To reach the full potential as a martial arts practitioner, you must begin by training your mind. One way to accomplish this task is through sitting meditation. Through meditation your awareness, calm, and focus will increase. These are all very important factors in martial arts. Without awareness, you will not be able to fight in a battle without getting hit or even killed. Without focus, you will not be able to catch the right opportunity to strike or defend, which could be disastrous. Without calmness, you will not be able to focus or relax. If you tense up out of fear, you will burn out quickly. You must learn how to manipulate your energy, which will be referred to as Qi (氣) of the body so it will not disperse unused. Also you can activate more energy when it is really necessary.
All these benefits can be gained through embryonic breathing, which is the type of meditation focused in this article.
Embryonic Breathing Theory
To understand the concept of embryonic breathing, you have to know the basic energy system of the body.
The human body has two polarities, one resides in the brain, and the other is in the abdomen region. The latter is called the real lower Dantian (丹田), while the former is known asthe upper Dantian. There is another Dantian positioned at the solar plexus area, but not covered in this article. The lower Dantian is the battery for the whole body. It resides in the abdomen region. The structure of the abdomen allows Qi to be stored to a high level and from there it can supply the whole body.
The upper Dantian is in the limbic system located between the ears. Some Qi Gong (氣功) practitioners believe that this is the residence of the spirit and your true self.
The lower and upper Dantian communicate through the spinal cord. The communication occurs here because the spinal cord is composed of material highly conductive to Qi. This enables the two brains to act as one. Physically, they are two, but in action, they are one.
Yin and Yang
The energy of the Dantians has two polarities; the lower Dantian is the Yang (陽) side, and the upper Dantian is the Yin (陰) side. The two polarities regulate the whole energy system of the body.
The Yang side supplies the quantity, while the Yin side supplies the quality. The quality of the energy will improve as the practitioner learns how to focus better. However, it is not a task that can be finished since there are unlimited levels of focus. Only through practice can you attempt to achieve a level of focus where outside distractions will not register. To improve the quantity, you have to condition the lower Dantian. For further information please refer to the book Qigong, The Secret of Youth—Da Mo's Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Washing Classics, by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.
The whole abdominal area is called false Dantian and can store energy to some extent, but once it is full, the energy will be distributed and consumed. The energy that is stored there comes from fat conversion, which happens as we move our abdomen, in normal or reverse abdominal breathing, which will be discussed later in this article. About one and a half inches below the navel, there is a cavity which is called Qihai (氣海) or false Dantian. Through this cavity one can lead Qi into and out of the real lower Dantian.
Semi-sleeping State and the Mind
The Chinese believe that human beings have two kinds of minds. One is called Yi (意) and the other one is called Xin (心). Yi is steady like a horse and represents wisdom. Xin is like a monkey and represents the emotional mind. To calm down the emotional mind, you should focus on your breathing.
The semi-sleeping state is very important for meditation. Once we get to the semi-sleeping state the subconscious mind starts to wake up. The control of the conscious mind gets thinner and thinner. Once you meditate for a while, you might experience the surfacing of emotions such as anger or sorrow. Those feelings are most likely trapped emotions from the past, and you should release them.
Despite this, the semi-sleeping state is a condition in which we can best concentrate. When we are in the conscious state, our mind registers a lot of things and gets distracted by the outside world. Once we reach the semi-sleeping state, those distractions from outside fade away. Of course it is not easy to keep the semi-sleeping state without falling into the sleeping state. Through regular practice you will be able to do so.
Normal Abdominal Breathing
As you inhale, the diaphragm drops down and the abdomen pushes out. The Huiyin (會陰), located between the anus and the testicles (essentially the perineum), also pushes out. As you exhale, the abdomen withdraws and the diaphragm moves back up to push air out. The Huiyin also gently pulls in.
This breathing technique is mostly used for relaxation purposes and is a very natural and familiar way to breathe. Babies instinctively use abdominal breathing. However, most people develop the habit of breathing with their ribcage as they grow older.
Reverse Abdominal Breathing
Reverse abdominal breathing is the opposite of normal abdominal breathing. As you inhale, the Huiyin and abdomen draw in. As you exhale, the Huiyin and abdomen push out. This breathing method helps to lead and build Qi more efficiently and should be used during meditation. Reverse abdominal breathing occurs naturally quite often, such as when laughing or crying. Reverse abdominal breathing also helps to energize muscles to a higher level, so it also occurs without thought when power or strength is needed, for example, when pushing heavy objects.
