The Chinese character for qi is the same as the character used for breath. When we breathe air we are breathing qi. In English when we breathe in, we inspire or "take in the spirit." Many ancient health practices focus on breathing. It is how we sustain life from minute to minute. It continues without significant cessation from the moment we are born until we draw our last breath. In most qigong practices breathing is done consciously and in a specific manner.

The fundamental technique used in most beginning qigong exercises is simply natural breathing. The problem is that in today's modern world, many of us have adopted truncated or inverse methods of inspiration. In order to progress properly, good basic body mechanics should be employed with all qigong exercises. Most qigong exercises emphasize natural body movement. Before moving on to advanced breathing methods you should start with a solid foundation of natural anatomic breathing.

The anatomy of breathing has mainly to do with the lungs and the diaphragm and to a lesser extent, the muscles between your ribs and some neck muscles. The diaphragm is a thin flat muscle that separates your heart and lungs from the rest of your organs. It is attached to the lower part of the rib cage and to front of your spine. Like all muscles, it is long when relaxed and short when flexed. When it is relaxed it is shaped like an umbrella. It flattens out when it is flexed. Most of our muscles are attached to joints. When the muscle is flexed, the joint bends and the bone to which it is attached moves. The diaphragm is inside your body cavity and it is not attached to any joints, so when it flexes something other that joints has to move.

Remember that the diaphragm is shaped like an umbrella when it is relaxed. The lungs and heart are on top of the umbrella and the rest of the organs are below it. In the case of the lungs, they are also attached. When the diaphragm flexes (or shortens) the umbrella flattens and the bottoms of the lungs move down. When the bottoms of the lungs are pulled downward it creates a low-pressure area in the lungs and air wants to move in from the outside where the air-pressure is relatively higher. At last inspiration! I hope you weren't holding your breath. It took us a while to get here, but it is important to have a basic understanding of the mechanics of breathing. It is especially important for those of us who might need to make corrections to usual breathing patterns.

What happens below the diaphragm is just as important for your qigong practice. Take a minute to think about your body. If you are reading this you are probably sitting down. (I hope your not standing on a Stairmaster with iPod buds in your ears). What you are sitting on is your pelvis. It is shaped more or less like a bony bowl. Of course it has a hole in the bottom for necessary evacuation but otherwise it doesn't allow any movement relative to it. Above your pelvis are your intestines, stomach, spleen, liver and other internal organs. Above these organs is your diaphragm. Remember that it is umbrella shaped when relaxed and flattens when it is flexed. The diaphragm is on top, the pelvis on bottom, and the spine in back.

When the diaphragm flexes to pull the lungs down, the organs below must move down as well. With the spine in back and the bony pelvis below, the only direction for the organs to move is outward. To put it simply, when we breathe in properly, the belly goes out. When we breathe out, the belly moves back in and flattens. All of this is happening only from the force of the diaphragm. No abdominal muscles need to be involved. When the breath moves in, the belly moves out. This should be happening about 2400 times a day. That means that besides the obvious benefits of taking in oxygen (consider the alternative), your internal organs get a little massage 2400 times a day seven days a week for your whole life.

This natural way of breathing can get mixed up for various reasons. When it does your health and vitality may suffer. Take a moment now, to see if you are breathing properly and that means breath,in, tummy out. If you are not, take your time to practice getting it right. Keep practicing until it is natural and happens even when you are not thinking about it. If you already breathe this way naturally, you can practice augmenting it by taking bigger slower breaths. This is the proper anatomical foundation for basic qigong breathing.

In the next article I will talk about some of the fundamental "energetics" of qigong breathing.

Michael Roland, L.Ac., MTCM is now available for remote qigong sessions at
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Author's Bio: 

Michael Roland received his Masters degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1993. He worked in Dr. Andrew Weil's Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, from 1997 to 2006, as clinician, preceptor, editor and consultant. Michael has written protocols for a studying the effects of Chinese medicine on heart transplant patients for the National Institutes of Health in the United States.
He has also taught clinical practices courses at the Arizona School for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Under his appointment as Clinical Lecturer at the University of Arizona, College of Medicine, he has participated in multidisciplinary training sessions for third and fourth year medical students. Michael has studied under recognized masters in Beijing, PRC and Taiwan.
Michael now practices his disciplines in a remote healing format with clients from around the world.