Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Following the Breath

In zazen meditation we learn to follow the breath. It is a simple yet prfound exercise that anyone can do. It is easy natural breathing with attention paid to the breath itself. It's a simple awareness of breathing and is deeply relaxing. When you become aware of thoughts, return to the breath.
In taiji, breath is closely associated with qi, energy. Where the breath goes, the energy goes. To follow the breath is to follow the qi. This close association of breath and energy or spirit is found in most of the world's great traditions.  It is a near universal insight.
Breathing is the natural cycle of inhaling and exhaling. It is very circular with a slight natural pause before the in-breath. Sit for a while and observe your breathing. You will notice that the transition from the end of the in-breath to the beginning of the out-breath is very smooth. There is no pause at all. Now notice that at the end of the out-breath there is the briefest of pauses. The briefest of pauses is followed in taiji as the moment of change. I demonstrate it on two short video clips using the Immortal's Wand. I have mentioned this very useful tool in another blog. There are no set forms for the wand, rather a number of gigong meditation exercises. I have found "wand work" as I call it to be supremely relaxing.
In the first clip I am "sinking qi." The wand is moved in slow circles following the breath. The wand is brought toward the body with the in-breath. With the out-breath the wand moves down and qi is sunk to the dantien (roughly just below the belly button and slightly back). At the end of the out-breath is the briefest of pauses. The wand follows this too. Look closely and you will see it.

The second clip is roughly the reverse and is a "pushing qi" exercise as the breath and qi move away from the body. This time qi is drawn on the in-breath as the wand moves upward and then away from the body on the out-breath. The end of the out-breath coincides with the wand at the furthest point from the body. Then a brief pause as the in-breath begins and the wand is drawn down and toward the body in circular motion.
To notice: with sinking qi the pause is when the wand is at its lowest point, close to the body. With pushing qi the pause is when the wand is at the furthest point away from the body. The is a subtle but very clear different feeling to these two exercises.

A couple of other things to notice. Taiji is whole body work. When one part moves all parts move. When one part is still all parts are still. You will notice that knees bend in wand work, not merely arms.
How many cycles of breath a minute? You will notice on these clips roughly six breaths a minute. This is my normal breathing during qigong/taiji. Great masters breath maybe four times a minute. During a recent meeting where I was a little bored, I occupied myself with counting the breaths of those present. The average was around 15-19 breaths a minute. Taiji slows you down. That's a good thing!

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