by Donna Quesada: Growing up in the west, we were told to stand with our chest out and our belly in. But, from the perspective of eastern wisdom, it’s all wrong.
“Chest Out, Belly In”—The belly is not only our center of gravity, but the location of our life force, known as ch’i. Mystics and masters of old will tell you that you have a special power in your belly. I remember my own Zen teacher saying to me once: “There’s a little Buddha in your belly, why don’t you see if you can wake him up.”
Relationship Between Belly and Breathing—
The first step to waking up the Buddha in your belly is to relax. Holding in your belly creates constriction and blocks energy flow. The idea is to let go of any tension within the belly, so that the diaphragm can move easily with the breath. “Belly breathing” brings the latent powers, that are said to lie just below the navel center, to life. The belly should appear to inflate with each inhale. It’s easy to see if someone is doing belly breathing or chest breathing by whether the belly or the chest rises with each in-breath. Most of us aren’t taught to breathe deeply unless we study some form of Yoga or martial arts. Or, if you’ve taken singing lessons, which is where I was first taught to breathe with my diaphragm. Consequently, the too-shallow and too-rapid “chest breathing,” which is emblematic of a stressed out and anxious world, tends to be the default… but more on the nitty gritty of breathing, below.
A Rose By Any Other Name—
Although most of the different meditation traditions that I’ve encountered emphasize deep breathing as a counterpart to any meditative practice, the Taoist styles, and the martial arts trainings that draw from them, are particularly focused on breathing techniques that work to generate ch’i. Once this life force is accumulated, it can be stored in this area that we have mentioned, right below the navel, and then later harnessed, much as you would draw power from a battery. This special place goes by many names. The Kung Fu masters call it the Tan-tien, the Zen masters call it the Hara, the Tibetans call it the Windhorse, while the Yogis have always referred to it as the Solar Plexus… meaning, “sun center”—conjuring up the idea of the “fire in your belly.”
Aligned with our third chakra, known as the Manipura Chakra, the Solar Plexus is the storehouse of untapped power. It is just below the belly button and is believed to be the cradle of our character, emotions and overall physical energy. The western vernacular word mojo comes to mind, since this can mean different things, but also suggests the idea of an inner spark and feeling of motivation. When tapped into, this vital center is also the source of virtues like patience and willpower, which may sound contradictory, but not when you consider that patience requires strength… and this strength is just another application of life force.
The Story of the Archery Master—
There is a story I like, which illustrates the hidden power that lies within the belly:
Kenran Uneji, the archery master, bade his pupils test his arm muscles at the moment when his bow was drawn to its fullest extent—a bow which nobody but himself was able to draw. His muscles were completely relaxed. He laughed and said, “Only beginners use muscle power—I draw simply with the spirit,” and he meant by that the power that comes from Hara. (Karlfried Graf Durckheim, 1977)
This story demonstrates the ease at which tasks are accomplished once we tap into this magical font of personal vigor, rather than relying on brute force.
As mentioned above, breathing kickstarts the flow. Like a gas line… it begins the pumping action that starts the cumulation of ch’i, direct from the universe to the belly, by way of the breath. And there are many different breathing techniques which are appropriate, from simple long deep breathing, to variations of kapalbhati, or fire breathing, which have roots in Ayurvedic healing traditions. But even before focusing on the breath, the process begins with our awareness; we first learn to anchor ourselves here.
Try it with me:
A simple meditation in Awareness—
Where ever you are… in a chair, or on a pillow or meditation cushion…
Close your eyes and bring your attention to your belly. Place your right hand on your belly. Do you feel it move with your in-breath?
If not, that’s okay. Simply concentrate here for a moment. Envision a little flame in your belly.
Can you feel the heat that this flame is generating?
Let the breath go.
Now, try and take another big breath and direct it into your right hand, as it rests on your belly. Imagine this breath fueling that little fire… bringing it to life.
Do you feel your belly expand outward with your inhale?
Now, exhale… Do you feel it deflate?
It is often said among mystics and Zen masters that simply bringing our attention to our belly keeps us grounded and out of the ego. Because it is the ego and the thinking mind which imagines that it has to do everything itself, and thus turns everything into a struggle. In Taoist language, which is part of Zen’s root system, being stuck in the head pulls us out of our natural alignment with nature. But on the other hand, when you learn to tap into this hidden well stream of power, you simultaneously surrender that superficial mechanism of control, in deference to something unseen. Something bigger than us. And when we direct our breath here, and let our actions come naturally from this power spot, we maximize our effectiveness in everything we do.
It is admittedly difficult to let go of our addiction to doing and to controlling. Even though this business of control is but an illusion. We aren’t used to trusting the flow of nature.
Another Real-Life Example—
There is an Alan Watts video I like to show my students of eastern philosophy, which includes old black and white footage of a celebrated Japanese Judo master who was over 70 years old at the time of filming. In that footage, Mr. Mikuné is challenged by a series of younger British black belts, all of whom are twice his size and half his age, and each one of them finds himself thrown down in a seemingly effortless way, by Mr. Mikuné. As a tiny little thing, it’s certainly not due to brawn, but rather because the master understands how to harness his chi force. With hardly a perceptible movement in Mr. Mikuné’s wrist, the large lads find themselves defeated, one by one. And it all appears so elegant. And then they bow.
Wu Wei (Efficiency of Movement)—
We may not all have black belt aspirations, but learning to awaken the energetic potential of the solar plexus, gives influence to the way we approach everything, and in turn, positively affects the subtle aspects of our lives, from the physical to the psychological… having a healing effect on our moods, sleep and even metabolic process, like digestion.
