It is a bit unusual to us in the western world to consider the importance of breathing techniques. After all, we are always breathing, aren't we? It seems a little silly to put extra attention to something we do naturally. Notice your own breathing. Isn't each breath actually very shallow? Does your posture or position encourage or restrict your ability to take full breaths? If you note carefully you will probably realize that you are utilizing one quarter or less, of your lung capacity.
The presence of special breathing practices in the ancient cultures has always been a mystery to people in the Western world. There are numerous beneficial physiological mechanisms that are triggered when we turn our attention to the breath and then increase it's volume. When volume, rate and attention level are all altered, dramatic physiological, and even emotional, changes can occur. As it turns out, unknown to science until very recently, the action of the lungs, diaphragm and thorax are a primary pump for the lymph fluid, a lymph heart. This mechanism may be more important to the lymph heart than body movements. In addition, the breath is the source for oxygen which is the key element in the body's ability to produce energy. And the act of relaxed, full breathing moves the function of the autonomic nervous system towards balance or homeostasis. (Please see the section on physiology in "The Most Profound Medicine" for a complete revelation of the mechanisms initiated by Qigong).
From the traditions of the ancients we know that breathing practices are important. Why would they continue to employ techniques that were ineffective? Empirical science, the scientific method of all original cultures, is based on trial and error. That which has value is kept and employed. That which is found to have little or no value is dropped. In the empirical approach, that which is kept, is "tried and true". Empirically breath practice is "tried and true".
We also know that these practices are important through clinical experience. Patients who have learned and used breath practice as a part of their daily personal system of self-applied health enhancement respond more quickly to treatment, no matter what type of physician they are seeing. Individuals who are well are able to remain more well, adapt to greater stress and have greater endurance when they keep breath practice in their daily self-care ritual.
Inspiration is the rush that one feels when over taken by spiritual energy, it is the force that impels one forward into life, and it is the divine influence that brings forth creativity and vitality. Inspiration is, also, "to breath in ". The breath is a link to the most profound medicine that we carry within us. Within this nearly unconscious gesture, a breath, that we enact 1,261,440,000 (1 and 1/4 billion) times in our life span there is a simple yet profound healing capability.
Our first act when we emerge from the womb is to inspire. Our last act is to dis-inspire or expire. These breaths, first in and finally out, are like parentheses that encompass our corporal life. It is no surprise that the breath would be so remarkably linked to the power of healing.
Subsequent columns will provide specific instructions for the following breathing practices: