Posts filed under ‘breathing’

The 2500 Year Old Breath Exercise

This advice on breathing is from Chinese characters inscribed on a piece of jade:

Hold the breath and it collects,

When collected it expands,

When expanded it sinks down,

When it sinks down it gets quiet,

When it becomes quiet it solidifies,

Solidified, it begins to sprout forth,

After it has sprouted it will grow,

As it grows it will be pulled back above,

Pulled back above it will reach the crown of the head,

Above it presses against,

Below it presses down

Whoever follows this will live,

Whoever acts against this will die.

August 19, 2015 at 2:58 pm Leave a comment

Transformational Breathing – Part 1

In 2009 I started doing some Transformational Breathing, This is a technique originated by Judith Kravitz of the USA, who has been leading workshops in this technique for the past 30 years.

I started with a CD made by Judith called “100 Breaths to Joy” that I followed by practising at home, and then I read Judith’s book, “Breathe Deep, Laugh Loudly”. I did have some success doing this on my own, but I was able to make more progress after attending two workshops in London run by facilitator Alan Dolan.

Why was I doing this form of breathing? I have a long term project to do a kit (book, cd, dvd, workbook) on health, well-being and longevity. For the kit, I wanted to include a series of yoga positions that people could do in order to discover (if they didn’t already know) where they were in pain, or stiff, or had some kind of physical blockage. I asked my ex, a yoga therapist, if she could devise this set of asanas (postures) but she thought that this was a secondary phase, and that more primary for the kit’s readers should be a self analysis of their breath, and learning how to breathe better.

I thought this sounded right and I realised that I had not really done much breath work on my own. So I decided to start looking at my own breath and this led me to pick up Judith Kravitz’s CD and begin. In the past, I had a feeling (confirmed by a shiatsu practitioner) that my diaphragm was holding in some places along my rib cage and spine, and this holding was obstructing my full breathing capacity. I worked on this area for years with shiatsu and self-massage, and felt that I had loosened the areas of holding, but never completely.

I also knew that my solar plexus was the place where I had held some old emotional traumas from the past. Whenever I had a shock of any kind, like the death of my father, or being let down or betrayed by someone or any other strong emotional shock, it always seemed to hit me in the ‘pit’ of the stomach, and I think that I had an accumulation of emotional hits in that area. The solar plexus and diaphragm must be closely connected since they inhabit the same area of the front of the body.

Transformational Breathing, unlike yogic pranayama or Taoist belly breathing and reverse breathing, is a technique for breathing through the mouth rather than the nose, and keeping the in-breaths and out-breaths in continuous flow. I won’t try to describe the technique since it is best explained by a teacher. Suffice to say that when I tried the technique via the CD I did have a strong response at my solar plexus which allowed me to release some very old emotional baggage that I had been holding there. This related to some issues of loss, betrayal and self-doubt that I had been carrying from childhood on, and the deep belly breathing managed to shake up the solar plexus where these emotions had become lodged. I was able to deal with the old emotions and thoughts and this helped to release some of them from my body.

A few weeks later I had a chance to do a couple of group workshops with Alan Dolan, an experienced Transformational Breathing facilitator, and he taught me how best to use the technique. After the two sessions with him I felt my solar plexus vibrating, and I felt sure that more clearing was taking place. I also felt that my diaphragm had now finally ‘let go’ and there was no longer a holding at the rib cage. I felt that my breathing was now very deep and very easy.

I am now continuing to use the technique and I have started to do some further research into other breathing methods and techniques so that I can use this knowledge to inform the section on Breathing that I intend to have in the longevity kit.

Alan Dolan can be contacted at

July 29, 2013 at 3:22 pm Leave a comment

Becoming One With The Tao

What does it mean to become one with the Tao? How can we join the Tao? Is this possible, or is just a psychological illusion?

To me there is a relationship between attaining oneness with Tao and letting go. Both involve a setting aside of reliance on ego and an acceptance that life, the universe, and everything is greater than our own small self. To really let go, to allow things to happen as they will, means to accept that our own plans, our own attempts to stay in control of events, is doomed to fail, and will in the end prove an unhealthy way of living. Instead of trying so hard to make things work out as we would like them to, we are better off –  healthier and happier – to just rely on things turning out as they will. This requires trust, something which is in short supply in our day. To trust is to assume that ‘all will be well’ that there is an existing pattern in the universe that sorts things, events, and people in a way that is not inevitable or determined, but that will be somehow OK. To try to work against this flow of events puts us in opposition to this pattern, and since this pattern is also in us, it means that we are acting in opposition to ourself.