All of the Yogas—and by “Yoga,” I mean all practices designed to connect us to the divine within via breath, movement or devotion—and similar mystic traditions, such as Chi Gong… typically encompass some form of diaphragmatic breathing. This breathing style is generally taught in conjunction with the principle of maximizing efficiency in the way we utilize our ch’i. In the Taoist tradition, this is called wu wei, which translates as Non Action. However, “ease of movement” captures the spirit of its meaning better.
To get the sense of wu wei, consider the example of floating. I remember when I was a child and was first learning to swim. I saw someone floating and was captivated… Wow! You mean you can lie on the water without sinking?! Of course, as I quickly learned, the more you kick and flap your arms, the quicker you sink. But more to the point of wu wei, the more you flail about, the quicker you deplete your ch’i. And as I always remind my students, the conservation of ch’i is at the root of all Taoist teachings, which is, in turn, the source of martial arts training, as well as Chinese medicine.
The question to ask is: “How can I get the job done without depleting my reserves?” Or, similarly, “How can I solve my dilemma in the most simple and graceful way?” The well loved scholar on world religions, Huston Smith, called wu wei “creative quietude,” which nicely points to the gentle nature of whatever answer we decide on. Music and sports are replete with applications of wu wei. For example, any swimmer knows that to maximize speed and minimize exhaustion, form, movement and breath have to work together in a streamlined way. Wild, excess movement will have a deleterious effect on time and performance.
The Particulars of Breathing—
As it turns out, we can all benefit from efficient breathing… even if we’re not out to win any races. In the Yoga tradition in which I was trained, it is said that most people breathe close to 20 cycles per minute, a number that goes even higher under stressful conditions. You can feel it… when you get nervous or angry, can’t you just feel your heart pounding? That’s the “sympathetic nervous system” response in action! We need that when we’re in duress, but we don’t want to live there. So, it’s important to learn to activate the other side of the autonomic nervous system, known as the “parasympathetic system.” To activate this part of the system, known popularly as the relaxation response, it is ideal to breathe less than 15 cycles per minute.
And to add insult to injury, not only do most people breathe too fast, but most are also breathing too shallowly. The chest style breathing, which is the norm, only utilizes about one third of our lung capacity. Both habits leave our cells hungry for oxygen.
Many people never give breathing a second thought. Your body will continue to breathe without you bothering about it. But consider other automatic processes, like digestion… it will work on its own, but what we eat, how we sit, and how we move, all affect how it works. To our chagrin and discomfort, we’ve all undoubtedly experienced the debilitating aftershocks of… shall we say…. bad food combination choices!
Like any tool, we can maximize our system’s efficiency, if we’re clever in the way we use it. Consider: To better cut wood, we use the right saw… we hold it properly and cut along the natural lines of the wood. And for more effective communication, we choose words thoughtfully… or perhaps say nothing at all (True wu wei/non-action). Similarly, in our digestion example, eating foods which agree with us, along with other lifestyle choices that complement the process, shows likeminded wisdom. And continuing on… with the breath, we start by directing it to the right place…the solar plexus.
So, the breath and the belly work together, like bow and arrow. The solar plexus is the bow and the breath is the arrow.
In the kundalini tradition, in which I teach, this is the center of prana (our word for life force, similar to ch’i) and the fount of the kundalini energy. But, this wellspring of power would run dry without breath. Interestingly, it is said that if you don’t speak from this region, you will not be heard. Inhale down to the diaphragm. Breathe until you look like you’re pregnant! And when you are speaking from this region, you will be more effective and more convincing because it will be thrust from this source of God energy. Note that this has nothing to do with volume. You could whisper and be more effective than someone who is yelling, so long as the whisper is being drawn from this bow—the belly.
Getting Scientific About It—
It is only recently that science has taken an interest in understanding the workings of these mystic practices. Although the mechanisms are not fully understood, psychiatric journals speak in these terms:
“Qigong and Tai-Chi frequently involve anchoring attention to interoceptive sensations related to breath or other parts of the body, which has been shown to enhance nonreactivity to aversive thoughts and impulses. Preliminary studies suggest that the slow movements in Qigong and Tai-Chi with slowing of breath frequency could alter the autonomic system and restore homeostasis, attenuating stress related to hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis reactivity and modulating the balance of the autonomic nervous system toward parasympathetic dominance.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6519567/)
In plain language, this means that when we breathe in the ways dictated by practices like Tai Chi, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes our stress response, as I discussed above. This makes us feel more in control of our impulses and moods. I have witnessed in my own students, the improvement of addictive tendencies as well, since the need to take in energy from outside sources diminishes naturally, when we are energized from within. Sleep improves, as overall balance takes the place of the artificially generated surges and corresponding drops in energy that follow from unhealthy consumption habits.
The Spiritual Dimension—
The Yogis have a saying… that the breath is the bridge between the physical realm and the spiritual realm. So, while we can observe and describe the changes that are palpable, like better digestion, sleep, and overall mood, the deep belly breathing opens the portal to a less tangible but even more exalted realm. The moment we begin to breathe consciously, we begin our spiritual journey; we traverse that bridge into timelessness. We invite the infinite within, so that we may discover that there was never any separation at all. It is because we are taking the leap out of our thinking minds and into our belly… out of our worries and into our breath. And thus, the mystic experience is directly correlated to our ability to engage this region.
Breathing turns the key to the process of self-transformation and is a superior conduit for the evolution of our consciousness and the culminating awareness of ourselves as divine beings. Its origin is the navel point–and when this region is strong, we can then harvest that energy to “pierce into the upper realms of consciousness.”