Understanding Embryonic Breathing, Part 2: Finding Your Lower DanTien – An Abdominal Dynamo

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 2: Finding Your Lower DanTien – An Abdominal Dynamo takes the breathing technique learned in Part 1 a step further, introducing a technique of inverted breathing, through which you can re-energise your body and spirit, taking you one step closer to experiencing Embryonic Breathing, if you have the persistence and tenacity to learn and practice. Building on the technique taught in Part 1, learning proper inverted breathing will add some more complexity to your practice, by inverting the movement of your abdominal wall.

The breath of a newborn – Strengthening the abdomen

According to some authors, watching a newborn child breathe could lead to a better understanding of what we all should be doing, as a baby is yet un-spoiled, breathing the most natural way possible. This is only partly true, as a child’s breath is yet far from perfect, their body tissues (including those of the lungs) and muscles (including their diaphragm and abdominal wall) are still in development. Yet when you watch long enough, you may be aware of an interesting phenomenon: the baby’s belly will at times move right “against” the breath.

As you have learned with abdominal breathing, you should expand your belly, when inhaling and withdraw it when exhaling, following the movement of the diaphragm. Inverting the breath consciously, when practising martial arts, yoga or QiGong, will have some benefits, as well pronounced, as the exaggerated movement of the abdominal wall seems during practice.

When a newborn child breathes with the abdominal movement so apparent, she does so, because her diaphragm is less developed. This “help” is much needed for her respiration and has the additional effect of strengthening the abdominal wall and the muscles around the waist. For an adult, who has spent a lifetime breathing ineffectively, moving too little and sitting too much, both the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles are likely to be “out of shape”, by means of strength and development. Muscles need stimulation to grow and stay strong, yet our lifestyle in the west almost ensures such development will never happen to its full potential.

When you follow the breathing technique taught in Part 1, you will consciously move many muscles around the abdominal cavity, which in addition to massaging your internal organs gently, will have a definitive strengthening effect on the musculature, especially if practised regularly and consciously. To take it a step further you will now invert the movement of the abdominal wall, apparently going right “against” your natural breathing pattern.

The following technique is often also referred to as “reversed breathing” or even “embryonic breathing”. The ambiguity of nomenclature rises from its English name. Observations of a newborn’s inverted breathing will make some authors call such technique “embryonic breathing”, as this is among the first external respiratory patterns after the embryo is born. If you remember from part one, even the Chinese tradition of Tai Xi Jing was not quite unambiguous about when respiration begins. The terms “when the embryo is brought to the world” might mean birth or conception. That way, the breathing may start with internal respiration inside the mother’s womb, or with the external respiration, as you hear the baby cry out for the first time in her life. To call inverted breathing “embryonic breathing” is quite well in line with even the ancient texts. The discussion of which term is “correct” seems therefore so meaningless that even your humble author often uses them interchangeably. For this series of articles, the technique introduced below would be called “inverted breathing”, simply because a different approach of “embryonic berthing” will be offered later in Part 3.

The technique of full inverted breathing

People often use inverted breathing, most of the times subconsciously, usually right before attempting to undertake some heavy physical effort, as a way of preparation, such as heavy lifting or otherwise moving a heavy object. Weight-lifters use a method called ‘power breathing’, that is very similar in principle to embryonic breathing. Proper inverted breathing will result in a surge of energy accumulating in your abdominal region. The accumulation of such energy is caused by the pressure and stimulation on and around the cavity below your diaphragm, originating from the opposite movement of the abdominal wall.

In QiGong, this is called the accumulation of Qi, caused by the technique itself. The concept of Qi is much misunderstood in the west, as the concept is much broader than just some mystical internal life force. Such romanticised notions of internal energy come mainly from not understanding or being less well versed in oriental traditions and the fundamental differences between how eastern and western medicine sees the human body. While an in-depth explanation of the concept would probably require an article in itself, the short explanation of the concept of Qi would be that it includes all energy systems of the body (aerobic and anaerobic), internal and external respiration, blood and lymph circulation, nervous impulses, bioimpedance and every other bodily system at once, those making up this not so mysterious life-force. The confusion probably originates from the fact, that western mind and western medicine regards the body as a sum total of parts (organs, limbs, etc.), while the oriental medicine views it as a whole, a system, which it truly is, Thus life force would not be something that is only partly responsible for life, instead it is everything that makes an organism live.

