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Sitting and Breathing
Short version: Utter stillness is perhaps one of the deepest meditations. We can cultivate “stiller stillness” with pre-birth breathing.
Longer version: When we are internally still, our subconscious mind-noise subsides and the deeper vibratory patterns which are beyond our true selves have the possibility to arise and disperse. This is no easy feat.
Once we are seated for meditation (sometimes no easy feat in itself) we can focus our attention on our breathing. There are a myriad of ways to do this. One option is to choose between pre-birth breathing and post-birth breathing. In this article, we will attend to pre-birth breathing.
Pre-birth breathing is also called pre-natal breathing or embryonic breathing. It is the respiration we did in our mother’s womb before we used our lungs to get oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. At this time, respiration was solely at the blood and cell level. There was no engagement of our lungs and the outside air. This is an amazing realization once we get it.
When we are in pre-birth breathing, even in our post-birth bodies, external movement of the body is minimized. Even if we are still and breathing abdominally, our belly is moving. This is a fine way to go however we can become more fully still by utilizing the mind of cellular respiration or fluid breath which is the gas exchange (oxygen and carbon dioxide) at the cellular level.
One way to gain subtly of cellular respiration and increase our sense of stillness is to allow the entire body to experience the flow and rhythm of breath. The body breathes pre-natally in one of two ways which ultimately become one in-the-same.
Initially we may attend centrally or peripherally. When centrally attentive we focus on the dan tien and open our cellular membranes to allow the fluid-breath to fill to our periphery- the legs, arms, pelvis and head and empty in reverse. When we are peripherally attentive, we open our cell membranes and allow our skin to expand fluidly or energetically, just as we fill a rubber balloon with air and empty in reverse. In this way, it may be felt as a flow or ripple of fluid.
With some practice, these unite as center and periphery become indistinguishable as one essence. The body-mind simply expands and condenses which is our respiration; the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide at the cellular level.
This brief description is a somewhat technical writing of one of our most simple and basic states of being. Pre-birth being is better experienced than written and read about. With practice the sense of peace and serenity are profound and the opening to divine wisdom becomes more and more available to each and all of us. Hopefully these words will plant and nurture the seed of possibility to remember something which has long been forgotten.
Breathing and the Dan Tien
Short version: The dan tien (sea of qi) is not located by measuring in inches or finger widths. Rather it is found by feeling.
Longer version: The dan tien is often described as being located varying distances inferior (below) the navel. Commonly the distance of two inches or three finger widths is used. Using a particular distance to find the dan tien may be misleading in a number of ways. Inches and finger widths vary. Also, as the navel is the point of orientation, one may be biased to believe that the dan tien is in a certain place in the front body. This is not the case. The reality is that the dan tien is a feeling place somewhere in the middle body or roughly half-way between the front of the body and the back of the body.
One way to experience the dan tien is with the breath and conversely one aspect of breathing is to experience the dan tien. Bringing the awareness of the breath in the dan tien is a common meditation practice. Breathing is a useful tool to give the meditation a feeling-sense rather than engaging a visual or mental focus. Breathing in the dan tien can be a useful practice to “tune into our breathing,” “get out of our heads”, and get into our body-mind. The quiet, easeful breath can allow you to become more aware of your internal state. One aid to bear in mind is to “inhale thin and deep, exhale slow and long.”
First we use the mind (consciousness) to direct our breathing in the dan tien. The then established rhythm of respiration in the body sets the impetus to continue the cellular involvement of breathing without the conscious mind needing to direct or interfere. At this point, the mind becomes a distant witness. The “body breathing itself” manifests the cycle of expanding and condensing. Filling (expansion) initiates in the dan tien, the energetic center of the belly, and fills the soma (body-mind) to the periphery and skin surface. Emptying (condensing) returns the fullness of the soma to the dan tien. It is not an airy “breath” but rather is the flow of respiration that sequences through the cellular neighborhood.
Through practice of either stillness in sitting, stillness in standing, slow walking and eventually during qigong, this feeling ultimately releases to open way to complete emptiness, the embodied space of the constant eternal void from which expansion arises and into which condensing sinks.
Breathing, more properly termed ventilation, is the filling and emptying of the lungs with air. Respiration is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide at the cellular level in the cells of the lung and at the tissue level. It is not simply the passage of air into and out of the lungs. The body itself generates cellular respiration. Respiration happens at the cellular level and the lungs are merely bags, although highly sophisticated ones at that.
