Breathing Exercises, Yoga, Balloon-Men, etc.
Basic Information related to qigongs, stretching, packing, etc.
The connective tissue or collagen-based tissues of the body run through everything in the body tissues, except for the teeth (the bones have a lot of collagen in them). Even muscles have a lot of connective tissue around and within them: think of the idea that if you removed the meat cells from the muscles, you’d have an empty, fine-filament net made out of connective tissue.
Generally speaking, the main idea in strengthening the connective tissues and tendons is to stretch, stress, and hold them. In other words, by manipulating (including twisting) various fasciae in the body, you can strengthen them. Holding a stretched tissue in position helps to strengthen it; this is the core idea of a lot of various standing postures. You can also strengthen the fascia tissues in and around organs by stretching, stressing with internal pressures, twisting, holding, and so on.
The various Asian breathing and postural methods have a lot to do with the idea of strengthening the connective tissues, for the most part, although there is more to than that, of course. There are some more sophisticated aspects of breath and posture training, but this essay is simply meant to provide some baseline information on breath-related training and not go into much more than a general overview. Like other exercises, breath training can be overdone and thus be potentially injurious, so it’s better to have a knowledgeable trainer and regular medical monitoring.
Many Qigongs, but only a few principles
In Asia there are a number of variations on the breathing and conditioning approaches and there are a number of different preferences for the postures that are used. The general idea in a qigong (including Yoga styles), though, is to condition the body via an approach focused on the fascia (including the fascia contained in muscle) and to use a set of sequential postures that most adequately addresses all of the body areas, internally and externally. Relaxing physically and mentally is usually a part of these exercises, but not always…. we’ll simply assume the relaxing part of the discussion and limit this essay to an understanding of the basic physical aspects. An additional aspect of good and complete qigongs is the use of “intent” or jin forces (see previous essays).
Many people think that a qigong (and any good Asian martial-art which is based on qigong principles) is a series of movements which somehow imbue benefits just from the sequence of postures. In much the same way, many people think that the ‘magic’ of a Taiji form is in the sequence and choreography, as well. In actuality, the benefits come from how the body is managed during the sequence. In other words, a qigong, a Taiji form, etc., is a type of workout regimen in which the body is moved and conditioned in specific ways.
The fact that the actual workout part is difficult to see has led many people to focus on the choreography and to miss what is really going on in qigong-related exercises and martial-arts. To be fair, the “how-to-do” of the body mechanics, qi, jin, dantian, etc., is often not shared with everyone by the real experts, so focusing on the choreography is an easy mistake to make.
Naturally, every proficient practitioner has a concept of the ideal qigong workout/regimen in terms of conditioning components, efficacy, how things should be done, which areas of the body are conditioned in what order, and so forth… so there are a great number of opinions about the best qigong, yoga set, or similar breath-related exercises. Some qigongs contain training components that are variations and/or improvements on the components in other qigongs, but an understanding of the basics will help to pick and choose the appropriate one for personal use. The point to remember is that even though there are many seemingly different breath-related exercises, they all actually revolve around only a few simple principles. For instance, the Ba Duan Jin, the Yi Jin Jing, and old Yoga exercises are all related, in principle.
You don’t need to learn a lot of forms… one form done correctly can contain all the training methods that are needed.
Two ancient Japanese statues portraying the gods of Inhale and Exhale
Concentrating the Breath and Developing the Suit
The two basic aspects of breath-related exercises to bear in mind are:
(1.) The stretch/stress training of the tendons and fascia, including holding positions.
(2.) Building up your pressure ability in the dantian. Gradually both of these conditionings are spread to encompass all of the body, but let’s just leave the discussion at how to get started and the ideas behind the practices.
Many qigongs and neigongs (a neigong is a more focused version of a qigong) first start off by bringing inhaled pressure to various parts of the body and manipulating the body and the pressure. Quite possibly, though, time can be saved by jumping to first how breath can be used to pull in the areas of the “suit” (see the essay on Silk Reeling and Six Harmonies Movement for a discussion of the ‘suit’ model). Let’s try to work our way through an example in order feel how the breath pulls in the ‘suit’ and then we’ll discuss pressure.
