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I recently received this breathing question and I thought it was worth sharing with everyone here as a post. (Don't forget, you can send me your practice questions!)

I'm really confused! I took a Yang Style Tai Chi course and at the end of the class we would do Qigong. He said "We will do diaphragmatic breathing. As you breath in draw the navel into the spine, as you exhale release and let the belly relax but don't collapse." What kind of breathing is this and what is the correct breathing for my qigong practice? Is this wrong?

This is a great question. There are many, many different breathing methods, so it can be really hard to discern what any one practice is doing and how it fits in a larger practice context.

Fortunately, most of these techniques break down into big categories that are easier to understand.

Most breathing practices are designed to hit one or more of these areas:

  • Effecient Gas Exchange
  • Internal Massage
  • Energetic Activation
  • Meditation/Working with the Mind

Effecient Gas Exchange

When you breath well, in terms of moving gases in and out of the lungs, you can improve everything from your mood to your physical performance and focus, presence, and concetration.

At the most basic level, all breathing practices should make you a better breather in terms of:

  • Using the correct muscles (diaphragm, intercostals)
  • Reducing strain/effort in breathing at rest

This "Wall Exercise" is one of my favorites for learning to feel the correct movement of the lungs/ribs during effecient breathing:

Internal Massage

When you hear "diaphragmatic breathing," as in the initial question, at least in a Tai Chi/qigong context, it will often go beyond the simple effeciency model.

We want to use the location of the diaphragm -- above the middle internal organs -- and its movement -- pumping up and down -- to actually massage the internal organs.

When you inhale, it creates a pressurization in the abdominal cavity. On the exhale, this pressure is released.

Alternating compression and release creates massage.

In this case, the instructions are designed to increase the massaging effect: "As you breath in draw the navel into the spine, as you exhale release and let the belly relax but don't collapse."

This is a variation of a type of breathing practice called "Reverse Breathing." When you do this kind of work, increasing internal pressures deliberately, you want to watch for your face turning red, the neck feeling tight, or a sense in your head of too much pressure. All of these are signs you need to back off and return to Natural Breathing.

Energetic Activation and Working with the Mind

If we extend this process of using the breath to enliven the inside of the body, eventually we will cross over from physical activation to energetic activation.

Specifically, breathing techniques can be a part of awakening the lower tantien.

Here, you will use the sense of movement from the breathing mechanisms (diaphragm pumping up and down) and pressure changes in the abdominal cavity to wake up more and more feeling sensation until you fill a still center-point deep in the pit of the abdomen.

At this point, I always recommend that you dial back the deliberate action of conscious breathing, letting it go quiet instead. This is how you open up the space to working more directly with your energy and the mind.

When you can start to feel the lower tantien, you may notice:

  • The tantien emerging as your clear center of gravity.
  • A pulsing in sync with the rhythm of the breath.
  • Your mind shifting to the tantien, or as is sometimes said, "you start to see from the lower tantien."
  • A sense of gathering energy into the lower tantien, especially if you have a period of quiet, non-intention at the end of your practice.

Hopefully, these big categories will help you navigate the different types of breathing practices that you will encounter. No matter how you practice, it's always a good idea to finish with quiet, natural breathing so that you smooth out your nervous system. This will stay with you 24 hours a day if you set up a nice easy rhythm.