This can’t be good. Acting against ourselves is how we create imbalances in the flow of energy, of chi, and how blockages and stagnation occur in the body, leading to illness. If we want to stay healthy, then we need to make sure that our individual pattern is aligned with the universal pattern. The energy that flows in and through us should  not be blocked, but should just continue the flow that is in the universe at large. This is, in its own way, attaining the Tao. Our individual pattern, our energy flow, is the power or essence of who we are. It is our signature. And this derives from the Tao, the universal pattern or energy flow.

The Tao te Ching (Chapter 16) says,

Attain complete emptiness

Hold fast to stillness.

The ten thousand things stir about;

I only watch for their going back.


One way of looking at this chapter is to see that it is about meditation. In deep meditation it is possible to attain emptiness and stillness. But this is only relative emptiness and relative stillness. Our heart is still beating, our digestive system still moving, our lungs still  expanding; we still have awareness. Our body as an object in space is still, but our body as an energy system continues to function. However it is functioning at a slower and deeper level than when we are active. This means that our systems are able to slow down – our breathing, heart beat and digestion all slows – and this has a corresponding effect on our muscles, nerves and brain. No physical action is required, our involuntary systems provide all we need to stay alive, and so our nervous system (and mind) are able to take a well-needed rest.

One of ‘the ten thousand things’ in the world is our body, and in meditation it is very easy to view it ‘stirring about’. This stirring is not extreme, it is rather gentle and subdued, and so it is easy (in our relative state of emptiness, when so little outward activity is happening) , to watch for the body’s ‘going back’. Everything rises and falls, our chi rises and falls, our breath rises and falls. As we watch internally (the words used to describe this is something like ‘to turn your gaze around’) and become aware of how our energy circulates, rises and falls, then the places where we have obstuctions or blockages start to ‘light up’, show us where we have a problem.

It is this self-discovery in meditation of our subtle and not-so-subtle blockages, obstructions and pains that gives us the chance to self-heal, to start the journey to health that can break up these blockages, eliminate this pain, and increase the free flowing of our energy. I believe that this road or path to health is one of the ‘ways’ to the Tao.

August 23, 2011 at 9:10 am 2 comments

To Breathe or Not to Breathe? That is the question.

Yesterday a friend of mine told me this story. She had met a producer who had offerred her a job on a film he was preparing. They arranged to meet a second time, but she was fifteen minutes late, and when she arrived he was gone. Upset about this, she tried to phone and email him but got no response. Thinking that she offended him by being late, she rang one of his associates who told her that he had killed himself the day after their first meeting. He was 53.

“To be or not to be?”, that must have been the question that this producer asked himself, and his answer was “No, I’ve had enough.” To those of us who have never contemplated suicide, it seems such a radical thing to do, to stop life just like that. I don’t blame him, it was his life to keep or lose, but he left a 15 year old son, and who knows the psychic repercussions that this will have on him. 

In meditation, it’s relatively easy to come to this stage, the point where you are only ‘being’ and so can contemplate ‘non-being’ . When in meditation you have come to a highly relaxed state, with a quiet mind and a body that has almost disappeared from sensation, you have left behind ‘doing’, ‘making’ and ‘having’, and most of what remains is the breath – inhale and exhale, with the pauses in between.  At this stage the breath is so clearly life, your life, that you are filled only with ‘being’, and the body and mind become the possession of your involuntary systems- the circulation and movements of blood, lymph, spinal fluid, water, food and so on, all controlled automatically by your brain.  

When you become aware of the breath being your life, of only ‘being’ , life becomes very simple, a matter of one inbreath and one outbreath. It is so simple that you can understand how easy it would be to stop breathing and to cease to be. Every once in a while, especially when times are painful, I have found myself being forced to ask myself , in meditation, why I go on, what purpose my life is serving, and whether it would make sense to stop. When this question arises, I take a review of my life, the present as well as the future. Am I happy? Are there things I still want to do?  What do I hope to achieve in the future? What responsibilities do I have, that I would be ducking out of? Do I have the potential of greater happiness in the future? So far I have always answered in the positive, that to be means more to me than not to be, but I suppose a time might come when the balance might swing the other way.

Today in meditation I realised that the past only exists in our body, where memories are stored, and that these are delusions, not accurate remembrances of what we experienced. The future too is a complete illusion, since we don’t know if we will be around to experience it. All we are left with is now, the present instant, the inbreath and outbreath that express our life’s feelings, thoughts and emotions.  And this is more than enough if we can find a way to be really present to that breath, to the moment in which we live. To be is really to breathe.