Embryonic breathing is the foundation for many kinds of meditation and Qigong exercises. Please note, it is very important to establish a good foundation before you can move onto any advanced exercises. If you want to master embryonic breathing, you have to practice the normal and reverse abdominal breathing techniques.
Embryonic breathing itself is basically the reverse abdominal breathing exercise with the mind placed into the lower Dantian. A step by step approach is discussed below. When the mind is placed into the center, one stores the energy there, since the mind and Qi are connected.
How does Meditation Work?
To get a deep understanding of meditation requires time and a lot of practice. To achieve success, you need to be patient and have perseverance.
If you would like to start meditating, think about an available time in your schedule. It is preferable to meditate at the same time each day. This will establish a routine, and will make it easier for you to settle your mind faster.
Embryonic breathing can be practiced in almost any position. Here, at the YMAA Retreat Center, we like to sit on a cushion with crossed legs. This is practical as we will do further exercises in this position. You may prefer to sit on a chair or even lay down. The first step of embryonic breathing is to calm down your emotional mind. You do this by focusing on your breathing and relaxing your body. In the beginning, you might get distracted and think about other issues instead of paying attention to your breathing. If you get distracted, simply bring your mind back to your breathing. It will take some time until you feel comfortable with focusing inward and pushing external thoughts away.
Finding the Center
The next step is to find the center of your body. To accomplish this task, visualize the area you want to find. First, I will discuss how you can find your upper Dantian. Extend your inhale and shorten the exhale. This will cause the energy to condense into the center line and will make it easier to feel your center. To help yourself find the center, you can also place your hands over the ears which will make sure that the energy doesn't disperse.
Once you have found the upper center, try to find the lower center. To find the lower Dantian, you have to be comfortable with normal or reverse abdominal breathing. Pay attention to how the front of your abdominal area is expanding, and how it shrinks back. Now pay attention to the back and the front at the same time. After awhile, you will find the center without any further problems.
Once you have found both centers, you have to synchronize them. This means they expand and shrink at the same time. It can take a few months or even a year to accomplish, but when you can reach this state, bring the energy down from the upper Dantian to the lower Dantian. As you inhale, you bring the energy down, and as you exhale you remain with your mind there. Repeat several times until you are able to keep your mind completely in the lower Dantian. The key to embryonic breathing is that you remain with your mind in the lower Dantian while you do reverse abdominal breathing. As a result, fat will be converted into energy, which will be stored in the lower Dantian.
Through correct embryonic breathing, you can learn how to manipulate the energy within your body. As you exhale, the energy is manifested. As you inhale the energy is drawn inward to the center. It is recommended to inhale longer than exhale in the spring and summer seasons, as these are times when the body's energy is strong. This is the Yin version. A longer exhale than inhale is the Yang version, and it should be practiced in the autumn and winter to help the body resist sickness.
Benefits Gained Through Meditation
As you progress, you will naturally start to inhale into your abdomen and this will have a great effect on your health. The diaphragm drops down as you inhale which massages the organs that are below it, in particular the kidneys, liver and spleen. The kidneys produce hormones and through the massage, the production goes up. These hormones are a bio-catalyst which helps make chemical processes in the body run more smoothly. As we age, the hormone production goes down; therefore it is important to keep the hormone production at a proper level.
Through proper, relaxed, and smooth breathing, you take in a lot of oxygen. This will ensure that the practitioner has a faster metabolism. Only with air are we able to change food into energy, therefore, it is extremely important to build up the right breathing habits.
In addition, you will learn how to manipulate your energy. Using the correct technique of breathing, you can manifest more energy or store it in the center and in the bone marrow. That's why you can store energy when there is abundance, and manifest it when it is really necessary.
Through meditation, the mind calms down and becomes more focused. This is crucial since focus is needed for all the tasks we face in daily life. It helps to solve them efficiently and thoroughly. You will find a solution to a problem faster when you are focused and calm, rather than when you are distracted and agitated.
Often we read that our life will get easier through meditation. This is only partially true. Meditation is hard work and it requires a tremendous amount of discipline. It will bring you to the point where you face your true self, and this might not be an easy task.
I believe that one of the reasons why we have so many things that keep us occupied is because we don't want to listen to our inner selves. No one really likes to look into a mirror and see all the flaws you have. But this is the only way we can evolve. As you meditate, you might feel emotions coming up without any apparent reason. Those emotions are the ones which we hold back. The only way to deal with them is to let them out.
Mediation can be a very powerful tool in your life for improving mental well being as well as physical health.
Jáchym Jerie is a disciple of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming at the YMAA CA Retreat Center, which is located in Humboldt County, CA. Jáchym grew up in Switzerland and has been training Kung Fu since he was 17.