Breathing is at the heart of Taoist arts and other Eastern practices, such as yoga and Buddhist meditation. Breathing well is also a key to success in Western athletic sports, including running, swimming, football and tennis.
Leading up to the Instructor Training this summer I’ll share a lot of important information about breathing to help you prepare. Whole-body breathing will make you feel more alive, improve your health and make your body conscious . . . bringing real value to your quality of life.
So in this first post I’ll talk about a classic Taoist phrase in the Inner Chapters, “The wise man breathes from his heels.” Well, if you haven’t got the faintest clue what Chuang Tzu means you’re not alone. Let’s explore some possibilities . . .
The Physiology of Whole-body Breathing
You begin by fully engaging your breathing mechanism to its highest capability. That is you breathe from your belly and the sides of your body, which engages your liver and spleen. Breathing from your belly also activates your diaphragm. You actually want to get your breath to move everything that’s below your abdominal muscles, including your intestines and all the parts involved with the digestive system.
You are effectively giving all of your internal organs a massage while oxygenating your blood. Where there is oxygen there is life: It has been shown, for example, that cancer simply cannot survive in highly oxygenated environments.
Of course whole-body breathing also includes opening up your lungs. This will apply pressure to your heart (in a good way) by supporting the muscles around the heart. When you get this going really well, then the breath in your belly will go all the way up into your brain, energizing your think-tank. For this to happen your glands must also be activated.
Going Deeper than the Physical Body
Whole-body breathing penetrates deeper than only the physical body. The wise man breathing from his heels says that if you breathe in and out of your feet, in that process you will have a sense of your breath going from your feet all the way through your entire body to the top of your head and out your fingertips.
The implication is that if you breathe from your heels you’ll draw on the earth’s energy. You can use that chi to open up the energy channels of your body. So you breathe not only from your physical body, but also in a manner that activates your etheric and other non-physical bodies. The Taoists have been practicing this technique pragmatically for thousands of years. It’s not a matter of creating a nice visualization.
You’ve probably heard the Taoist joke: You can visualize yourself walking like a duck and talking like a duck, but until you can lay an egg and feed a starving person you’re not a duck! So visualizations can be helpful, but actually activating energy flows is a different story. Taoists were not only able to demonstrate breathing from their heels, but teach people how to do it–24 hours a day.
In the West, breath training has really only been recognized as having a significant link to stress reduction and a greater sense of well-being, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Opening the Energy Channels of Your Body
The Taoist phrase, “The wise man breathes from his heels,” is talking about the entirety of how you open up all the energy channels of your body. As you breathe in from your nose, you want to feel your breath in your entire body. This activates and increases blood circulation, which is critical to the transportation of vital nutrients and oxygen to and removal of waste products from every cell in your body. Whole-body breathing therefore has a positive systemic impact. Only breathing into the chest and upper lungs won’t cut it–no matter how hard you huff and puff.
Many people take Taoist practices as metaphor: I put my mind in my feet and breathe in and out and somehow I become healthier. In reality the process of genuine whole-body breathing starts in your belly, works its way up to your upper body, and then goes all the way to your finger tips and bottom of your feet.
If you are serious about qigong, bagua, tai chi, hsing-i, yoga, meditation–or your health in general–breathing will be at the core of each and every practice. If you truly learn to breathe from your heels just about anything is possible.