Before going into detail about the effects of inverted breathing on the system, and your breathing in general, you should try the technique for yourself. It will be much easier to understand anything in regards to it, once you have experienced it first hand. If you chose to continue the experiment in Part 3 (when it will be published), you should consider learning this technique as well as the one taught in Part 1, practise it regularly and master it, as best you can.

Learning inverted breathing

  • Start with practising conscious abdominal breathing. It is useful to be familiar with the full abdominal breathing method as inverted breathing will share some of its characteristics while offering an even greater complexity. For now, it is enough to observe it in its most simple form.

  • Once your mind has quieted somewhat, start inverting your breaths. This will most possibly feel strange and even uncomfortable at first, but you will quickly get used to it. Concentrate on your belly, about one or two inches below your belly button.

  • As you inhale, squeeze and withdraw your belly as you would normally do with an exhale. When you exhale, relax your abdominal wall, and push your belly out. Keep practising this way, continuing to concentrate on your belly. Observe your breathing and the abdominal wall, as it moves.

  • You can incorporate counting your breaths, similarly to what you would do in Zen meditation, once the inverted breathing becomes natural. Although this is not required, it can aid your concentration if you feel it is necessary.

Some would regard this simple technique as ‘the’ inverted breathing, yet there is some more to it to be learned. Of course, you can comfortably practice at this level as long as you feel necessary. Always follow your intuition, when making decisions about your practice. If something doesn’t feel right, do not ever force it. To proceed further it would help to have some experience as a meditator, with a strong and undivided focus.

  • Once you feel ready to proceed further, it is time to turn your attention to your lower back. While continuing to focus on your on your belly, start paying attention to your lower back at the same time.

  • As you breathe, your belly would come inwards with each inhale, while pushing out on the exhale. You should be able to observe a similar movement on your lower back. Although it would probably not be noticeable for the eye, you would definitely be able to feel it. The point, that feels like the centre of such barely noticeable movement should be in the centre of your attention.

Although probably not immediately obvious, this inward-outward movement of the lower spine will become much more perceptible with practice. As your belly withdraws while you inhale, so should your lower back. Similarly, they would both relax and move outwards with the exhale. This is very similar to what you have experienced with the full abdominal breathing practice, only the pattern of movement differs.

  • Keep focusing on both your belly and your lower back simultaneously. Instead of trying to split your attention two ways, try to connect the two and focus on them at the same time. It will not be easy and you definitely should not rush it. Some time and devoted practice will be necessary, but you will get there if you are willing to put in the effort. Take as much time as you need. It may be days, it may be weeks or longer.

The sensation is most akin to that of your lower back moving in and out, yet in reality, this is just the contraction and relaxation of the muscles around the spine. Even though it may prove useful to consciously contract and relax these muscles, for many people it could prove difficult to isolate the proper muscles and use only those necessary, thus is it advisable to only concentrate on the movement, or rather the sensation of it, as it happens, rather than trying to consciously initiate it.

  • When you are able to focus on the front and the back at the same time, the next step would be to connect the diaphragm into your practice. Continue with the practice as usual, but direct your focus to the top of your abdominal cavity as well as the front and back.

  • Feel your diaphragm pushing down on this cavity, as it contracts, while your belly and lower back are drawing inwards with each inhale. Through the exhale, everything relaxes outwardly. Your belly protrudes and your lower back relaxes, as your diaphragm returns to its dome shape.

Mental imagery might help to deepen your focus while going with how it feels would certainly be enough for most of the time. See, or feel your diaphragm pushing down into your abdominal cavity with each inhale, further compressing your organs as both your belly and your lower back draw inwards, then see or feel how it relaxes at each exhale, relaxing this compression, as your belly and your lower back also return to a relaxed position. Practice meticulously, until it becomes easy, almost natural. Take your time, practise as many days or weeks as you need.

