I went to visit with Shi Guolin, the venerable 34th generation Shaolin Temple monk and Abbot from the Shaolin Temple Overseas Headquarters in Flushing, NY to better understand about the importance of breathing (to read more information regarding Shi Guolin or the Shaolin Temple Overseas Headquarters, see KungfuQigong August 2000 issue). It was a wonderful meeting, opening my eyes to the essence of Shaolin and the importance of breathing.
For those who may not be familiar with Shaolin culture, there are some essentials. According to Ven. Shi Guolin, Shaolin culture the real way is not only Kung Fu or Buddhism, but it is a combination of both. They must be combined as one. Some may know there is a combination of both, but most do not really understand Cha'an Kungfu, which is the true combination.
According to Ven. Shi Guolin, breathing is the first step in training because it is during breathing that we adjust and balance our body for our movements. While inhaling, we are re-adjusting our body for our future movement. In most forms, while we are moving into the posture, we are inhaling. This is our body re-adjusting. When executing a movement through, we exhale. This is the use of energy. Without proper balance of readjustment and use, our movements are stilted. Shi Guolin notes, "As Qi is the essence of life and flows throughout the universe, the basic movements of Qi - in & out, up & down, contracting & expanding - are also the basic elements of breathing."
As the universe is made up of 4 elements: earth, water, wind, fire - so is our body: bone (earth), blood (water), breath (wind), temperament (fire). Breathing is as essential as wind is for maintaining the universe. If an area has no wind, the air becomes stagnant, begins to smell, and is unhealthy. The same thing can happen with our body and breathing.
Even when you are breathing, it is still a movement. To view breathing as a movement in your form takes concentration, but is essential. Breathing is not a straight movement. It is not a simple up and down. It is more of an "S" curve. Upon inhaling, imagine your chest expanded and your gut contracted. This creates an "S," with the high curve at the top. Upon exhaling, imagine your chest contracted and your gut expanded. This creates an "S," with the high curve at the bottom. When combined, this creates the ying yang.
Notes Shi Guolin, "The Spirits guide Qi and Qi guides the body; we guide our movements by our breathing."
One of the main ways of focusing and balancing our Qi is through breathing. It allows one to adjust, centralize, and channel their Qi. While learning Qigong and kungfu, you learn postures and stances. These are to assist you in your breathing and practice in channeling Qi.
The first step in understanding the importance of breathing is to understand the 3 stages:
Deep breathing, and
The trick is to understand that 1 & 3 are not the same. Before you practice Qigong or kungfu, you already use natural breathing, but after practicing your understanding of the importance of natural breathing changes. This is due to learning the postures and stances and the understanding of channeling Qi. More oxygen can be channeled throughout your body, making focusing and balancing Qi easier.
The body is made up of 3 sections, and each section can be divided into another 3 sections. Each being a root, middle, or end. The 3 sections of one's body are the legs (root), torso (middle), and arms (end). These 3 main sections also have 3 sections: the legs have the hip (root), knee (middle), and feet (end); the torso has the abdomen (root), chest (middle), and head (end); the arms have the shoulder (root), elbow (middle), and hands (end). These sections make up the 9 meridians.
We utilize our breathing to focus our Qi and learn to channel it to our ends. In training, movements may be slow to accentuate the process; however, postures and stances use our breathing to channel and focus Qi. Each time a body movement is initiated, we inhale. This is one adjusting and channeling Qi. Each time a movement is being executing, we exhale. This is the Qi being channeled. For instance, if you kick, you concentrate your Qi from the root (the hip) and contract your leg, using the knee (middle) to focus the Qi, while you inhale. This result is your kick, channeling the Qi to your foot (the end) while you exhale.
While training, we use Deep breathing and slow down the movements to focus on the channeling of Qi. This allows one to adjust and develop Qi. By doing this, we achieve the proper balance of movement, Qi, and Natural breathing when we do the movements fast. This is the same basic concept as in all martial arts: empty/full, open/closed, and slow/fast.
Deep breathing can focus our power and maintain the balance of empty/full, open/closed, and slow/fast. The proper balance will show in our postures and stances. The function of breathing is to keep everything balanced.
Without control of breathing, it is impossible to have full control of your movements. Without control over breathing and your movements, you are unable to train your spirit. In Shaolin, there is a true combination of training your mind, spirit, and body.
Breathing is not only essential to living, but it is one of the keys to mastering any martial arts. Your breathing should always be even. This assists in keeping your mind focused and your body movements correct. Ven. Shi Guolin used the example of a person who is upset; they tend to breathe heavier and faster when angry-huffing and puffing. This is not conducive for a clear mind. Energy is being wasted and our body, mind, and spirit are not balance.
The importance of learning to control breathing is often taken for granted. As it is an everyday function, it is one of the hardest to teach. Regardless of how often you practice your forms, there is no benefit without proper breathing. It is important to view breathing as a step or movement in doing forms. Incorrect breathing not only may cause you to be more fatigued, but also can hinder proper movement of your body.