To sum-up and add one more piece, the dan tien is a feeling place in the low belly somewhat midway between the skin on the front of the body and the skin on the back of the body. One way it can be “found” is through practice where the breath originates and returns in the mid-low belly. As the breath originates in the dan tien, it flows sequentially (like continuous ripples) to the periphery- the head, pelvis, fingers, toes and surface of the body. The breath then cycles back from the periphery to the dan tien. This takes practice.
After sequential flow of breath becomes mastered and the cellular nature of the body awakens, then the sequential aspect of the breath is released to give way to a more primitive, essential form of respiration, simultaneous expanding and condensing. We return to likeness of the universe and all things in the cycle of ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning, coming and going, rising and falling. You get the idea.
Now, we have been connecting the breath with expanding and condensing. As qi manifests in the body, it is independent of the breath. The breath is simply a tool to contact qi. Once this happens, then the movement of qi, its rise and fall, its flow along the yin and yang pathways of the body is a felt sense. Not a visual or conceptual idea but a felt experience. Just like feeling a hand stroking your skin or the closing and opening of a fist or the sense of hunger in the belly. Qi is a felt quality. As an advanced exercise, you can then play with juxtaposing the flow of breath and qi or the merging of breath and qi. Enable your feeling state to practice this and more deeply balance and refine your system. It will also liberate you from the confines of the conscious mind. Be gentle with your intention and go with the flow.
After a practice session our cells have received another lesson and are coming home to their innate intelligence. We let go of technique, just breathe and trust our inner nature to guide us.
With all of this complexity on breathing and qi, a reminder that if you are breathing at all, you are doing A-OK!
Winterize Your Practice
Greetings! Autumn is here and winter is not far behind. Qigong In The Park classes have enjoyed a wonderful summer season outdoors and recently, a student asked me if I had any practice tips for the changing of seasons.
The natural cycle of nature in North Carolina is transitioning from the yang of summer to the yin of winter. We are coming into the season of darkening, descending, and drying energy. In this time, the daylight hours become shorter, energy descends into the roots of the plants, deciduous trees drop their leaves, the air becomes drier and most animals prepare for the colder months to come. Realizing this is a natural cycle, we can incorporate more yin qualities into our qigong practice and also into our ordinary lives.
Qigong systems contain both yin and yang elements. One intention is to move toward balancing these energies within ourselves. To reflect the change toward winter however, we will want to emphasize the yin aspects of our respective practices. This includes placing more emphasis on condensing movements; those that move energy downward and inward. We may also want to decrease repetitions and even range of movement while increasing efficiency and ease to cultivate our feeling-sense of qi.
Practicing in a more relaxed and simple way is important during this time of year. We can follow the principle of“separate then combine.” Simply put, separate out one element of your movement to practice. It could be noticing the shift of weight on your feet, or it could be noticing how your weight shifts from side-to-side, or the feeling of how your arm (or arms) rise, or fall, or when you turn over your hand. Pick one single element of your practice, separate it out and pay attention to just this while you practice. The next time, separate out another element and attend to just this. After you feel comfortable with some of the parts you have separated out, combine two or more into the whole of your movement. Do not worry about getting it all together at one time. Let go of the tracking, trust that your body-mind has integrated the separate elements and then enjoy being in the moment. You can always go back to separating individual elements and combining them to help keep your practice fresh and progressing.
We may also use the breath to activate yin qualities. Use your breath in a more relaxed and ease-full way. One breathing focus is expanding and condensing the dan tien. Use it as a tool to internalize your practice. The quiet, ease-full breath can allow you to become more aware of your internal state. One practice tip to bear in mind is to inhale thin and deep, exhale slow and long.
With the seasons changing to less light and warmth to more dark and cold, what changes in your daily living will support your recuperating yin-self?
Qigong or Sports?
Which is better, practicing qigong or playing sports? Well, this is like comparing apples and oranges. Both are fruit, both are found on farms, both are seasonal. Each one is certainly a healthful choice and rather than going into particular differences here, let’s look at qigong and sports.
