Internal Qi Breathing
By Michael Winn
Inner Smile is a universal image in art. The Inner Smile connects our biological self, our psychological self, and our spiritual self in a practical way.
There are literally thousands of breathing techniques in the different healing and spiritual traditions of the world. There are books galore telling you how to breathe and what to do with your breath. Breath been used for everything from stress management to psychological self therapy to rebirthing your divine self.
The Daoist qigong (also spelled "Taoist chi kung") approach to breathing is distinctly different from many other eastern methods of breathing. If you go to India you will find that most of the methods there fall in the broad category of pranayama, which I practiced for many years, until I discovered the Daoist approach. The yogic schools involve the mind controlling the breath. This is usually powerful in the beginning, but it has it drawbacks in the long term that may weaken the lungs and adrenals by overtaxing them.
The Daoist approach to breath can take many forms. But underlying the many breathing techniques is very different premise: that ultimately there is no counting or setting a certain rhythm or telling the intelligence of the lungs how it should breathe. The idea of the Daoist approach is to cultivate the intelligence and the natural spontaneous abilities of the intelligence of the body and of the "spirit of the lungs." The fundamental term "qi" (or ch'i) means "subtle breath."
If you study what I call Qigong (Chi Kung) Fundamentals - you first learn "the five animals do the six healing sounds." That is one form of breathing. It gets each vital organ to open up and start to breathe. You immediately learn that breathing is not limited to the lungs. The liver, heart, spleen and kidneys each have their own subtle breath, marked by different physical and energetic pulsation rates. This method of qi breathing focuses on the out-breath, which is releasing – for cleansing, letting go.
There is also skin breathing – when you breathe through the skin. This requires subtle energy training. The skin is considered the outer membrane of the lungs. They are part of the same organ energetically. Within the Daoist tradition there are many different kinds of breathing methods. This is one of the hallmarks of the Daoist approach. Breathing activates and expresses bodily function as a yin-yang rhythm. Daoists use the body's energetic rhythms as the doorway to open communication with the body of the Dao (Tao), which manifests as Living Nature or Cosmos.
One of my favorite breathing qigong methods I call "Ocean Breathing," where you create a rhythmic resonance between your physical breathing and the wave movement of the ocean. It becomes a form of "internal qi breathing" because your mind focuses the wave movement from deep inside the core energy channels of the body.
Embody and experience the world as changing energy fields.
Before jumping into new breathing practices one should first ask the very important questions, "What is breath? What is breathing?" People often make false assumptions about it. Daoist qigong often uses various movement techniques to activate natural whole body breathing. When we do something with movement, our body remembers it. The body learns it much more deeply than with mental visualization of a breathing pathway within the body.
Since we are moving all the time, our whole body is always pulsing and moving, the whole body is breathing as one. This unity of body is the prerequisite for unity of the ego fragments of consciousness. This is the great weakness of much Western psychological work, it doesn't understand the natural intelligence of the body and how this can integrate the ego.
When we say breathing, we must distinguish between internal and external breathing. External breathing is the physical level of oxygen going in and out of our lungs. But behind that movement of air in and out of the body is the hidden question: who or what controls the breathing process? Something is causing our lungs to move. Calling it "the autonomic nervous system" doesn't answer the question, it buries it under mechanistic language.
There is a certain intelligence in breathing which we are interested in getting in touch with. We are interested in knowing, "How does that intelligence function?" "How does it know when to breathe and how to breathe?" This gets into many different subtle energetic and spiritual questions. Profound answers can be found in the study of qigong (chi kung) and neidangong (neidan kung), or Daoist inner alchemy.
The Daoist method of Internal Qi Breathing I learned and have since refined is the most powerful of the many breathing methods that I tested from different traditions. This is because it is the most in tune with the complete functioning of the life force. All Qigong is essentially a method of cultivating your relationship with the life force, with the pulsating field of qi that exists all around you, infinitely in all directions. The inner qi field extends within yourself, infinitely in all internal directions and all internal dimensions. It cultivates this relationship between the inner and outer chi fields, using internal Neigong (Nei Kung) "mind breathing" coordinated with movement Qigong involving physical breathing.
