Often it is the simplest and most obvious things that can make the biggest difference to life, but which are often overlooked or ignored. Good breathing is one such thing. It always sounded like a good thing to do, but until my recent 3-week training in Taoist Longevity Breathing, I had no idea how powerfully transformative it can be.
Of course I have been breathing since I was born, and although I probably breathed well as a baby, somewhere along the way I forgot how, or more accurately, my body became more closed and tense, and I became more disconnected from it.
Over the past fifteen years I have practised various forms of yoga and meditation, including five years of intensive study and daily practise of yoga, which included teaching. All of this helped get me more in touch with my body and emotions, stretched me out, improved my health and well-being. And although I was able to breathe better and deeper, it did not seem to change my habitual breathing patterns, or enable me to contact the deep stuck places inside of me, in the way that this Taoist breathing has begun to do in the few months since I have been practising it.
Taoist breathing is about having the whole body move with each breath, in the same way that a baby breathes. It is “the conscious practice of learning to breathe with your entire body in a relaxed, circular manner, without holding the breath. Breathing with the whole body has been used for millennia to enhance the ability to dissolve and release energy blockages in the mind/body, enhancing well-being and spiritual awareness.”
(Energy Arts website)
Since returning from the course I have continued to practise, falling in love with my breath and how it can carry me gently through life, increasing my capacity to feel and be present. I have embarked upon an ongoing process of ‘self-research’, to find out for myself the effects of breathing well. It’s great to spend 3 weeks intensively learning, in a relaxed environment by the sea and feel fantastic at the end of it. Its another thing to return to the city and integrate fully what I have learnt and continue to practise.
I am not going to write much here about the actual techniques or background to what I have learned, for that I will give you some links to follow at the end. What I am going to do is write about my personal experience of it.
What I noticed when I started the breathing practise was just how much I hold my breath, breathe very shallow or even stop breathing entirely in certain situations. It was quite shocking to realise this. Repeated over time this creates frozen places in the body, particularly in the diaphragm, the ribcage and area around the heart, and the spine.
It is these areas that began to release and soften once I started practising regular breathing with the diaphragm. After only a few days of intensive breathing practise my body began to transform from the inside out, and my awareness of what is inside of me grew rapidly.
A journey into my body
Very few people are actually aware of what is inside their body, even though it is right there, all the time. I mean really feeling rather than looking or imagining. Its not about remembering what a liver looks like and imagining it sitting inside you. But actually putting your awareness in there and feeling inside your organs, even feeling right through your flesh into your bones. This is quite a recent experience for me, and quite a revelation, that is unfolding as my sensitivity grows and more of myself comes into my awareness.
Breathing into the kidneys feels sustaining, supportive, watery, calming. Breathing into the liver and spleen feels energising, activating. Breathing in to the lower dantien – (the energy centre of the lower belly) feels comforting, connecting to the earth, grounding, balancing. Breathing into the head relaxes my eyes, and my brain, releases the tension in my skull, and my face.
As I breathe into the upper back, the back ribs start to open up and the shoulders relax. I am gradually letting go of the fear and panic held in my ribs and chest and the protection around my heart. I believe I am a relaxed, open, balanced person, but I keep uncovering and letting to of more layers of anxiety, fear, sadness and anger, and in the process exposing more of the soft vulnerability and aliveness underneath it all.
Breathing into the sacrum, into the tailbone, and the lower back I can feel fiery pain. Heat burning up stuckness, the depths of me re-awakening after a long sleep. There is an unwinding from deep inside me, as the spine lengthens and the s-bend in my mid-back straightens out.
The deep muscles in my belly have started to come alive, and the hard lumps of tension in there have softened.
Its a joyful experience to feel where the thigh bones connect into the hips, how they move as I walk, and the buzzing of energy in my limbs.
Conscious breath reprogramming
Good breathing increases the oxygen levels in your blood, massages the internal organs including the heart, and improves circulation in the same way that physical exercize can. But you can retrain your breath and nervous system, so that good breathing becomes an automatic process, working 24 hours a day to keep the body fit and healthy, without the need for panting and sweating down at the gym, (good news, I say!).
Changing your breathing patterns, can literally change the patterning and improve the functioning of your entire system. Early in the course I had the revelation that if everyone was taught to breathe well, not only would people be much healthier, they would also be way more relaxed, sane, energised and able to function well. The world would be a very different place, less driven by fear and anxiety.
Breathing well is not just about being able to sit in meditation and breathe slowly, fully, deeply, or being able to energise the body with particular breathing exersizes. It is about integrating it fully into every moment of your life. The evenness and consistency in the breath is easily interrupted by different situations – meeting someone, sitting at the computer, eating, answering the phone, hearing a loud sound, walking down a busy street. If you cannot stay relaxed and keep breathing smoothly through these everyday events, then there is no hope for keeping calm in a more stressful or fearful situation.
