Understanding Embryonic Breathing, Part 1: Abdominal Breathing – The Four Corners of Breath

The concept of Embryonic Breathing (Tai Xi or T’ai Hsi) is probably well-known to most practitioners of QiGong or Daoism, yet the technique is widely misunderstood and mistaken for many things related or even unrelated. This three-part article is meant to clear up some of the confusion through dispelling myths, and introducing solid, down-to-earth explanations and techniques to follow, in order to understand the true meaning of breath. Part 1: Abdominal Breathing – The Four Corners of Breath aims teach a basic method, which would enable the western practitioner to start learning a simple practice, leading to what might be regarded as called  embryonic breathing, enabling them to advance their QiGong practice to the next level.

Embryonic breathing might appear as mysterious as any of the philosophies of the orient, when studied from the west. According to the book Tai Xi Jing (Respiration of the Embryo) all life originates form one breath, and the moment the embryo is brought to the world, its respiration begins. Regardless if we consider this to be a moment of conception, or the moment of birth, the observation is correct:

As the embryo grows, its cells begin the gas exchange called internal respiration in western medical terms, that is taking up oxygen and getting rid of the accumulating carbon-dioxide. At this stage, the embryo is connected to the mother’s bloodstream through the umbilical cord, its respiration essentially being a part of the mother’s own breathing. (This accounts for the often used alternative name, umbilical breathing).

At the moment of birth, when the child first cries out, the external respiration begins through the use of the lungs. An interesting phenomenon that can be observed from the very first breath drawn, is that the new-born’s abdominal wall would be moving right “against” its natural way, being withdrawn with every inhale, protruding at the exhales, quite the opposite of “normal” abdominal breathing. (This will be further discussed in Part 2 of this article)

A misunderstood tradition

The confusion starts when people today, especially those of western origin, try to make sense of the ancient texts, forgetting that to decipher an ancient culture’s full symbolism, regarding many millennia’s worth of observations of anatomical processes, one needs more than having read so many books on the subject, even though one may be the most devoted Daoist in the west. To fully understand a text like the Tai Xi Jing, a lifetime of study might not be sufficient. The symbolism of such books have been conceived in a different age, when observation-based anatomical knowledge have been very much mixed up with mysticism and philosophy, requiring one to be an expert in all of the above, truly understand the oriental mind and speech, way of life, motives, emotions, et al.

People who attempt to transmit such traditions without grasping their meaning in full, tend to repeat well rehearsed phrases, losing themselves in the wast forest of names and explanations, grasping onto these like so many straws. The best one can do as a westerner, having been brought up in a so different environment of speech, thinking and symbolism, is to follow what is most natural: The western way of thinking and reasoning, trying to make sense of the oriental teaching in a way more efficient than mimicking oriental thoughts would mean, even though it may appear somewhat more blunt.

Making sense of Tai Xi

To make some sense of it all, it is probably best to abandon the though of mysticism and high philosophy for the time being. Without insinuating that the understanding of such would be  beyond your ability, allow me to offer a different approach to understanding this concept of breath, apparently so mystical. To truly make sense of it for the western mind, I invite you for a little experiment, through the leaning of certain breathing techniques. If you are persistent, you might find yourself capable of “breathing without breathing”, an experience that can and will become essential in the process of truly understanding the tradition of Tai Xi.

Some scholars claim, that Tai Xi breathing may mean the apparent lack of breathing at all, that one may tap into the universal energies and stop using their lungs completely, their respiration resembling that of the embryo in its mothers womb. They claim, that if a feather is held up to such person’s nose, the exhalations would not disturb the feather the least, apparently an evidence of all external respirations to be subsided.

Such phenomenon is of course possible, and by all means of western medicine it could be even accounted for. It is not at all unique to Chinese or Daoist tradition at all. Think of the yogi of India, who, by the way of what might be called diaphragmatic breathing, might appear to have stopped breathing at all. Some western “magicians” have been famous to claim they can be buried underground for a great stretch of time, with little air present, a trick learned from the fakir of the east, the means of accomplishment being the same principal as that of Tai Xi.

By the end of Part 3, a full account and explanation of such phenomena will be given, but for now, let us start with a short anatomical introduction to breathing and learning a technique that will prove rather useful in our journey to come.

