Martial Arts and Breathing Practices
[From our book, Internal Martial Arts Nei-gong]
Of the breathing practices that many people turn to when they finally decide to cultivate their internal energies, there are two major ways they can do this. Actually, there are many ways they can do this, but in terms of using breathing to start cultivating one’s chi, there are anapana and pranayama practices.
Anapana is where you sit and meditate, and during meditation you watch or you're aware of the breathing and the energies in your body. You don't hold to your body or cling to it in any way, but you sit there in meditation witnessing your breathing and eventually expand to also knowing your internal energies and where they are. The main technique is that you always focus on just the breath until your breathing and thoughts stop, and then further practice stages, which involve anapana combined with other methods, proceed from there.
In true anapana, you always start by focusing on your respiration, and you watch the ins and outs of your breath until your breathing calms down. You focus only on your breathing and ignore everything else. Both your breathing and your thoughts will eventually slow to a halt if you do this while remaining detached and ignoring wandering thoughts. During that state of respiratory cessation and “mental emptiness,” your real chi within your body will start to arise and try to open your chi channels. That’s when you will start to feel heat sensations in the lower belly, but you should just ignore these things and stay in the state of external respiratory cessation co-joined with mental emptiness. Then your body can transform rather quickly. If you need to use a tiny bit of energy to stay in this state of natural breath cessation, then you can use it ever so slightly. Whatever helps to maintain that state of natural respiratory cessation, once reached, is helpful to cultivating your inner gong-fu.
There are many more advanced stages of anapana practice, and more detailed instructions can be found in “The Little Book of Meditation.” For instance, you can eventually enlarge your attention to also know the movement of energies within the body while simultaneously remaining focused on your breathing. When you just shine awareness on these chi energy sensations, without clinging to them, those blockages will tend to dissolve because your chi channels in the regions of your attention will tend to open. We call those energies that you feel “blockages” because you are only feeling them when your chi is hitting internal obstructions within its chi flow pattern. Therefore, that’s a blockage or obstruction.
In Taoism, you have many meditations where you sit and perform an inner watching meditation of just knowing those energies/sensations, but without focusing on your external breathing. You ignore your breathing and just focus on knowing those sensations with pressureless attention or witnessing. You can also link this with anapana to produce anapana variants, but that’s not the pure practice of anapana. In some of these Taoist practices you also try to see the internal organs of your body.
Taoism has countless meditation techniques involving the body. In Buddhism, you have basic meditation practice, called vipassana, in which you practice watching your thoughts without getting attached to the thought flow (which prevents losing your concentration). That mindfulness of watching your thoughts without attaching to them (and thereby losing focus) is similar to Confucian mindfulness that requires you to always watch your mind. In detaching from thoughts they will die down, your internal energies will start to circulate freely, and you will accordingly start to attain the inner gong-fu of channels opening and chi purification.
You can see there are all sorts of related meditation techniques. You can also observe the internal sensations within your body without clinging to them. In these practices you don’t try to push them around or link up with them in any way. You don’t try to circulate them but just know they are there. This is inner witnessing, or inner observation practice, which is another way to cultivate your chi and channels by staying aware with detachment, and letting go. You might try the practice of observing your breathing without getting lost in following other thoughts, which is the aforementioned anapana. When you practice any of these techniques correctly, all sorts of internal chi channels within you will open up and the chi flow within your body will smoothen out by itself. This, then, becomes true nei-gong practice, and of course there are higher stages from here.
This opening of the internal chi channels is a foundational basis for many higher martial arts attainments. For instance, when you are doing standing poses you are also hoping to open up the chi channels in your legs and thighs through a different method than in sitting meditation, but you can use the principles of meditation practice during those poses to accomplish this result all the quicker. Remain detached as if a third person observer, detach from your body and its sensations, and let go while standing in the position. Then your chi channels will open up quicker while you practice the stance posture. As an alternative to watching your thoughts, this type of muscular practice in conjunction with detached witnessing helps to cultivate your body incredibly fast. You let go of your body as it reacts, and simply aloofly witness without clinging.