There are basically two major categories of breathing: Natural Breathing, in which a deep abdominal inhale is allowed to push out the belly/abdomen and kidney area; Reverse Breathing, in which an inhale is somewhat contained by holding in the abdomen and perineum areas. Although both types of breathing have conditioning benefits and both are used, reverse-breathing is the classical hallmark of much of the martial breathing exercises.
Preliminary Exercise to feel “Suit”
Stand upright (head pushed lightly upward) with the arms stretched out to the sides, palms to front and slightly up, fingers straight and perhaps even bent slightly backward. Inhale through the nose while pulling the belly slightly in and try to pressurize the abdominal area, even down to the perineum. If you pay attention to your finger/hand area, you should feel a slight pull or contraction in that area. That’s the feeling you’re looking for: a contraction/pull that is related to an inhale. It is a slight pulling, almost subcutaneous, and ultimately you’d like to lightly do variations of this type of conditioning until you can feel a slight pull all over the body and a slight increase in pressure inside the body with every breath that you take. Your breath “pulls the qi in” and the type of breathing that uses this slight pull-in of the abdomen is, as mentioned before, “reverse breathing”.
You can garner similar sensations and effects of the ‘suit’ pulling inward by trying these variations:
1. Standing in the same outstretched position as above, begin your reverse-breathing inhale while slightly pulling in the belly area, but stop actually inhaling air at about 2/3 of a breath and attempt to pull the rest of the air in through the pores in your skin. You should feel a contraction of the skin from this visualization. This is elementary “skin breathing” and it causes a contraction that can be felt.
2. Again, stand in the same outstretched position and use a reverse-breath to inhale about 2/3 of the way, but then try to pull the rest of the breath in through the tips of the fingers, toes, elbows, knees, shoulders, etc. Again, you should have a similar pulling sensation, but this visualization is just another variation. A similar variation has you imagining that the inhaled pressure is squeezing your bones. All of these visualization methods induce a pulling and pressure-like feeling and conditioning of the ‘suit’.
Note that by first stretching the body or an area of the body which you want to condition, it is much easier to effect the pulling sensation. Therefore, it’s always best to maintain a slightly stretched posture while doing qigongs/yoga/etc., or to bend in such a way as to pre-stretch the area you want to condition with your inhale.
At first only worry about progressing with the goal to spread the ability to pull various areas of the ‘suit’ at will. Keep the muscles very relaxed in order to work on the suit and not involve any muscle tension. Later, with some qualified advice, you might add contraction of the suit as a step, or even some judicious muscular tension if your art is more of a Shaolin variety. Be careful, though, because it’s easy to do things wrong or to go off on a training tangent where you waste a lot of time and you have a difficult time returning to the path.
The pulling sensation (and pressure components), incidentally, is part of the conditioning that results in a skin that is difficult to cut or puncture. Hence, some of the old qi tricks about spear points on throats, beds of nails, hooks in skin (seen all throughout Asia) as parts of religious and training rites, and so on. Since the skin actually contracts minutely on the inhale, some people use a well-trained suit in the hand to lift smooth, dry objects like a small mirror, a polished knife blade, etc. They put their hand on the object and quietly inhale to initiate the adherence. It’s a form of “sticking” power. The traveling Beijing Acrobats used to have a guy that demonstrated this trick on a water-cooler bottle laid on its side.
Another example would be the previously-mentioned idea of inhaling while pushing the face upward in order to tension and strengthen the connective tissues between the lungs and the sinuses. Over a period of time, some sinus conditions can be favorably assisted by this type of “qi” exercise for the sinuses because it effects an actual conditioning of the tissues.
Still another example is the near-titillating qigong/neigong which is famously pictured with some male practitioner hanging a large rock from his genitalia. The basic idea is the same as the sinus example and many others: a pulling sensation is established via breath-training and then the hold and stretch is practiced until the tissues are conditioned. To hold a contraction/tension while returning to normal breathing is a skill that comes with time.