February 10, 2010 at 7:53 pm Leave a comment

Meditation Opens The Heart

There is a famous story in the Book of Chuang Tzu of Confucius’ advice to his disciple Yen Hui. Yen Hui planned to go to the Prince of Wei to try to reform this ruler’s wild and wicked ways by using Confucius’ teaching. After Confucius shoots down all of Yen Hui’s proposals, and tells him that the Prince will probably kill him for his intervention, he offers him some advice,

You must fast. I’ll tell you why. Is it easy to work from pre-conceived ideas? Heaven frowns on those who think it is easy.”

Yen replies that his family is poor and he hasn’t eaten meat in ages, but Confucius explains that the fasting he is talking about is not fasting of the body but fasting of the mind. Yen asks him to explain what fasting of the mind is,

“Your will must be one. Do not listen with your ears but with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but with your chi. Ears can only hear, mind can only think, but chi is energy, receptive to all things. Tao abides in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”

He goes on to say,

“It is in emptiness that light is born. There is happiness in stillness. Lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering. If you are open to everything you see and hear, and allow this to act through you, even gods and spirits will come to you, not to speak of men. This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secret of the wise kings. “

Yen Hui was going to Wei to apply the ‘pre-conceived ideas’ that he had learned from Confucius. But Confucius wanted to teach him how he could find new and spontaneous ideas, applicable in the moment,  to use with the Prince. We see in this dichotomy between pre-conceived ideas and spontaneous ones, the difference between reaction and response. In reacting to events we use our conditioned mind, the pre-conceived ideas that experience and learning have taught us. But this isn’t fresh enough. We need to respond not only from experience, but also to be alive to emptiness, to the spirit of the event unfolding in front of us. This is why Confucius tells Yen that he must use his chi to listen to what is happening, and not just his eyes and ears.

This story is similar to the well known story of the Professor who comes to visit a Master to discuss Zen. The monk offers tea and when he starts to pour he continues until the cup overflows. The Professor asks him what he is doing, and the monk replies that the cup is just like the Professor’s mind, overflowing with pre-conceived ideas and knowledge. The fasting of the mind is to empty it of old and stale ideas so that it can respond with fresh insights to what is happening in the moment.

We assume that the Confucius story is about sitting meditation, since Confucius says that ‘lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering.’ When we enter into a deep meditative state we enter stillness, but if our mind fails to settle then although we are formally sitting in meditation our mind is actually wandering all over the place and it’s not really meditation, it’s agitation.

The Fasting of the Mind is a Taoist meditation practise called Zuowang- sitting and forgetting. We sit and forget, but what is it that we are forgetting? Shi Jing, in an article from Issue Number 1 of the 2006 Dragon’s Mouth, says about Zuowang,

A meditation retreat is not about acquiring and filling, but is a process of releasing and emptying. What we forget is the thing we hold most dearly: self, with all its opinions, beliefs and ideals. We can be so caught up in the concept of self that we only see the world as a place to fulfill personal ambition and desire.

To forget the self means to forget the mind and body, since our ideas of self come from our awareness of having a body and of being conscious. So when we sit in meditation we forget our self, our body and our mind  – we empty out, but what is it that we are trying to empty? And what is this emptiness for?

In the West, the influence of Descartes has led us for 300 years to separate the body from the mind. The body was seen as low, crude and inert and the mind as the higher repository of thoughts and emotions. This dualistic view was never part of Eastern thought, so the Chinese view has always been to see the human organism as a unity, with body and mind working together. This is reflected in the old Chinese medical texts where the heart – hsin- was the seat of both thoughts and feelings, emotions and sensations, so that it was really the ‘heart-mind’, an inseparable compound of the body and the mind. The heart is the link between the body and the mind, and is the only organ with two meridians relating to it- the heart meridian and the heart protector.

In their books, Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee write about this view of the heart/mind. They say that Chinese classical literature sees the heart as the mind, the intelligence and the spirit. There are two aspects to the heart. It has a double meridian and a double presentation. It is both a void or place of quietness which allows the spirits to dwell within, as well as the activity which allows the spirits to circulate everywhere throughout the body via the blood and chi. It is the latter aspect which reflects the heart as the governor or master of the body. So the spirits reside in the heart and it is the heart’s function to send the spirits flowing and spreading out to the other organs of the body.

I recently attended a few Transformational Breathing (TM) workshops. Transformational Breathing uses a technique of sustained circular breathing through the mouth to attempt to open up your respiratory tract to the largest possible extent. In doing this it has to break through any blockages or obstructions that are stopping you from having a full open breath. These blockages are both physical and emotional. When I was going through this process, the facilitator asked me to try to open my heart.

