Thursday, November 27, 2008

‘Breathing in a Circle’

In Qi Gong, one of the basic breathing techniques is called ‘breathing in a circle’, or circular breathing. This means that we are trying to make our breathing a gentle continuous flow, with each breath following the one preceding it without a break in momentum. In general, if the flow of qi in our body is gentle, continuous and regular, then this will promote the long term health of the physical body and encourage our mind to become relaxed, comfortable and spacious. In general, in today’s modern society our body and mind tend to be quite over-stimulated, resulting in jagged fluctuations in our physical and mental qi, and in our breathing patterns. Learning to ‘breathe in a circle’ helps us to smooth out the jagged patterns in our energy and allow it to become smooth and steady, promoting both internal and external well being.
Breathing in a circle makes an excellent meditation exercise in itself for calming our body and mind. Here are some of the basic characteristics to pay attention to when practicing circular breathing:
1) The pace and length of the inhalation and exhalation should mirror each other. They should be of approximately the same time duration, and the intensity of the air flow should be gentle and continuous as you breathe in and breathe out.
2) There should be no gap between the inhalation and exhalation, and between the exhalation and the inhalation. As you reach the top of the in-breath, change gently and immediately to the out-breath so that the momentum of the breathing is maintained. Likewise, as you reach the bottom of the out-breath change gently and smoothly to the in-breath.

If you focus on breathing in these two ways, then it should feel as if your breathing is becoming ‘circular’ with the inhalation and exhalation forming two halves of a circle that intersect smoothly and seamlessly at the top and the bottom.
You may find that, as you ‘breathe in a circle', after a while, the rate of your breathing will start to slow down naturally. This is fine, just try to ensure that the pace and length of the inhalation and exhalation continue to mirror each other as your breathing slows.
Try doing a few minutes of circular breathing each day, you may be surprised at how quickly you can induce a feeling of comfort, clarity and wellbeing within your mind and body through consciously ‘breathing in a circle’!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Three aspects of Qi within the human body

Qi Gong distinguishes three levels of qi within the human body; ‘essence’ (jing), ‘energy’ (qi), and ‘spirit’ (shen). Each of these different levels of energy are located in the three ‘dan tiens’ which translated literally means ‘elixir fields’. These are as follows:
The lower dan tien is the centre of our ‘primal essence’. It is located in our sacral area and is associated with our physical and sexual vital energies.
The middle dan tien is located between our heart centre and solar plexus, and is associated with our mind and our primal qi.
The upper dan tien is located in the centre of our brain (or third eye area), and is associated with our primal spirit.
The overall maintenance and health of these three dan tiens is one of the main goals of Qi Gong. It is said that the energy of our lower dan tien is depleted by excessive sexual release and physical activity. Our middle dan tien is depleted by excessive or negative emotions. Our upper dan tien or spirit is depleted by too much worry and thinking.
I would add to this that we can enhance the energy of our lower dan tien through balanced healthy use of exercise and sexual energy. We can enhance the energy of our middle dan tien by cultivating calm, positive and balanced emotions. Finally we can enhance the energy of our upper dan tien and spirit by cultivating calm, positive and balanced modes of thought and thinking.

Getting familiar with the three dan tien.
Basic standing postures are used in Qi Gong to develop and enhance the flow of qi to these three elixir fields. Here is a simple exercise that can be done in 5 or so minutes that works with all three of the dan tien:

First position
Adopt the basic Qi Gong standing posture, and adopt the basic Qi Gong breathing pattern.
See beneath your feet a ball of earth light, or earth qi, about a meter across. The top of the ball is resting on the soles of your feet. The bottom of the ball has a line of light extending deep into the earth. Breathe the qi from the ball into your body through your feet.

Second position
Now imagine that the ball of light rises up your body, to centre itself in your sacral area and lower dan tien. Raise your hands up in front of you so that the palms of your hands are 10-30cm in front of your sacral area, with the palms facing the centre of the lower dan tien. You should feel as if the palms are positioned around the edge of the ball of light, holding it in place. Breathe in and out of your lower dan tien a few times.

Third position
Imagine now that the ball of light rises further up your body to the middle dan tien. Raise your hands and arms up the body correspondingly, so that they are facing your middle dan tien, holding the ball of light in place. Breathe in and out of your middle dan tien for a few breaths.

Fourth position
Now imagine the ball of light rises further up your body to the centre of the brain, and upper dan tien. Raise your hands correspondingly so that the palms are in front of the face, holding the ball of light in place. Breathe in and out of your upper dan tien a few times.

Having worked your way from the first position to the fourth in the manner described above, now bring the ball of light down from the fourth to third position, from the third to the second position and so on until you finish in the first position, back where you started.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Standing like a Tree

In Qi Gong trees are taken as a role model for our standing posture, as they are strong, stable and balanced, with their roots deep in the earth, and their branches reaching high into the heavens. We try and emulate this in our own standing posture; drawing stability from our connection to the earth through our feet, keeping our centre of gravity low in our belly, our upper body relaxed, our head and shoulders open to receiving energy from the sky, sun and stars.

Imagine now that there is a tall, strong and beautiful tree in front of you (if you can stand in front of an actual tree all the better!). Feel and see its roots extending down into the earth, drawing up qi, water and nutrients. Feel the strength and flexibility of its trunk, and the branches reaching high into the sky, drawing down qi and light from the sky.
Now become the tree. Feel your roots flowing down deep into the earth giving you deep stability and energy. Feel the stability of your trunk, flexible and strong. Feel your branches and leaves reaching up toward the sky and sun, drawing down their qi into your being. Now as you breathe, feel every cell in your body breathing in qi from the earth beneath you and the sky above you. Feel light and qi flowing in and out of every cell in your body as you breathe in and out.

Directing energy with the hands and palms:
We can learn to direct qi though our body in a more powerful way through the positioning of our hands. If you like, you can try the following hand and arm positions as you ‘stand like a tree’. Initially this should not be done for more than five minutes at a time.
1. Whilst focusing on your roots (the soles of your feet) angle the palms of your hands upward so that they are facing the earth. As you breathe in feel qi rising from the earth below into your body. As you breathe out, Feel that earth-qi expanding through each cell of your body.

2. Now raise your hands and arms up so that they are at shoulder height, parallel to the ground. Face your left palm down, and your right palm up. As you hold this posture, feel qi rising up from the earth beneath you into your trunk/torso, and simultaneously feel the flow of sky-qi flowing down through your crown, head and shoulders. Feel these two energies merging and harmonizing in the centre of your torso.

3. Now raise your hands above your head, opening the palms to the sky above. Feel as if you have branches and leaves reaching up into the sky, drawing down qi and light from the sun, stars and sky. As you breathe, feel this sky-qi moving and flowing through

4. Move back to position 2, and then to position 1, ending in the basic standing posture.

Basic facets of Qi Gong standing for beginners

Outlined below are the basic aspects of the Qi Gong standing posture:

- the feet should be just beyond a shoulder's width apart; and should be somewhere between parallel with each other and ninety degrees; find a position between these two extremes that feels comfortable and natural.

- the knee joints should be unlocked so that the legs are bent just enough for the thighs to be holding a little of the weight of the upper body, but not so much that they are straining. It should be a position that you can hold comfortably for minutes at a time.

-the pelvis should be slightly tucked in, so that the small/tailbone of the back moves about 1-2cm further in and down from its position in normal standing.

- your centre of gravity should be low in the torso, in the sacral area (1-4cm beneath the belly button. You should not be holding any body weight or tension in the chest, shoulders or neck.

- the back should be basically straight with the head in line with the spine. The lower spine above the tailbone should curve very gently inwards, describing a shallow convex curve before straightening up just above the mid back.

- the chest should be open, with the shoulders relaxed and slightly rounded. Imagine that you have a piece of string attached to your sternum. If someone were to gently pull that string up and out by 1-2 cm, that would give most people the correct posture for the chest and shoulders.

- the head should be in line with the spine, with the chin tucked slightly in. Imagine that there is a string attached to the top of your crown. Feel that string pulling your head gently up for a half to one centimeter. That will give you the correct position for the head.

- hands and arms should hang loosely by your sides, with the palms facing the thighs at about three o’clock (if twelve o’clock were the centre of the front of the thighs.
Elbows should be slightly rounded.

Relaxing in the standing posture:

Whilst in the standing posture, be aware of the crown of your head. Scan downward with your mind and feel any tension within your head, neck and shoulders gradually melting away like ice melting into water. Continue down the rest of the body, checking each area individually. Any tension that you find as you check, feel it melting away downwards through the legs and flowing out of your body via the soles of your feet.

Basic facets of Qi Gong breathing for beginners

Outlined below are the basic aspects of Qi Gong breathing as taught in Toby’s classes. To begin with you will have to practice each aspect separately, in order to get a feel for it, but after a while you will find that you can combine all the features into a smooth cycle of breathing without having to exert effort.

- breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth*. The tip of the tongue should be placed on the palette behind the top front teeth.
*Specifically when practicing formal Qi Gong exercises - In daily life breathing in and out through the nose is generally recommended.

- breathe into the belly. This means, as you breathe in, you are directing air down into the bottom of the lungs, so that you can feel your diaphragm expanding downward, and exerting a gentle pressure on the abdominal organs.

- breathe in to about 70% of your lung capacity; do not breathe in more deeply than is comfortable and relaxing.

- when inhaling, as well as directing the air down into the bottom of the lungs, try also to utilize the sides, the front and the back of your lower-mid lungs. This means that as you inhale you can feel the front, back and sides of your lower and mid ribcage gently expanding. Then as you exhale you will feel your ribcage contracting accordingly.

- as you inhale, gently (no more than 40% strength) contract the muscles in the perineum, so that you can feel your pelvic floor rising and becoming firm. As you do this you will feel a gentle squeeze or pressure being exerted upon the abdominal organs as the diaphragm pushes down on them from above, and the pelvic floor rises from below.

- the quality of the breathing should be smooth, gentle and continuous, without a gap or break between the inhalation and the exhalation. This is called circular, or wave breathing. In the same way that as soon as a wave has broken upon the shore it begins to ebb and be absorbed back into the ocean, as soon as we have reached the peak of our inhalation, we should begin our exhalation. Likewise, at the end of the exhalation, we should begin the inhalation immediately and smoothly with no break between.

Below is a link to a basic Qi Gong breathing exercise (lasting twelve minutes approx)that we often do at the beginning of a Qi Gong class. It includes many of the breathing pointers above, and listening to it is a convenient way of getting used to the fundamentals of Qi Gong breathing. It also includes some free form breathing at the beginning.

Listen to basic Qi Gong breathing exercise