Generating Ki Through 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 Ki energy and how it relates to breathing.

chiMost martial arts practitioners have some idea about the concept of Ki energy. Ki 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. Ki has many manifestations. Different philosophies and cultures call it by different names. Metaphysical science calls it “vital force.” Friedrich Mesmer called it “animal magnetism.” The Indian and Hindu yogis call it “Prana.” To the Kung Fu and Tai Chi practitioners of China it is known as “Chi.” Western science defines it as “biorhythm,” and New Age thinkers simply call it “cosmic energy.” Naturally, in each manifestation the Ki 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. Ki is not breath, it is the power that makes it possible for us to breathe. Ki is not simply “energy,” it is what gives energy the power to be energy. Ki 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 Ki 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 Ki 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. Ki transcends this kind of explanation. It doesn’t fit easily into a strict biomedical framework. It is simply indefinable in those terms.

Ki within the body is like power in a rechargeable battery. Occasionally it needs to be replenished. The Ki of the universe is inexhaustible, yet the body needs fresh Ki to maintain its vitality. When you are exchanging the Ki within you with the Ki of the universe, you feel healthy and vigorous. By energizing the body with Ki it is revitalized naturally, enabling it to fight off illness and maintain good health. The true secret to replenishing Ki resides in our breathing.

Breathing in and out through the nose is the only method that enables the body to process Ki energy effectively. Most people understand the importance of breathing in through the nose. The nose has a series of defense mechanisms that prevent impurities and extremely cold air from entering the body. These were detailed in my previous article “Breathing Training for Martial Artists” (SKM Issue 72). Breathing out through the nose requires a deeper understanding of the nature of Ki energy. Practitioners of martial arts, especially karate, need to absorb and process the Ki 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 Ki within the body until the moment it is needed. Basically, when we inhale we are bringing fresh oxygen and Ki 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 Ki from the body. But if we are continuously expelling the Ki 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 the Ki energy is simply dissipated back into the world. Breathing out through the nose, however, completes a closed circuit. By exhaling through the nose, the Ki energy, instead of being expelled with the carbon dioxide, is transferred to the dan tien or hara, located about three finger widths below the umbilicus. With each breath in, more Ki 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.

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Breathing Training for Martial Artists

by Aaron Hoopes

generic-martials-artsOne of the most important aspects of martial arts training is proper breathing. However, for practitioners of hard styles, effective breathing methods are often left to the students to figure out on their own. The central principle of breathing is of internal cleansing, getting rid of that which is old, worn out, and stale, and exchanging it for what is new, fresh, and energized. During inhalation we are bringing in fresh oxygen, nutrients, and vital energy. During exhalation we are expelling carbon dioxide and other toxins and poisons that we produce or collect in our daily lives.

There are a large number of breathing exercises. Some are simple and easy while others require years of practice. I will discuss the five I believe to be the most effective for the martial artists who are beginning to explore the potential of proper breathing. First, we will describe the two methods which are best suited for becoming aware of the body: Attention Breathing and Abdominal Breathing. We will then go on to the more advanced exercises of Reverse Abdominal Breathing and Nose Panting. Finally we will introduce The Complete Breath which is more challenging and requires increased concentration and practice.

In practicing these breathing exercises it is important to concentrate on breathing through the nose, both during inhalation and exhalation. Of course when training in the martial arts, breathing strictly through the nose is unrealistic. In fact it is physically impossible since the body's demand for oxygen increases too fast for the nose to handle the flow. However, while doing these specific exercises it is important. Think of it as a closed circuit within the body, breathing in through the nose and out through the nose. If you open your mouth, you break the circuit and the energy dissipates.

Attention Breathing
It is important to realize that people breathe differently. Children tend to breathe with their abdomen, while middle-aged people breathe with their stomachs, and older people often breathe mainly with their upper chests. But the way people breathe is also affected by other factors, emotions, for instance, or ill health. Someone who is excited will breathe faster and shallower than someone who is sad. Someone who is calm will breathe slowly and deeply. Someone out of shape may be panting after a short walk or climbing some stairs.

Attention breathing, as its name implies, is about focusing your awareness on the natural rhythm of your breath, not to control it but simply to observe it as a bodily function. Your awareness is the instrument which enables you to shift from unconscious breathing to conscious, or dynamic, breathing. This shift is accomplished by concentrating on the feeling of the body as it breathes. Feel the air as it enters your nostrils. Follow it as it flows into the lungs and notice how deeply it reaches into them. Maintain your full attention and follow it back up as you exhale. Feel the used air as it is expelled from the body.

Gradually, as you become aware of the feeling of the breath it should become smoother and more relaxed. But don’t try to change your breathing during Attention Breathing. Your aim is to observe your unconscious breathing habits so you will be able to feel the difference when you actually begin dynamic breathing. If you find your mind wandering, simply catch yourself and return to the breath. Try to perform Attention Breathing for five minutes each day at the same time of day, perhaps in the morning when you wake up or at night when you are about to go to bed. As you become used to it, see if you can focus on your breath at other times throughout the day. Eventually the awareness of the breath and your breathing should become an integral part of your life.

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The Zen of Yoga

  • Yoga

by Aaron Hoopes

What is Zen?
m_zenyogaWell, Zen is… Sorry, it’s not that easy. As anyone who has looked into Zen knows, attempting to define Zen is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. It immediately wriggles between your fingers and slips away. The more you seek it, the harder it is to find. To say Zen is freedom, fluidity or perfection is a start. However, to say Zen is the reflection of the moon in a mountain stream just leaves us scratching our heads. Zen is right here, right now. Zen is this moment of existence. It is action without thought. It is thought and action as one. It is action before reaction. Zen is Zen…though I know that’s not helpful.