An oversimplified introduction to the anatomy of breathing

Before we start, it is really important to understand what really happens when you breath. Without diving too deep into human anatomy, let me introduce these few basic, albeit essential facts about the way you breathe:

  • When you inhale, you draw air into your lungs, for the sole purpose of nourishing your body with oxygen, which, from your lungs enters into your bloodstream. When you exhale, all you do is rid yourself of the carbon-dioxide, which accumulates in your lungs, coming form your bloodstream.

  • This process of gas exchange between your lungs and the environment is called external respiration in western medicine.

  • The fresh oxygen travels, by way of your blood, to every cell in your body. The cells will then take up this oxygen supply and use it in the process of making energy to continue to function. They do not only take up oxygen, but exchange it for carbon-dioxide, that is a by product of the cell’s activity, having used up the oxygen supplied previously. This CO2 now enters the bloodstream, to be transported back to the lungs, so that it can leave the body.

  • This process if internal gas exchange is also called internal respiration in western medicine.

  • The lungs themselves cannot “breathe”, the only expand and collapse like a sponge, through the aid of muscles that actively force them to change their size and shape. The most important such muscles are the diaphragm, a large, dome-shaped muscle underneath your lungs, and the intercostals, those being small helper muscles, that sit between your ribs.

  • With each inhale, your diaphragm contracts and flattens, pulling your lungs down. At the same time, the small muscles between the ribs also contract, lifting up the ribcage. This two-way pull ensures that the lungs will expand, initiating an inhale. When you exhale, the diaphragm and the intercostals all relax at once. The rib cage collapses, and the diaphragm returns to its original dome-shape, forcing your lungs to shrink, pressing the air out of them, initiating an exhalation. (An interesting fact is, that in Chinese medicine, the diaphragm is regarded the barrier between upper and lower body, as this is how far oxygen may enter the body by the means of external respiration, and without the aid of the blood stream.)

As you inhale, your diaphragm compresses and flattens, drawing your lungs down, making you inhale. As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and returns to its original shape, compressing your lungs, making you exhale

Of course, the diaphragm is strong enough to perform the duty of breathing without the aid of other muscles, while you are at rest. The reasons that most people will continue to use their chests are many fold, but mainly connected to poor life-style choices, such as sitting , bad posture, tight clothing, the lack of adequate exercise, etc. Correcting this bad habit of breathing into the chest will be the first step towards understanding real embryonic breathing.

Simple Abdominal Breathing

Although described and taught as a basic technique, simple abdominal breathing is the way you should breathe naturally, this is the way you are meant to breathe by nature.

Re-learning proper abdominal breathing does in fact reduce stress levels without any further effort, while learning meditation obviously adds much greater benefits to simply breathing good.  Learning abdominal breathing can be somewhat challenging at the beginning, but in reality it is much easier than many would believe, as re-learning something is a lot easier than learning a new skill.

  • To correct your breathing put one hand over your chest, another over your belly. Sit or stand with a straight spine, but comfortably.

  • Now, start breathing consciously. Watch your hands rise and fall. Try to inhale into your belly, pushing out your belly to an extreme with every inhale, and pulling it in, as much as you can, with every exhale. Do this consciously, only minding the movement of your abdominal wall.

  • Practise for a few breaths. When you are fairly comfortable with it, and it does feel more natural than it did at first, you can start doing it with less effort: do not push your belly out that far and do not draw it all the way in with each breath.

  • Now start watching the hand on your chest. This hand should barely move, or not move at all. This will probably be much more challenging than the first part, you would most likely need some effort to compress your chest as you inhale, preventing it from moving upwards and outwards. It might even help to apply some gentle pressure with your hand, to prevent this movement, yet the effort should really originate from inside, but never force anything.

Do not worry, it will become effortless in no time. This non-movement of your chest is only essential for the learning phase. Once you learn to use abdominal breathing naturally, some movement of your chest will still be present, but a lot less articulated or observable than when you are mainly using your chest to breathe. Your breathing should be relaxed for most of your practice. The movement of your abdomen would still be noticeable, but not very much articulated, while your chest would move very little, or not at all.