By practising breathing every day, I can begin to smooth out the gaps, the holdings, the uneven patches that I notice in my breath due the nervous responses that are part of everyday experience. The breath can act as a key into my nervous system. As I breathe more consciously, my awareness increases and I begin to experience directly the more subtle workings of the body, mind, and emotions, and can use the breath as a way to link to these processes and directly reprogramme them. The deepening of awareness that it brings also gives me the opportunity to notice any imbalance or upset in the body before it becomes unwell, and release tensions before they become chronic.
Breathing sustains me and nurtures me. I am loving the sense of relaxation and continuity it brings.
In feeling more of myself, I also feel more of other beings, and of the planet itself, increasing my capacity for compassion. In interactions with others, staying with my breath keeps me very much with myself, makes it easier not to get caught up in someone else’s drama, yet at the same time this allows me to experience greater intimacy.
The more advanced practises, such as being able to consciously feel and direct the flow of fluids in my body, connect me deeper into the flow of life. I feel moved by the level of connection I can feel in the relationship between my own inner rhythms, pulsations and flows, and the those of the planet. I can feel the fluids moving inside of me and the fluids moving inside of a tree.
Extending the Breath
Learning to extend the breath, goes against the prevailing view in our goal-oriented culture, that to succeed one must struggle, exert, push, stretch to 110 percent. To achieve the goal of attaining a relaxed, even 30 second breath (15 second inhale, 15 second exhale), one must unravel this conditioning. The more you can relax, let go of any need to achieve or reach a goal, the quicker you will actually reach the goal.
This can then become a way of moving through life in general. The subconscious mind is retrained to a new paradigm – “no pain, no gain” transforms to “no strain, more gain”. (Longevity Breathing, like all Taoist water method practises follows the “70% rule” – of not practising anything beyond 70% of your capacity.)
You can use force to extend your breath up to a point, but you cannot sustain it without creating some tension, somewhere. If you try and push through tension, you will most likely hit a wall and and bounce back, or compact the tension deeper into the body.
In my experience this is a matter of trial and error, of gradually discovering where I subtly start to push, the point where I start to override what feels easy and natural, with effort or grasping. The difference between effort of will, which has a feeling of ‘strength’, and open, relaxed intention, which has a feeling of ‘softness’ becomes very obvious over time. Effort leads to restriction.
I have found breath extension to be a process of learning more acceptance of where I am at, and of cultivating an attitude of utmost gentleness towards the stuck and frozen places I discover inside me. The result is more presence, aliveness and freedom.
What is necessary for reprogramming breathing patterns is the intention to practise regularly and devote time and attention to my breathing. And it needs to be something that feels good, that I want to be doing. Not something ‘I should’ be doing. At least for now, my enthusiasm for learning to breathe well is still strong. I feel motivated to keep going and see where that takes me….. maybe I will eventually reach the 2 minute breath, or even the 8 minute breath (both key stages in this breathing system).
Breathing with my entire body, from head to fingertips to toes, has become a source of joy and wonder, that leads me deeper and deeper into the space inside of myself, and at the same time opens up me to more connection with everything on the ‘outside’.
About Taoist Longevity Breathing
“What can be said is that there is more to breathing than air going in and out of your nose and lungs.
Within this nearly incomprehensible number is a secret that has been right under your nose around 28,800 times a day since the time you were born. It is the number of breaths the average human being will take in a lifetime. Along with the heartbeat, the breath serves as a primary metronome for the functioning of your body.
Imagine if you could use those 790,590,000 opportunities to become as healthy, clear and vital as possible. If there were only one thing I could do to help Westerners, and to mitigate the ongoing health-crisis, it would be to teach Longevity Breathing. If you do nothing else except learn to breathe well, it will dramatically improve the quality of your life as one of the most important portals to healing, relaxation, rejuvenating sleep, athletics, graceful aging and spirituality. It is also a necessary foundation practice for anyone interested in the arts of Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua, Qigong or Meditation. ”
(Extract from the Longevity Breathing Intro Program by Taoist Master Bruce Frantzis.)
For more information about Taoist Longevity Breathing:
(You can also download a 6 lesson introduction from this page.)
For some articles by Bruce Frantzis on Taoist breathing:
Bruce is in London in October for a 2 evening introduction to Taoist meditation, hosted by Lucid Living:
I am now a certified Breathing Instructor and will start a beginners breathing course later this year. Let me know if you are interested and I will keep you informed.