Do you know what “mental clinging” actually means? If you are in front of a two lane road and notice the cars going by in both directions without being bothered, that’s witnessing or watching. Let’s say that all of a sudden your friends come along in a convertible with the top down, and you start watching that specific car to the exclusion of all others, and watch it go down the road while ignoring all the other cars. It captures your attention so you start following that car with particular focus and start thinking of your friends and all the things you do together. All of a sudden you forgot that you were supposed to be watching the stream of thoughts because you got all caught up in this one and your mind started to wander. You lost your concentration, and that’s mental clinging or attachment. That’s exactly what you should NOT do.
In anapana practice, you sit there in a meditation posture and you watch your breathing through the nostrils with non-attachment. Your inbreathing and outbreathing is what you remain focused on, and you ignore other thoughts that come by but just remain entirely focused on the breathing even if it seems boring. This is cultivating the art of concentration, or one-pointedness in focusing. This takes concentration, which is why this is a concentration practice. It means you just stay with that certain topic as the focus of your mind, and remain with it while ignoring everything else, refusing to budge by losing focus. You watch until your mind calms down, your breathing calms down, and you eventually reach a state of respiratory calming where there aren’t too many thoughts anymore either. Your breathing has slowed to a halt, your thoughts are silent, and your real chi starts to arise inside you. Eventually you can witness the internal energy sensations of your body, but not initially.
This is real qi-gong that turns into nei-gong, but most qi-gong practitioners don’t know it. You practice concentration by staying focused on the ingoing and outgoing breathing process. That’s the focus of attention, so you don’t want your thoughts to stray elsewhere. You just remain focused on following the breathing. That’s the first step that eventually leads to internal energy cultivation, or nei-gong.
What happens if you just keep the attention on the breathing through your nostrils is that you are practicing one-pointedness in concentration. That’s it – it’s just a practice of maintaining awareness on something that is moving – namely your breathing – and we’re using your breathing as the focus of attention because of a scientific principle. The particular principle used in this practice is that your breathing is linked to your chi and consciousness. If your breathing calms down then your mind will calm (thoughts will die down), and if your thoughts die down then your breathing will calm (die down). If you can eventually reach a state where both calm down together, that’s when your real yang chi, or real internal energy (the Indians call it kundalini), will start to arise to open up your channels. To get to this stage, you make use of the principle of the interlinkage between chi, mind and respiratory breathing to reach a state of calming where your real yang chi starts to come up. If your mind is occupied by wandering thoughts, however, you can never reach mental cessation and respiratory cessation, so you remain focused on the breathing just as you might remain focused on a mantra during mantra recitation.
Eventually the focus can also encompass the “breath within the body,” meaning your internal chi energy, as well, but then it becomes a larger practice entirely different, although still related to anapana. You always start with the respiratory breathing because at the start you cannot feel your inner chi energies. Concentrating on only your breathing process, by just witnessing it, will keep your mind focused, stationary, and prevent it from wandering. Then your thoughts will calm down and your chi will arise. Concentration is what allows your real chi, or kundalini, to come up.
In order to correctly practice anapana, you must end up letting go of your body and not cling to anything you feel within your body. When you don’t cling to them, which means you aren’t crimping your chi channels, then your energy channels can start to open fully, and your chi will eventually start to circulate as best it can. It doesn’t happen right away but takes time to learn how to do this correctly, just as it takes time to master certain techniques of martial arts, so you shouldn’t expect results instantly. The rule or principle is:
Practice Method + Diligent/Intensifying Effort + Time + Patience = Results.
If you let go of your body, you're not holding on to it. Hence all your chi can start arising in your body and opening channels because you're not holding on to any muscles or sensations that would interrupt or block that natural flow which you just allowed to happen. You just practice pure witnessing, and thus your chi channels can start to open.
This is the actual secret behind the "dissolving blockages" methods of martial arts, but very few realize this secret or its usefulness for the highest levels of martial arts attainment. By witnessing without attachment you can know where energy blockages are within your body. By shining awareness on them without grabbing, chi will run there and they will open. You can also try to dissolve blockages by releasing them with an outbreath, by practicing certain methods such as the Six Taoist Healing Sounds, or by mentally offering them away. There are a lot of techniques you can try such as described in “The Little Book of Meditation.”
Anapana is the highest secret of Zen school dhyana-samadhi practice, that transforms the physical body, but few know this fact. Whether for martial arts attainments or high spiritual practice, anapana helps open up the chi channels in the body, and thus helps transform the physical nature quicker than most other cultivation techniques - but not if you are pushing or holding on to your chi.