Though there are many different forms of both qigong and also sports, there is overlap in their benefits. Each one exercises or expresses different aspects of our body-mind-energy, so which to practice depends on your personal situation, your particular goals, and resources. Sports are certainly enjoyable and exercise the physical body, senses, sportsmanship, and competition among other things. Some require special equipment, playing areas, or even club memberships. In general, sports train the musculo-skeletal-fascial system and cardiopulmonary system. Even perceptual systems are exercised when tracking a ball, a competitor, or even road hazards when cycling. Sports are fun and a great way to express and enjoy our qi life force. Recuperation generally comes after the game or activity and injury is often a risk.
On the other hand, qigong has very little in the way of equipment or space requirements. The main intention of qigong addresses our vital energy (qi) to open blocks in its flow, circulate it and ultimately store it for later use. This could be directed toward balancing yin and yang (expanding and condensing forces), for healing body and/or mind conditions, concentration in meditation, opening to the wisdom of the universe (no exaggeration here), and changing deep seated, no longer useful patterns to name a few.
Something else to consider is that historically we lived in a more physically stressful culture focused manual farming and physical labor. Today our stress comes more from our technological diet and its effects on our nervous system which in turn impacts many other systems of the body such as our immune and endocrine systems. Qigong is recuperative and “de-stressing” for the nervous system which in turn benefits related systems.
I have found in my practice not only physical benefits but I am also more available to inspiration and ideas that do not generate from my “thinking” mind. The inspirations or “ah ha!” moments arise from my subconscious mind; my “body-mind.” The only way to access this is through releasing the conscious mind and expanding into the universal realm and allowing the insights to arise from my physical and non-physical form. This is available to us all. I recall one of my brilliant teachers, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen the founder of Body-Mind Centering© saying that she is no smarter than anyone else but rather her insights (and dare I say wisdom) come from being open to the infinite knowledge of the universe which is available to everyone. Her teachings have deeply informed my learning, practice, and transmission of qigong systems I have learned from many other teachers. More on them later.
Qigong can help connect us to the present moment and to the greater realm of earth and heaven. Practicing qigong can reconnect us with our original comfort, peace and relationships to others and to the natural world. One could even say that it helps brighten our spirit.
Engaging in both sports play and qigong practice is ideal and provides a well-rounded package for fun and health. In this brief essay, I am sure to have left out many things. If you think of any, please feel free to let me know.
Don’t Bend Your Knees, Fold Your Kwa
A toddler may do a complete squat. She knows so well how her kwa (hips) are folded deeply with her knees directly over her ankles and her feet flat on the ground. She does not think about this but simply squatted naturally. Using one of the most powerful parts of our body, our kwa, may bring us strength, mobility, and balance through the years. Please see article below describing the kwa.
Using the power of the kwa to squat or bend over is much more effective than "bending the knees" as we are often told.The knees are designed for transferring our weight, not bearing it. They transfer our weight down to the earth and also allow the force of the earth to rise up and meet us. There is a two way flow.
By utilizing the kwa, we are mobilizing all of the tissues in the hip region and allowing them to do what they are designed to do. For example, when you find the fluid articulation in the hip joint itself, the force (weight of the body downward and rebound force of the earth upward) is allowed to pass through the bones- the femur and the pelvic bone. This is of vital importance for long term health and strength of the femur. When weight passes though the femur, it goes through the shaft, the neck and the head before transferring to the hip socket and the rest of the body. The bone tissue strengthens with use in weight bearing and movement. With the bones taking the function of their design, the surrounding muscles can do what they are designed to do and that is to move the bones. Muscles are not designed to hold and transfer weight. When they do, they strain, become rigid and injured. You may say our tissues automatically do what they are designed to do just with daily movement and without knowledge of folding the kwa. This may not be necessarily so. Experiment for yourself and squat like a toddler. Feel for yourself. No need to force it if it does not feel right.
There are simple gradual steps to regain our natural flexibility and strength in our kwa. It takes a little time and practice to be able to fully articulate and initiate movement here. Though I cannot say with certainty, as there are many factors affecting our physical and functional health, finding full fluid mobility in our kwa can lead to keeping our natural joints and mobility throughout our lives. And who knows, maybe you will even be able to squat down along with your children and grandchildren and meet them on their level face to face, eye to eye.
Kwa? What’s a kwa?