Practise until you feel you need. Practise every day, at least once a day, always in a rested position. Remember, the exaggerated belly movement was only for the beginning for you to feel how your abdomen should move, you must not produce the same belly movement for your entire practice. You can use a couple of deeper breaths, with greater navel movement every time you practice, to start off with a better feel of it, then just return to breathing normally. Another point to consider is, at least when you are consciously practising abdominal breathing, that you should not attempt to “suck in the air through your nose”. Just move your belly in and out, open your nose and your throat and let the air stream in effortlessly, without doing anything else in order to inhale.

  • After several days of practice, when you are confident and the correct breathing does not require a great effort anymore, you can incorporate this practice into your everyday activities. During the day, whenever you remember it, start watching your breathing and if you catch yourself breathing into your chest, switch immediately to abdominal breathing. Do not penalise yourself or feel bad about still breathing into your chest. This is normal, you have probably been breathing like that for so many years, your body needs time to re-adjust and come back to its natural ways.

It will take some time, but you will notice how you need to adjust your breathing less and less, and eventually you will find that you always breathe the right way, without any particular effort. How long it takes, will vary from person to person. Do not try to rush it, let it happen at its own pace. Chances are, the process will take a lot shorter time than you would expect, as your body has an amazing ability of adaptation. If it takes longer than you thought, there is nothing you are doing wrong, you only need more patience. With time and practice the change will eventually occur.

Advanced abdominal breathing

While the above described method is generally regarded as ‘The’ abdominal breathing, there are some, slightly more advanced abdominal breathing methods, that should be learned in order to successfully complete this experiment. There is a difference between the simple abdominal breathing you would observe in your everyday life and such advanced techniques. You will not have to have learned to automatically breath correctly in your everyday life, in order to proceed, but in the long therm it would of course have its distinct benefit on your health to do so.

This advanced technique will not differ very much form the simple abdominal breathing. One minor difference will be, that apart from breathing into your belly, you will maintain the conscious effort of the movement of your abdominal wall, just like when you were first learning it. With every inhale, you should consciously expand your belly and with the exhales you should withdraw it, although not to an extreme. You can observe how your sides are also moving along with the abdominal wall. As your belly expands, your whole abdominal region would also expand sideways, and as you withdraw your belly your sides should tighten up like a belt around your waist. This is a natural movement of some lesser known abdominal muscles, often called the ‘obliques’.

The real difference comes from a little discussed way of withdrawing and releasing your buttocks during breathing, meaning mostly the squeezing and relaxing the muscles around the anus and the gluteal cleft. Some may prefer to omit this detail, as it is not considered ‘proper’ to talk about such topics. You should let go of any associations this might invoke. You will use some muscles to aid your breathing practice and nothing more.

  • With the exhale, as you withdraw your abdominal wall, you should withdraw (somewhat squeeze) your buttocks. Neither your belly nor the bottom should be squeezed strongly and it should not require an effort to do so, these are all gentle movements. This will greatly enhance the feeling of how your sides also tighten up.

  • When you inhale, as you are expanding your belly, you should relax your gluteal cleft and the muscles around it. Again, do not attempt to totally push outwards either your belly or your bottom, just relax it as much as it feels natural, making sure you are doing it consciously.

This will provide a gentle massage for your internal organs, as with each exhale you are compressing them from two directions and each inhale the will be relaxed once again. Also, this helps maintaining the mindfulness and focus on your breath. When breathing like this, your focus will gradually shift from the abdominal wall to the inside of your abdominal cavity, deepening your meditation practice.

To learn advanced abdominal breathing, you should set some time aside to practise it daily, always as long as it feels comfortable. You will notice, that unlike with simple abdominal breathing, a greater amount of air will have been exchanged during this time. This is due to the more pronounced movement of your abdomen, resulting in deeper, more conscious breaths, which can feel quite refreshing, both physically and mentally.

As you practise, you will feel that you need less effort to maintain such breathing technique with time. While at first it might feel unnatural and forceful, it should eventually become easy and effortless. When this effortlessness occurs, you will know that you have truly mastered this technique. You must not wait for this to occur to proceed, yet it would be most beneficial in the long term, if you mean to practice regularly.

Full abdominal breathing

The full abdominal breathing further extends the practice of advanced abdominal breathing through introducing the lower back and the diaphragm itself.

