Breathing is simple. You inhale and your body expands with air. You exhale and the air is pushed out. It is so simple, that most people never thing about how they breathe. But, proper breathing is a powerful tool. No other practice will produce such an immediate and profound impact on your physical and mental health.
Breathing is your body’s way of bringing in oxygen. When you inhale, the lungs expand with air. About 20% of your inhalation is oxygen. Your body uses this oxygen to activate muscles, rebuild damaged cells, feed your brain, detoxify your blood, and calm you down. Improper breathing minimizes oxygen intake, while proper breathing maximizes it.
Improper breathing is sometimes referred to as “chest breathing,” “costal breathing” (costal means “of the ribs”) or “shallow breathing”. When you inhale the chest expands. When you exhale, the chest contracts in. Everything happens in the upper body. The lower body is not involved. When your breathing is shallow, less oxygen enters the blood, and the body and mind suffer.
The proper form of breathing is called “dantian breathing”. The dantian is the energy center on the abdomen below the navel. Dantian breathing is also referred to as “abdominal breathing” or “deep breathing”. On the inhale, the diaphragm contracts and pushes downwards, causing the abdominal muscles to rise. On the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes. This opens up the lower part of the lungs, resulting in a deeper breath that brings in more oxygen and expels the toxins and carbon dioxide from the bottom of the lungs. The movement of the diaphragm also acts like a gentle massage for the organs in the abdomen. In infants, the diaphragm is the main muscle used in respiration. Ancient Chinese texts describe proper breathing as slow, long, deep, fine, and even.
Breathing and the Martial Arts
When chest breathing, the breath is the body is high and the qi in the body is raised. This makes it easy to do the jumps and flips that are common in many martial arts. But, when your qi is raised for long periods of time and your breathing becomes shallow. This is similar to a fight or flight response. Oxygen floods into the extremities, preparing the body for to fight or run. The brain receives less oxygen, causing anxiety and dulling the ability to think rationally. The good news is, it is possible to use deep breathing to reverse this process and reduce the effect stress has on your mind and body. This is done through dantian breathing. So, dantian breathing can be used to create the mental calm needed for martial arts.
Dantian breathing also affects your movements. When you breathe deeply, your intention is focused closer to your center of gravity. When I practice, I try to keep the breath in my body low, and try to emit force through my entire body. This means that I breathe deeply into the belly, and fill the dantian. When I emit force (发力 fa li), I breathe out from the dantian, through the nose (which lets the air out slower than the mouth, avoiding letting out too much qi). My intention is focused on using the qi and strength from my waist and dantian. The legs, dantian and waist area are all used to emit force.
When you use dantian breathing, the mind, breathing, and body work together. The while body is synchronized, and your body’s qi will naturally be in harmony with your movements.