Basic Pressure and Tensioning
As you inhale with a reverse breath, pressure builds up in the abdominal area, or in other areas you may choose to focus on after you have some practice and experience behind you. Gradually, you should also begin inflating the kidney area as part of the inhale. One of the old, commonly-heard sayings about qigongs was “first, concentrate the qi behind the navel”, or something along those lines. This is a reference to the abdominal pressure and condition developed from breathing exercises.
The ‘suit’ also contracts slightly with each breath, after it has been trained for a while. So within the body there are stresses caused by the increase in pressure and by the pulling inward of the suit during inhales. These stresses condition the connective tissue and also massage the organs and other body tissues. Because each inhale pulls inward on the body (and the body slightly pressurizes), the bones are also lightly pulled and compressed inward with an inhale. Over time, as has been noted for centuries in Chinese martial lore, the bones tend to become denser because the stressing causes some bone growth. As your ability to bring the slight tension associated with an inhale (and the resultant slight pressure within the body) increases, you’ll notice that the idea of a “Balloon Man” is fairly good descriptor.
In concert with the “Balloon Man” idea, the slight pressurization and pulling in of the ‘suit’ strengthens and assists the body’s connections. Naturally a weak spot in a balloon would weaken the overall integrity of the balloon and analogously in the Balloon Man, weak areas in the structure can cause a loss of integrity. In the human-shaped “balloon”, the two major weak areas are the mouth and the anus. For this reason, the mouth is normally kept closed (tongue touching palate behind upper front teeth) and the anus/perineum region is normally slightly pulled up in order to counter any bulging and loss of integrity in that area. So we have three pressure related actions that are done in many/most breathing excercises: pull in/up the perineum/anus area of the pelvic floor in order to keep that area from expanding under pressure, pull in the abdominal area during inhale in order to assist in developing a light pressure, and if you’re doing a pressure-hold in more advanced breathing exercises, tuck the chin as an aid to prevent pressure from building up in the head. These three movements are the same in Chinese qigongs and Yogic locks (bhandas). While there are much more exotic-sounding “energy” reasons often attached to descriptions of Yogic bhandas, it seems probable that their origin was based upon the manipulation of pressures while conditioning the body. A lot of modern yoga seems to be missing an understanding of internal conditioning of the fascia via the pressure methodology.
I know of some groups of people who use fairly high breath-induced pressures to develop an “Iron Shirt”, the ability to withstand blows, and so on. Some of these people have gone so far into pressure artifacts that they have induced health-related problems. The point being that there are training cautions; a person should rely on expert advice and common sense in all of the types of training that we do.
Movement as part of Qigongs
Several previous essays have dealt with movement, muscle-tendon channels, dantian usage, etc., and the movement of Open and Close. A traditional qigong is going to include movements that are based around Open and Close, using the power of Gravity, the use of mind-intent jin, and the use of the dantian to control the body through its ‘suit’ connection.
Usually movement within a qigong begins with the body expanding and opening with the inhale assisting the opening movement. An exhale accompanies and assists the closing and contraction of the body. As a person progresses in development, the role of breathing changes somewhat and the focus is more toward pressurizing and tensioning the suit on the inhale and the exhale assists in the closing and contraction associated with the exertion of power. Exhale when exerting power, although there are some slight modifications to this idea as a person becomes further advanced. Sometimes the inhale while tensioning the ‘suit’ and exhaling on the exertion of strength goes beyond the usage in the sense of a “qigong” and becomes a more muscular “dynamic tensioning” exercise; the two things should not be confused.
There are traditionally only the two main forces which derive from gravity: upward forces based upon the solidity of the ground being propagated by the body’s structure and downward forces which derive from gravity. Horizontal forces in the body are actually composed of the Up and Down forces working at angles through the body frame. Traditionally, then, there are six primary directions: Up, Down, Frontward and Backward from the body, and out and in to the sides of the body. A good qigong will usually address body movement in those six directions. Other postures are usually for development and conditioning of tissues within the body and externally, as well.
Here is a good example of a basic qigong; qigongs similar to this are done in many styles:
I'll do a more focused essay soon on specific aspects of breathing-in qi.
I'll do a more focused essay soon on specific aspects of breathing-in qi.