  • Once you are ready to proceed to the next level, you will extend your focus from the belly and the buttocks to the lower back. You should be aware of some perceived movement of the lower back, although probably not visible for the external observer, but it should be fairly obvious for yourself, as you start paying attention. When you inhale as your belly extends forward and your bottom relaxes, your lower back will also relax, as if your spine would be moving away from your centre.

  • With each exhale as your belly will be drawn inwards and your buttocks drawn upwards, you will also attempt to draw your lower back inwards, as if your spine would be moving towards your centre. While there may be no actual movement of the spine, it would certainly feel like the back is moving together with the belly, outwards as you inhale and inwards as you exhale. This will feel like an extension of the movement of your sides, complementing of the feeling of tightening belt around the waist. You should focus your attention to all three points at the same time, belly buttock and lumbar spine.

With time you should be able to only observe such apparent movement, without attempting to consciously initiate it. As a result of your effort to withdraw the abdominal wall, the muscles around your lower back will naturally contract. This is the sensation that you are looking for. Such perceived movement comes from the natural contraction and relaxation of the muscles around your lower spine as a result of drawing in and relaxing your abdominal muscles. This will probably prove challenging, and you will need to practice until it becomes fairly easy and straight-forward. This will not happen at the first time you sit down to practise. It can take anywhere between a few days and a few weeks of committed practice. Being persistent is very important.

Do not try to isolate the muscles of your back and contract them consciously, it is more important to feel it happen than to make it happen. Keep practising this way, until you feel able to comfortably maintain such breathing for some time without a great effort. Eventually you may realise, it is in fact the whole muscular belt around your waist contracting and relaxing simultaneously, but for now, it is most important to keep your attention at these distinct points.

  • The last corner of focus will be your diaphragm. You will keep your attention focused on the three corners: belly, buttocks and lower back, as you start focusing on your diaphragmatic movement. This will be a lot more challenging than the previous three points of focus, as your diaphragm does not relax with each inhalation, but it in fact contracts.

This fourth corner, the diaphragm, will not follow the pattern of the other three, as they move away from the centre at the inhale phase, but the diaphragm will rather be moving towards it. As you exhale, the first three corners will move towards your centre, and the diaphragm will move away from it.

This means, when you inhale, your belly relaxes and protrudes outwards, your buttocks relax downwards, your lower back relaxes outwards as well, while your diaphragm contracts and moves downwards.

Similarly, with each exhale, your belly contracts and withdraws inwards, your buttocks squeeze and contract inwards, your lower back squeezes and contracts inwards as well, while your diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards, returning to its dome shape. Although the direction is similar (i.e. moving up, or in; and down, or out at the same time), the action of contraction or relaxation will be opposing.

Contrary to what you will see in Part 2, when you will be introduced to the idea of inverted breathing, where the four corners are moving in synchrony at once away from the centre (exhalation) or towards the centre (inhalation), through the full abdominal breathing the diaphragm is pushing down, and the three other corners are making room for the contents of the abdominal cavity as they shift downwards. Similarly, the diaphragm essentially makes room for everything moving up, as the muscles contract and squeeze the intestines and the contents of the abdominal cavity. This way the full abdominal breathing provides a way of massaging your digestive tract, not through squeeze and release, but rather a downward-upwards shift. This movement of your organs (mostly your digestive tract) is present even while you practise the most basic abdominal breathing, the only real difference being that you now have a greater awareness of it.

Until you read Part 2

You have now been introduced to some very basic and some rather advanced breathing techniques alike, giving you sufficient material to practise. until next week, when Part 2 of this article will be published.  Come back and read the instructions marked by bullet points every day and make sure you set aside a few minutes to practise daily, until that time. In Understanding Embryonic Breathing, Part 2: Finding Your Lower DanTien – An Abdominal Dynamo, you will be taken a step further, and be introduced an even more advanced technique, that will be your next step in understanding true embryonic breathing through experience. Read Part 2 here.

If you wish not miss the next part, make sure you bookmark this article, or http://beginnersmeditation.info/blog so that you can find your way back easily. You can also subscribe to the Meditation for Beginners Newsletter, will grant you access to some exclusive, subscriber-only material.

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Happy practising!

Featured image credit: RelaxingMusic / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

About the author

Attila has been practising traditional meditation, QiGong and breathing techniques since early childhood. Not pretending to be a guru, or an enlightened being of any sort, his aim is to transmit what he has learned through these years, for everyone's benefit.

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