One of the most powerful parts of our body is our hips. We may think of our hip as simply the joint between two bones, the femur and the pelvic bone. In qigong practice, the hip area is of great importance and more tissue is included to form the kwa. The kwa is the area where the leg joins the trunk. It includes the hip joint, pelvis, sacrum, inguinal crease, inguinal lymph nodes, nerves and blood vessels, iliopsoas muscle, adductor muscles of the thigh, lower parts of the small and large intestines, pelvic diaphragm, rectum, and anus. It is comprised of all tissue types in the body. One of the simplest ways to access this powerful body area is with a simple exercise of folding and unfolding of the kwa while sitting in a chair.
You can do this simple exercise by sitting toward the front of a chair you’re your feet flat on the floor. Choose a non-cushy chair so that you can clearly feel your sit bones, the bottom of your pelvic bones, on the chair. With your spine aligned and your hands resting on your knees, simply roll your sit-bones back and your spine will come forward. It is important to keep your spine aligned so that it does not push back or forward (flex or extend) as you tilt forward. You do not need to go far. This movement isolates the kwa (hip area) so that you start to articulate, lubricate, and integrate this into your movement-mind. To return your spine to vertical, roll your sit bones forward and the spine will rise. Again, initiate the movement in the kwa so that the spine is calm and does not push back or forward and maintains a soft alignment. It is a simple movement that becomes more profound as you move more slowly. This allows the movement to incorporate deeper tissues of the kwa.
We have yet to discover the folding and unfolding of the kwa in side-to-side weight shifting and also in rotation. Within these movements we also have the option to not just fold and unfold the kwa but also to close and open it to create a pumping action which supports the movement of body fluids along their pathways. The fluids include our blood, lymph, cerebrospinal fluid, synovial fluid and the interstitial fluid found in the tissues. Initiating movement in the kwa is also helpful in massaging the muscles surrounding the hip and articulating the hip joint most freely so that our body weight can flow most directly through the bones forming the hip. In this case, the neck of the femur becomes more fully weight bearing and thus mineral build-up is increased in the bone. Over time, practice results in a stronger femoral neck and balanced movement in hip socket. This along with proper nutrition will help keep our hips and legs healthy and functional for the length of our days on earth.
Proper qigong practice incorporates front-to-back, lateral and rotational movements in the kwa and thus affecting the entire body-mind. Integration of your kwa will also translate to proper knee and ankle alignment and help minimize misuse of these joints. We will consider the kwa and in more detail in upcoming newsletters.
Yin and Yang. How do they relate?
Our bodies, as all of nature, manifest the yin and yang energies which make up the relationships we experience. Yin qualities offer earthiness, feminine, dark, soft, moist, relaxed qualities and in relationship to yang qualities which offers spaciousness, masculine, light, hard, dry and active qualities . Yin and yang aspects are relative to one another and the interplay between these two is seen in the dynamics of activity and rest in our bodies and affects our overall health. To put it another way, it is healthful to be active and also to have times of rest. This goes for our choice of daily activities and also how we engage in those activities.
The yang aspects of your bodies are generally on the top, outside and back. Yin aspects of our bodies are generally on the bottom, underside, and front. An easy way to grasp this is in standing, with your arms out to the sides with palms facing down, your trunk is slightly flexed, your feet are separated shoulder width or more and legs are slightly bent. Now, if a light were shining on you from above, it will illuminate your yang surfaces; top of the head, top of shoulders and arms, back of hands, back of trunk, front and outside of thighs and legs, and top of feet. The yin surfaces would be in shadow: face, under chin and neck, underside of arms and arm pits, palms, front of torso, inner and back of thighs and legs, soles of feet. Some yin and yang parts also contain within them yin and yang areas. One important part to consider is the bottoms of the feet which are yin with respect to the top of the feet. However, on the sole, the heel is yin and the ball of the foot, also known as “bubbling spring,” is yang.
Dragon-Tiger Qigong, a powerful system which originated in Taoist practices over 1500 years ago is alive and well today due to its effectiveness in balancing yin and yang pathways and clearing energy blocks. Dragon-Tiger practice cultivates the strength of a tiger and the flexibility of a dragon. You could also shift this to nurturing the suppleness of a tiger and the fierceness of a dragon. Yin and yang are playing with each other here. Have fun with it!
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Somatic Movement Education