The life force or qi field functions or "breathes" through three main currents known traditionally in China as yin, yang and yuan. These impossible to translate terms imply negative, positive and neutral. Yuan also means "Original Qi" or "Original Breath." In terms of breathing yin qi is the energy of qi moving in; it is inhaling and contracting in towards the center of the body. Yang qi is breathing out; it is expanding by exhaling. The third type of energy, yuan, the original or neutral qi, would be equated roughly in terms of breathing with the stillness or pause between the inhalation and exhalation.
So each of us is actually practicing our relationship with the life force every moment because we are breathing in, we are breathing out, and there is some pause or some turn around between those two, however brief. Our very nature, the way we are actually built to breathe, reflects the structure of the life force. Internal Qi Breathing is not doing anything new: it just teaches us to actually understand and experience deeply what it is that we are already doing with each breath.
We must ask, exactly what is "internal qi breathing?" This involves understanding the relationship between physical breathing and our energy body breathing. Our energy body is just the sum total of all energy channels and all the body-mind's subtle energy functions that underlie our personality traits. Most people are not aware of this relationship because they are walking around looking at everything as if it is a solid physical world full of solid objects. They are not seeing everything as an energetic process. The deeper you get into the Qigong way of living the more you begin to embody and experience the world as changing energy fields. Your own body and breath is no different.
There is a relationship between an energy field and a physical process. The pattern in that energy field is what determines the pattern in your physical breathing, it is not the other way around. You can change your physical breathing pattern around but in order to do that you have already made a shift energetically. The energy field shift always precedes the shifting pattern of physical breathing.
When we focus on internal qi breathing what we are really doing is acknowledging that there is something more subtle than just the air going in and out. You can call that qi field your mind, you can call it the matrix of your mind, you can call it whatever you like. But it is pulsating, it's vibrating and breathing just like everything else in this living universe. It has to move. If it stops moving it is dead. If it stops pulsating it is dead.
This does not mean if you have very light physical breathing that you are about to die. It is possible to have very shallow physical breath but a very deep qi breath. This is not the ordinary case for most people. Most people if they have very shallow breathing they also have very shallow movement of energy. This is not a healthy condition, your organ intelligences start to feel starved for breath and they start crying out and acting out, and all kinds of problems start to come up.
Internal Qi Breathing cures those problems at the deepest level where they begin, by unifying the physical breath and the subtle breath. The best way to pursue this is to find a qigong teacher who knows these practices. 
Of course, people are breathing at very different levels of ease, as the diaphragm is very tight in many people. This effectively limits the free flow of qi between the upper body and the lower body, causes tension in the solar plexus area and ultimately depletes all the vital organs in their cycle of exchanging internal qi with the external qi field through breathing air.
At higher levels of inner alchemy practice we absorb qi from the earth, the planets and stars into the bone marrow to raise the vibrational frequency of our core structure. But it is not really beneficial to do this (as a visualization) without doing qigong practices to open the pathways of communication between the vital organ intelligences (shen) and the bones, which are largely governed by the kidney spirit. The jing in the bones is what we convert into sexual vitality, both for reproduction of children and reproduction of cells for everyday health. So the bones have a very magical power that we literally tap into as an essential part of the Daoist journey of rebirthing our body of light.
Editor's Comments: This entry was taken from Michael Winn's "Qigong (Chi Kung) Fundamentals 3: Medical & Spiritual Qigong." It was slightly modified to fit the stylistic requirements of Qi Encyclopedia.
^ "Qigong (Chi Kung) Fundamentals 4" is about how to activate the process of bone breathing. This involves a series of steps to awaken the substance (jing) deep within the bone marrow. This is where you store the stem cells that produce your blood, your hormonal precursors, and many elements of your immune system. If you get this mostly passive jing to awaken and circulate as qi flow within the bones, it is one of the best things you can do for your health. It is the key to preventing and healing a myriad of chronic illnesses.
^ Instruction in the kong jing or "internal qi breathing" method is available on on "Qigong (Chi Kung) Fundamentals 3 & 4."