The roots of Zen are based in ancient Chinese philosophy. The Chinese word for Zen is ch’an. In Sanscrit, the ancient language of India, it is dhyana, which can be roughly translated as pure human spirit. It can be imagined as the integration of the disparate aspects of the self into one complete and divine being. Zen was eventually brought to Japan where it was elaborated and “perfected” by the Japanese samurai. It is the foundation of the Bushido code, the way of the warrior. The samurai, who lived their lives at the edge of a sword and could die at any moment, were taught to concentrate on and immerse themselves in the here and now in order to connect with the fundamental core of their being. It helped them develop the powers of concentration, self-control, awareness and tranquility. If they approached each battle as if it were their last, they would be able to have every part of their being at their disposal.

Zen itself has no theory. It is not meditation. It is not thinking. It is not not-thinking. It is not something you learn. It is simply something you are. To practice Zen is to live fully and completely, not in the past or the future, but right here and right now. Zen is, in fact, the reflection of the moon in a mountain stream. It does not move, only the water flows by. Zen implies a contemplative, mystical element to the process of self-discovery. Zen allows, and indeed encourages, a deeper exploration into the individual self.

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Finding Chi

  • Mind

by Aaron Hoopes

Chi is the prime moving force both within the human body and outside in the universe. 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.

m_chi_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 that defines, dissects, and categorizes. Chi transcends explanation. It doesn’t fit easily into a strict biomedical framework. It is simply indefinable. If, however, we are able to take a leap of faith and try to believe in the idea of chi, then maybe we can open our spiritual eyes and envision what our physical eyes cannot see or open our mind to understandings we cannot normally comprehend.

The ancient Chinese believed chi flowed through the body along sacred channels called “meridians,” just as blood flows through arteries and veins. Traditional Chinese medicine considers blockage of chi, or even the incorrect movement of chi through the body, as the cause of both mental and physical disease. People with strong chi have a healthy and youthful appearance, a strong immune system, and are full of energy, while people with weak chi appear frail and haggard, tire quickly, and fall ill often.
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. You take in food, water, and air and convert them to energy within your body. During sleep, while your veins are relaxed and open and your brain is calm, you are able to take in a fresh supply of chi. If you are stressed or nervous, you become rigid and circulation is blocked, you have difficulty sleeping, and your reserves of chi dwindle. 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 vitality chi gives to the physical body is generally obvious, but it also gives vitality to your mind. Chi is not only physical energy, it is also mental energy. Realization of this is a key to becoming aware of chi in your life.

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Understanding the Tao

  • Mind

By Aaron Hoopes

The word Tao (pronounced daü) in Chinese means "way," indicating a path of thought or life that is the essential unifying force of everything that exists in the universe. Taoism is following the way. Many martial artists embrace the idea of the Tao without actually understanding the basic principles behind it.

m_taoThe Tao-te Ching is the earliest document in the history of Taoism. It is a viewpoint that emphasizes individuality, freedom, simplicity, mysticism, and naturalness. Considered one of the great philosophical works of ancient China, Tao-te Ching literally means “The Classic of the Way and Its Power.” The book is less than 5,000 words long and is very likely one of the oldest written texts in the world. Authorship of the Tao-te Ching is generally credited to a man named Lao-Tzu but knowledge of him is so scarce that only legends remain. Seeking to learn more about Lao-Tzu only distracts us from his teachings. His name itself, means “old master” or “wise sage” – which only leads back to his writings.

The Tao is all encompassing. Despite the appearance of differences in the world, within the Tao everything is one. Since all is one, matters of true and false or good and evil are irrelevant and only arise when people cannot see beyond their narrow perception of reality. Taoism is a system of philosophical thought that puts emphasis on the spiritual life instead of the material world. The Tao is considered unnamed and unknowable.  Followers of the Tao avoid wasting their energies on the pursuit of wealth, power, knowledge and other distractions. Instead, they concentrate on the reality of life itself of breathing, moving and living in harmony with the natural world. Because all is considered one, life and death merge into each other and immortality can be achieved.

Living the Way of the Tao can be expressed by the term wu-wei which means doing – not doing. This concept does not signify non-action, instead it hints at action without attachment to the action, action without thought of the action. Sounds a little like Zen, doesn’t it?

The roots of Zen are based in ancient Chinese philosophy. The Chinese word for Zen is ch’an. In Sanscrit, the ancient language of India, it is dhyana which can be roughly translated as pure human spirit. It can be imagined as the integration of the disparate aspects of the self into one complete and divine being. Zen was eventually brought to Japan where it was elaborated and “perfected” by the Japanese samurai. It is the foundation of the Bushido code, the way of the warrior. The samurai, who lived their lives at the edge of a sword and could die at any moment, were taught to concentrate on and immerse themselves in the here and now in order to connect with the fundamental core of their being. It helped them develop the powers of concentration, self-control, awareness and tranquility. If they approached each battle as if it were their last, they would be able to have every part of their being at their disposal.

Zen itself has no theory. It is not meditation. It is not thinking. It is not not-thinking. It is not something you learn. It is simply something you are. To practice Zen is to live fully and completely, not in the past or the future, but right here and right now. Zen is, in fact, the reflection of the moon in a mountain stream. It does not move, only the water flows by.

As with Zen, the power of the Tao is in simplicity, and yet it teaches one to become a master of all things by learning to go with the natural flow of the universe. Trying to walk upstream against the river is pointless. It is better to accept that change is inevitable, learn to embrace it and make the most of it when it comes.

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