  • The last step of the basics of this method will be to include the buttocks (mainly the anus and the gluteal cleft). This will not at all differ from the previous experiences or that of the full abdominal breathing. With an inhale it will draw upwards, while at the same time your diaphragm comes downwards and your belly and lower back inwards, then, with the exhale, everything relaxes and returns to the previous position.

You should now be able to focus on these four points, or four corners simultaneously, eventually realising that you are, in reality, focusing on the whole of the abdominal cavity and what happens to it through practising this breathing technique. It takes considerable effort to be able to maintain such focus, but it will naturally become easier with time. It takes considerable effort to be able to maintain such focus, but it will naturally become easier with time.

While breathing this way may seem “unnatural” at first, in a way, you are using your musculature more intuitively, then you would with full abdominal breathing. If you consider the technique you’ve learned in Part 1, not all muscles have the same action: As you inhale, your belly, your lower back and gluteal cleft are moving away from your centre, all being relaxed, while your diaphragm moves towards it, being contracted. As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and moves away from the centre, while the other three corners contract and move towards it.

With inverted breathing, all four corners act in union. As you inhale, all four corners, the abdominal wall, the lower back, the gluteal cleft and the diaphragm are contracting and moving towards the centre. As you exhale, all of them will relax and move away from the centre.

The effects of inverted breathing

As you may have seen from your own experience, inverted breathing can be quite challenging and difficult at first. It requires considerable involvement, concentration, and even muscular activity. The most immediate effect of this will be the massaging of your internal organs. Unlike with abdominal breathing, where your organs have shifted up and down along with the movement of your belly and diaphragm, now your abdominal cavity gets compressed from all sides at once, as you inhale, being released with each exhale. Such compression and release create a dynamo effect. It stimulates your digestive tract greatly, aiding the absorption of nutrients. Stored blood glycogen is secreted from your liver into your bloodstream and some fat stores around your bowels may get turned into even more energy. This translates into an energy rush in your abdominal region, also known as the accumulation of Qi.

A longer term effect of this form of breathing, if practised regularly, is the strengthening of the abdominal muscles and even the diaphragm. As both your belly and your diaphragm now move against resistance, it will become decidedly more difficult to breathe, requiring a greater effort, resulting in greater stimulation of all muscles involved, which in the long term translates into strengthening these muscles, meaning a deeper and more effective breath.

Of course, there are many more, quite specific applications of the technique. Martial artists find it usually quite useful as it allows the muscles of the abdomen to act as a more effective deflector of incoming impact. When you lift weights, the increased internal pressure and the tightening muscular “belt” around your waist means greater stability of the torso and the much sought after protection of the lower spine (of course this requires a somewhat modified technique of breathing, that is far beyond the scope of this article, yet the principle is most similar).

Finding the lower DanTien

Practising inverted breathing could also take your meditation practice to the next level. The strong focus required to maintain this technique will aid your meditation efforts, especially if your focus is in or around your abdominal region. As you continue practising and become more comfortable with moving the four corners in synchrony, your focus would gradually shift from the four separate corners to the inside of the abdominal cavity, that is being pumped, or squeezed and released, much the same as your lungs are.

Focus your attention on this area, when it is at its “smallest”, meaning during the inhale phase when you compress it from all sides. This area you feel being compressed is your lower DanTien, the field of elixir, or garden of energy. The name DanTien literally means “cinnabar field”, as cinnabar (mercury-sulfide) was used to make medical “elixir”, by the ancient Daoists. Because your DanTien has the ability to produce energy, and as the guts’ health is also closely connected to the health of the immune system, the area is called this way, as it has the capability to stimulate your “internal elixir”, that being Qi, all too vital for your health.

Finding, and focusing on your lower DanTien is essential for many meditation practices and will be required to proceed with the exercises described in Part 3, published next week.

Until you read Part 3

You have now been introduced to a more advanced breathing technique, giving you sufficient material to practise until next week, when Part 3 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 Part 3, you will be given a demystified explanation of Tai Xi, or Embryonic Breathing and taught the final steps to be able to experience it for yourself. Read Part 3 here

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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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