Advanced Breathing Techniques

The Taoist science of how energy moves in humans comes from the 16 components of neigong, or internal energy system. Breathing plays a primary role in the system, is the foundation for all of the other neigong components and is the first neigong component.

This page explores some of the more advanced Taoist breathing practices.

Taoist Longevity Breathing Stages

Breathing methods can go from simple to much more complex as you progress learning. Once these advanced breathing methods are learned, they can be incorporated into any internal energy practice such as taichi, qigong and bagua.

In the beginning stages of Taoist Longevity Breathing, you train your breathing mechanism until every internal part of your body is consistently and powerfully engaged in the breathing. This phase requires effort and consistent practice. It involves learning to breathe with your belly and abdomen and to bring air all the way up your back to the top of your lungs.

In the intermediate phase of Taoist Longevity Breathing, you will learn more complex methods. You will focus on getting your breathing to become progressively longer, softer and more silent. As you do so, the tightness and constrictions in your breathing mechanisms will gradually loosen and begin to move effortlessly with large amounts of motion. One day, you will have strong, deep, quiet and effortless breathing rhythms that you do not have to think about.

You also learn Taoist reverse breathing where all parts of your body move in synchronized fashion with your inhales and exhales. You learn to breathe from your skin and use your breath to open, strengthen and stabilize your etheric body. You will learn Taoist circular breathing using your upper lungs, spine and lower tantien and how to integrate your breathing with any qigong exercise, using the other components of neigong.

The eventual goal is to be able to breathe chi in and out of any body part at will through conscious intent alone.

Breathing with Your Lower Tantien

The object with this type of breathing is to wake up your lower tantien so you can feel it. This kind of breathing has progressive stages. Stage one of breathing will teach you to have a very clear sense of breathing directly into your tantien, the energetic center of your body. The next breathing stage will teach you to feel whether the pressure of your belly expanding and contracting from your tantien might be unbalanced and, if so, how to balance it.

Practicing these breathing exercises will expand your awareness so that you can notice all the minor variations of tension and contraction that occur as you breathe. The next stage will teach you to breathe from your tantien in two or more directions simultaneously in several ways.

Taoist Reverse Breathing

In Taoist regular breathing, your belly expands as you inhale and shrinks when you exhale. In Taoist reverse breathing, you do the opposite-shrink your belly when you inhale and expand your belly when you exhale. Taoist reverse breathing is sometimes called prebirth or womb breathing, because it is how babies breathe chi in and out of their bodies while in the womb.

The goals of Taoist reverse breathing include becoming aware of and controlling the subtle physical and energetic movements of your body so they deliberately occur in rhythm with your breathing. Every physical part and energetic function within your body and etheric body or aura will move in coordination with the expansions and contractions of your belly. Taoist reverse breathing opens, strengthens and stabilizes the aura and is integral to one aspect of what Lao Tse called "Breathing from the Heels," which, within Taoism, is considered to be the only truly complete breathing process.

Taoist Spinal Breathing

Taoist spinal breathing opens and strengthens your spine and all the energies connected with it. Spinal breathing is taught in stages. One stage involves energizing your spinal nerves and begins the process of connectingyour spine's energy to your brain and upper tantien. Another stage involves using your breath to move chi smoothly between your spine and the boundary of your etheric body. Another stage will also teach you to smoothly and evenly move cerebrospinal fluid and energy within your spinal cord and up and down your spine.

Taoist Circular Breathing

Taoist circular breathing is the smooth, seamless flow of chi through your nervous system during your inhales and exhales and most importantly during the change between them. It is an important quality of more advanced Taoist methods to link your breathing to physical movement and energy flow. Your breathing (inhales and exhales) should have no distinct starting or stopping points.

Taoist Circular breathing requires you to learn to mesh your breathing with your chi and nervous system so that they work together seamlessly. Successful circular breathing requires that you accomplish five tasks:

  1. Become aware of the underlying quality or feeling of your nervous system as you breathe.
  2. Focus on the conjoined quality of your breath and nervous system as you  inhale and exhale.
  3. Find any gross gaps in your breathing, particularly at the changeover point between inhales and exhales.
  4. Train your awareness to become increasingly subtle and conscious of the microgaps in your breathing. Make your breaths go progressively sung (p. 114 of Opening the Energy Gates of the Body). As this occurs, become aware of even more subtle gaps that cause your nervous system to freeze momentarily during your practice. You will train until your nervous system becomes completely smooth and seamless and the difference between inhales and exhales disappears.
  5. The goal in the last phase of Taoist circular breathing is to directly find your chi. Having your breath be seamless and smooth can be the doorway to finding your chi; just as finding your chi is the doorway that can enable your breathing to become truly circular. They are interconnected and cannot be separated.

The task now is to make the jump from being only indirectly aware of your chi by its reflections in your breathing, nervous system and body (the goal of all the book Opening the Energy Gates of the Body), to becoming directly aware of chi as a separately-felt entity that empowers all movements in all your systems.

Awareness of subtleties and intentionality is a wonderful tool. As it becomes stronger and more refined it allows you to recognize and direct your energy in ways that otherwise would be impossible. As you practice more and your breathing becomes seamless, the barriers to being aware of chi dissipate. Gradually, with more and more breathing practice, your awareness will learn to fully penetrate your nervous system and become exceedingly familiar with it.

When this happens the last barriers to your breathing being fully circular will disappear. Eventually, your awareness will be able to recognize the underlying separate qualities of your breathing, nervous system and chi. You will become aware of the subtle current which interlinks all three. You will experience how your chi affects, is affected by and is the underlying force that joins and controls your nervous system and breathing.

Breathing with Chi

One day, as you focus on your breathing, the air coming in and out of your nose will seem to slow and then stop, while the insides of your abdomen and lungs will continue to move very powerfully. Even though you will be physically breathing well, it will seem as though your physical breath has gone totally silent and completely stopped and your body and mind have also spontaneously become silent.

An eerie silence and sense of incredibly expanded and empty space will arise within your body and mind. Suddenly you will find yourself silently breathing chi in and out. Then, this too will seem to slow to a stop. One day, during the circular breathing process your body and mind spontaneously will again become even more silent. Even though you will be physically breathing well, it will seem as though your breath has gone totally silent and completely stopped.

Within this space your sense of air movement will be gone but your organs will restart opening and closing (expanding and condensing) as though they have an independent will of their own. Now, instead of air being moved in and out of your nose, each expanding and condensing of your internal organs will bring in and expel something. This is chi.

After becoming experienced with this for a while, you will have gained the foundation to gradually become able to directly move chi anywhere in your body by conscious intent alone, using all the components of neigong.

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Because Dragon and Tiger Qigong is a simple and effective qigong practice, it is taught to students at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine. Tracing the meridian lines helps our students to become more sensitive to both their own and their patients' chi and enables them to become better acupuncturists.

John Hicks