Understanding Chi & Breathing
by Aaron Hoopes
Whenever I teach a "Breathing in the Martial Arts" seminar, I always have the students breathe in and out through the nose. This often brings quizzical looks, and invariably, at the end of the session, the first question asked is; "Why are we breathing in and out through the nose?" This is a valid question and I'd like to address it here. Before I do that, I need to explain a little bit about Chi (sometimes spelled Qi) energy and how it relates to breathing.
Most martial arts practitioners have some idea about the concept of Chi energy. Chi refers to the natural energy of the Universe, which permeates everything. All matter, from the smallest atoms and molecules to the largest planets and stars, is made up of this energy. It is the vital force of life. It is the source of every existing thing. Chi has many manifestations. To the kung fu and taiji practitioners of China it is known as "Chi," but different philosophies and cultures call it by different names. Japanese martial arts call it "Ki." Metaphysical science calls it "vital force." Friedrich Mesmer called it "animal magnetism." The Indian and Hindu yogis call it "Prana." Western science defines it as "biorhythm," and New Age thinkers simply call it "cosmic energy." Naturally, in each manifestation the Chi is viewed and defined differently, but basically it is the same thing. It is the power which enables us to think, move, breathe, and live ? the power that makes gravity act like gravity. It is what makes electricity electric. It is the link between our perception of the inner and outer worlds. It is our connection to the very flow of the universe and the prime moving force within the human body. Chi is not breath; it is the power that makes it possible for us to breathe. Chi is not simply "energy," it is what gives energy the power to be energy. Chi is the power behind movement and thought?and it is everywhere. It is in the oxygen we breathe and the blood that flows through us.
It is difficult to define Chi concretely. It cannot be seen or measured, it cannot be touched or captured. It is everywhere, yet we have no way to touch it, make it tangible, or even prove its existence. Therefore Chi is a difficult concept to accept. The Western mind likes the tangible, the concrete and the specific. It likes a scientific explanation which defines, dissects, and categorizes. Chi transcends this kind of explanation. It doesn't fit easily into a strict biomedical framework. It is simply indefinable in those terms.
Chi within the body is like power in a rechargeable battery. Occasionally it needs to be replenished. The Chi of the universe is inexhaustible, yet the body needs fresh Chi to maintain its vitality. When you are exchanging the Chi within you with the Chi of the universe, you feel healthy and vigorous. By energizing the body with Chi it is revitalized naturally, enabling it to fight off illness and maintain good health. The true secret to replenishing Chi resides in our breathing.
Breathing in and out through the nose is the only method that enables the body to process Chi energy effectively. Most people understand the importance of breathing in through the nose. When we breathe in through the nose, there are a series of defense mechanisms that prevent impurities and extremely cold air from entering the body. First, a screen of nose hairs traps dust and other particles that could injure the lungs if we breathe through the mouth. Next, there is a long passage lined with mucus membranes, where excessively cool air is warmed and very fine dust particles that escaped the hair screen are caught. Finally, in the inner nose are glands which fight off bacteria that may have slipped through the other defenses. The inner nose also contains the olfactory organ that gives us our sense of smell, which can detect poisonous fumes that could damage our health if we were to breathe them.
Breathing out through the nose requires a deeper understanding of the nature of Chi energy. Practitioners of martial arts, especially karate, need to absorb and process the Chi that they are breathing in order to generate the power and force for the techniques they practice. They also need to be able to retain the Chi within the body until the moment it is needed. Basically, when we inhale, we are bringing fresh oxygen and Chi into our body. When we exhale through the mouth, we are expelling carbon dioxide, which contains all the toxins and poisons that have built up within the lungs. We are also expelling Chi from the body. But if we are continuously expelling the Chi, we never give it a chance build up into the rich source of energy needed to complete our techniques to their maximum effectiveness. By exhaling through the mouth, we simply allow the Chi energy to dissipate back into the world. Breathing out through the nose, however, completes a closed circuit. By exhaling through the nose, rather than allowing the Chi energy to be expelled with the carbon dioxide, we transfer it to the dan tien or hara, located about three finger widths below the umbilicus. With each breath we take in, more Chi enters the body and circles down to the dan tien, growing stronger and stronger. During this breathing process, the tongue is up, touching the top palate of the mouth just behind the front teeth and the air is expelled from the nose with a slightly audible hiss. There is also a feeling of the abdominal walls contracting down with the exhalation.
Once sufficient Chi has been generated this way, the practitioner is able to direct the Chi with tremendous force. Remember that Chi is a subtle, invisible force that requires much patience and long years of practice to understand. The ability to relax and breathe effectively will benefit your training in building Chi. When your mind and body are working together in a relaxed manner and you are breathing properly, a tremendous amount of energy is able to flow through your being. The key is not to force it, just slow down, relax and breathe through your nose.
About Aaron Hoopes:
Aaron Hoopes has over twenty-two years experience in karate, taiji, kung fu and yoga. He has lived and trained in Japan and Australia and is the founder of Zen Yoga. He is the author of Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit and Breathe Smart: The Secret to Happiness, Health and Long Life. He has published numerous articles in a number of magazines. His new CD Inner Sunrise is a stress relief/deep relaxation program. He travels the world teaching his methods. From children to seniors - his teachings are accessible to all. For more information see his website at http://www.artofzenyoga.com