After the session, I thought about the process of opening the heart, and how to go about it. Obviously it’s possible through breathing control to direct chi into the heart area, as well as to force breath into it to try to expand the heart and loosen or free it. But that’s purely on a physical level. What is it on a mental or emotional level?

I decided to ask the I Ching, ‘Will I be able to open my heart?’. Throwing the stalks I got the answer hexagram 35: Advance, but with no moving lines. The commentary of the 5th    and 6th lines, in the Taoist I Ching reads,

Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open. If one knows how to empty  and open the heart, one can thus seek from others, and so be able to fill the belly. Once one has filled the belly, fortune, misfortune and stopping at sufficiency are all in the palm of one’s hand. One can thereby be free from worry about loss or gain, and go straight  ahead without doubt, going ahead in advancing the fire and working, with good results beneficial in every way. This is the illumination  of becoming empty to bring fulfillment.

The sixth yang line says,

The work of overcoming oneself is to conquer the heart/mind. If one does not empty the heart/mind but relies on adament strength alone, strength must overcome strength – there is bound to be danger before getting good results and becoming blameless.

The Taoist I Ching is quoting the Tao Te Ching (Ch 3),

Thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the belly

So to empty the heart/mind is to lose regret, make oneself open to others, cease having anxiety about loss and gain, as well as losing rational discrimination and  intellectual knowledge. Instead we fill the belly with breath, lose self doubt, gain will power and strength, which enables us to live out our destiny.

I thought about the line,

Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open

Where does regret come from? To me regret is made up of frustrated desires, the things you wanted to accomplish but could not, or the things or people that you desired but could not hold on to. It is in a sense the past tense of desire. We know that desire is always a problem. Eastern religions ask us to reduce our desires in order to find contentment and tranquillity. But desire is always present, firstly because we have a primary desire to live, and this means that the desire for food and drink are basic desires necessary for survival. But even if we reduce or sublimate our desires we remain in the grip of desire. Any spiritual desire – to be one with the Tao, or to be enlightened, is still a desire.

We always think of desires as in the present tense, of the desires that we either have or are trying to control and reduce. When we think of desires it is usually the obvious ones, which the Taoists call the Three Poisons: greed, anger, and stupidity; And you can add to that list a couple of others: hatred and  lust. But to see the reduction of desire as something negative, as a renunciation of the self, misses the mark. The Tao te Ching says (Ch 1),

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

Lao Tzu says that if we can reduce desire we are able to perceive the subtle, whereas if we stay obsessed with desires we can only see the surface of things. We remain in the world of form and cannot break through to the world of emptiness and of essence. A life made up of endless desires is too shallow and can never get deep.

If my heart is not open enough, then it must be full of desires both old and new, and to open my heart means that I have to empty it. When you desire something or someone, you either feel fulfilled or unfulfilled. Either you accomplish that desire or fail to achieve it. The failure to achieve a desire leads to feelings of loss, lack, bitterness and regret. Even if we manage to accomplish our desires and have a feeling of joy these feelings do not last, do not remain for all time. Life is transient and impermanent. We lose even the things we have gained, so that loss is also part of success. All desires, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled, lead to feelings of attachment and dependency, to a sense that we can only feel whole when we can bring outside or external things into our being, our heart.

So the heart is full of the corpses of desire. We harbour past feelings of hurt and betrayal, as well as the seeds of new desires that we want to pursue. In such a state our heart overflows like the cup the Zen monk poured. If we can empty the heart of these old feelings and reduce our present desires, then we make room in the heart. Through this fasting of the heart we create an emptiness that will allow other and better feelings, like compassion and love, to take up residence.

We need to transform our hsin, our heart-mind, and the way to do this is through Zuowang, sitting and forgetting. What we need to forget are old slights, pains, hurts and betrayals, so that the heart empties out of old attachments and can become a storehouse for new feelings. Unless we houseclean our heart, we are being dragged down by our past, and are not able to move forward in a unified way. We are victims of self-doubt and self-esteem, and can’t utilise our energy in a powerful way. This is what Confucius means when he says,

“Your will must be one.”

Mencius said (2a2),

When will is unified, it moves the breath.
When the breath is unified, it moves the will.

And Chuang Tzu tells us,

There is no weapon deadlier than the will.

So my aim in emptying my heart is to unify my will and breath, so that breath and mind act as one, and my spirit can become liberated. This is the job of overcoming myself by overcoming the heart/mind.

