refinement," this may have made the practices more accessible (especially in the West), but it also diminished them.  

Originally there were two gods, Heng and Ha.  Not a lot of research has been done on them, but I suspect they were weather gods (technically a type of "thunder god"), one who breathed in "heng" and one who breathed out "ha."  Naturally people knew about these two gods because there were comic stage routines based on the hilarity of someone who can only breath in or only breath out. Somehow this relates to reverse breathing--medicalized versions of Heng and Ha as "exercises" can be found in numerous modern qigong books.  


Here is a cool tid bit I just grabbed from Chinese History Forum:

As for the name "General Heng and Ha 哼哈二将", they originated from Ming dynasty novel Fengsheng Yanyi 《封神演义》 (The Investitures of the Gods). The author based them on two Buddhist door guardians. Both of them were fierce and brave. They generally became Chinese folks figures because of this novel [Editor's note: most likely the "novel" is a collection of rituals that already existed].

One was called Zheng Lun 郑伦. He was able to spit out white breath from his nose to kill the enemy. The other was called Chen Qi 陈奇. He was able to spit out yellow breath from the mouth to kill the enemy. [Editor's note: Extreme nose phlegm and halitosis?]

You can see these figures in many Buddhist temples of China [Editor: Most of these were made in the last ten years]. Shown below the figures outside the door of Buddhist temple Eastern Mountain in Beijing 北京東嶽廟 [Editor: A key temple connected to Fengshen Yanyi, and most likely the history of Baguazhang.]

General Heng from Chuxiong temple (楚雄土地庙)General Ha from Chuxiong temple (楚雄土地庙)

The Glorious Kidneys

alg_kidneys[1]Autumn is the season for clearing heat from the lungs and refining technique.  One of the best foods for clearing heat from the lungs is the pear. The skin of the pear is used if the condition is medical.  So eat pears raw or lightly stewed with a dribble of honey.  The Classic of Medicine (Neijing) says clearing heat from the lungs protects against fevers in Winter.  Not sure what the mechanism is there, but I love pears so I'm sharing.  The suggestion to refine technique is a message about efficiency, the Autumn is about toning it down and taking time to integrate all the wild experimentation of the past two seasons.

And if you've been doing that, in about four weeks you will be ready to start transitioning into Winter practiceIn Winter we store Qi, water the root, and nourish the kidneys. So what does this mean?  In the days before industrial commerce made food cheap and plentiful, to the average peasant it probably meant eat whatever rich foods you can find.  The best way to do that in our era is with nutrient rich bone stock that you make yourself.  If you want organic stock bones, in my part of the country, you are in direct competition with the massive pampered dog population.  However, if you buy bones in bulk it's a little more reasonable.  We filled up our freezer with bones for the Winter for about $60.  'Watering the root' basically means drinking nutrient rich broth the way most of our ancestors did.  Think stews.

The Daodejing says, "to be full, hollow out," thus in order to store Qi one must first cultivate emptiness.  Once emptiness is established, storing Qi is automatic.

Well, not totally automatic.  You must also nourish the kidneys.  How does one do that?  Hold that thought.

Hopefully none of my readers were paying attention last year when I had an argument on the insane internal martial arts discussion website Rum Soaked Fist about whether the terms jin 勁 and jing 精 actually mean the same thing.  As my Indian Dance teacher used to say, "A little learning is a dangerous thing."

Jin is translated by Louis Swaim (I'm doing this from memory) as 'power which resembles the flowing of underground streams.'  Jin is an expression used in compound forms like pengjin (wardoff), mingjin (obvious power), or tingjin (skillful sensitivity), to mean a specific type of power which requires skill and time to develop.

Jing on the other hand is a much bigger and harder to explain key concept in Chinese cosmology.  It is usually translated 'essence,' because of it's association with purification.  But it generally refers to stuff that reproduces itself.  In quasi-medical terms it is sperm and eggs, scabs, what clots the blood, and when it is strong in the body--a full head of hair and strong finger nails.  In Daoism Jing is the most solid and substantial form of Qi. If we posit that the entire cosmos is one giant mind form, then jing is its memory function.  Stay with me...

Any first year Chinese Medicine student will tell you that Jing is stored in the kidneys.  They will also tell you that sex, drugs and rock'n'roll will deplete it.  Daoism has a precept against wasting jing or qi.  The term is pretty amorphous as you may have deduced by now.  In is particular Daoist precept the distinction is that qi wasting is unnecessary effort, while jing wasting is depletion to the point of injury.  So to damage ones body is to damage ones jing.  Why? because the moment injury happens, the kidneys start to release jing-- jing is released from the kidneys because it is what repairs us.

Obviously, jing is one of those concepts which, as Roger T. Ames might put it, offends against the most basic  notions of Western categorical thinking--it is simultaneously an event, a substance, a trend, and an action.  Jing repairs (verb), it is what repairs (noun), it is visible only indirectly and is measured by that which it repairs so to some degree it is the substantive aspect of our bodies.  Jing is the shape of our eye, and the dark circles that accumulate around them after years of not enough sleep.  Jing is the markings of age.  Jing as a substance decreases in either quantity or quality as we age.  But as a substance it remains pure.

Tension in our bodies is simply qi concentrated by the mind.  Disperse the qi and the tension will be gone.  But chronic tension is qi concentrated in the same location day after day.  Qi is pure and has no memory function, the tension's location is remembered by jing.  So chronic tension is regularly drawing jing out of the kidneys where the mind mixes it with qi.  Because jing and qi are both pure, they naturally separate, like oil and water.  For chronic tension to happen at all takes considerable and regular effort.

I would never have gotten into the argument at Rum Soaked Fist if I hadn't been repeating what I heard from George Xu: "Jing and jin are the same."

"What?" I asked, "How could that be, they are different characters in Chinese?"  (精 and 勁)

"It doesn't matter," he said, "They were once the same term and the same character."

Remember way up at the top of this post I asked the question, "How does one nourish the kidneys?"  We're getting there.  The kidneys love sleep.  They love sleep because they love stillness.  The kidneys are like a very fine instrument measuring vibration, shock, tension and fatigue.  If we can feel our kidneys they will indicate when we are exerting effort or experiencing strain.  And...They will tell us when we are using power. Ah hah! You say, power, you mean jin right?  Yes, young Skywalker, any trained or refined gathering of power or release of force is called jin, in Modern Chinese.  The kidneys experience all jin as stress, as a loss of jing.

Thus pure internal (martial arts) should be defined as not using jin/jing.  If an art uses jin, then it is mixing jing and qi.  It is exerting some strain on the kidneys.  The basic Tai Chi adage goes:  "The body follows the qi and the qi follows the mind."  If the mind causes jing to be released from the kidneys, qi will mix with jing in the body, and the mind will move the three all at once--thus destroying the mind-then-qi-then-body order of movement.  On the other hand, if the body is totally quiet, as measured by no loss of jing from the kidneys, then the qi will automatically float off of the body and the mind will easily lead it.  If the whole torso is also empty, it will naturally fill with qi.

And that is what it means to nourish the glorious kidneys.

pebble in water

The Meaning of Kung Fu

imagesFor years I went with "something of great quality which takes time to develop" as my definition of Kung Fu.   Then I switched to using Kristopher Schipper's definition of Kung Fu  in Taoism and the Arts of China, he said it used to mean "Meritorious Action!"  Now master linguist Victor Mair has committed a heck of a lot of words to explaining the meaning of Kung Fu, particularly as it relates to Tea.  Enjoy.