In The Heart Claude Larre and Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallée talk about the role of the spirits,

We exist in a way that develops. We have a future. As long as we are living, we are living for something, we are living for tomorrow, and for the years to come. However long, life is not without prospect. Is there any power to take care of this ‘becoming’ (our future, our development). Yes, there are leaders within us, and we call them spirits.

The role or function of the spirits is not to give us some spiritual high or a wonderful transcendant experience but to utterly infuse our waking and sleeping being, so they are able to give us specific guidance for every moment and activity in daily life. This is what Confucius was advising Yen Hui, not to rely on his learning and knowledge but to rely on his spirits. And the reason we sit in meditation, the reason we sit and forget, is that we want to empty the heart of all the old and outworn ideas and emotions that we have stored there, in what WB Yeats called  “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. Once we have emptied it out we have created a home for the spirits to take up residence. This is the same idea as in ancient Greek religion. They created a beautiful temple, made an altar, devised rituals and sacrifices in the hope that the God would come down and make it his worldly home, to protect and guide their life. For the Chinese the hsin, the heart-mind, is a kind of fleshy temple. Keep it empty of desires, void of regrets and the spirits will have a suitable resting place.

So the advice Confucius gave to Yen Hui was: sit in meditation until you find stillness, and remain in stillness until you find happiness or joy; continue sitting until you find emptiness, and at some point light will emerge from emptiness, the light of awareness. At this point you will have transformed yourself, and you will be a sage, able to advise the Prince of Wei without having your head chopped off. This is ‘the secret of the wise kings’.

Copyright 2010 Mark Forstater

January 23, 2010 at 8:43 am 4 comments

Life As An Energy System

It’s instructive to view our life as an energy system. We take energy from the air we breathe and energy from the food we eat. The Chinese call this energy chi and the yogis prana. The Taoists believe we are born with an original energy or a primal energy which we get from our parents and which is sustained and nurtured in the womb through the umbilicus. If we can continue to nurture this original breath through our life we stay healthy, but if it diminishes we get ill, and once it is gone we die.

Breath energy and food energy we get from the environment. The digestive system, from which we extract energy from food is an involuntary system, in that is we do not control its function. All we can control is what we put in our mouths- what we decide to eat. If we choose well, we enhance our bodies. If we eat crap food we allow it to degenerate. Hence the importance of nutrition, eating organic and fresh food and so on.

But with the respiratory system, although it also operates involuntarily, we can exert voluntary control over how we breathe. So we have more say in how we are able to extract energy from the air and also have more control over where to direct the energy.  This takes some practice as it is something that needs to be learned. Except for babies who have had an excessive birth trauma,  most babies breathe down into the belly, and their respiratory system is fully open. But bad parenting, accidents, emotional upsets, bullying and so on – basically life- have the effect of distorting the natural belly breath, and by the time we are adults it is estimated that only 20% of us are belly breathers. The vast majority – 80%- are shallow chest breathers. What this means is that they are taking in less air than they could and should, and therefore the energy intake that they are extracting from the air is insufficient to maintain good health.

When we have an open breath, we are able to feel the air in three distinct areas of the body. We can feel it go into the belly, then the chest and finally below the collar bone and the lower neck.  All of the lungs, from top to bottom, get an air intake. This means that we are getting sufficient energy from the air to power the work of the body.

In Chinese medicine there is a meridian called The Triple Warmer or Triple Burner . This is an energy or chi circuit, and it is related to the respiratory system, in that it indicates three places where the chi from breathing can be felt. The three areas of the the  Triple Warmer are called Tan Tiens, and they are the upper tan tien, the middle tan tien and the lower tan tien. The lower tan tien is the area below the navel, the middle tan tien is at the level of the chest and the upper tan tien is the top of the head. I believe that if you are able to have a full open breath it is possible to feel the chi in these three areas.

If life is an energy system then we all need to become our own energy engineers and consultants to ensure we nurture and sustain our original breath for a long healthy life.

November 21, 2009 at 12:01 pm Leave a comment

A 5 Minute Meditation When Waking Stressed

I was recently quoted in the London Evening Standard regarding a short meditation for busy people. The paper ran a page on things that distracted and stressed multi-taskers can do to gain mental clarity in their busy day. The bit I wrote for the paper was heavily edited, so I thought I should have another go at it.

The idea was to propose a meditation for people who were so busy that they didn’t have any time whatsoever to meditate. What I suggested was the following:

Stressed and busy people often wake up with their heart racing and their belly all a-flutter. It is the adrenaline coursing through their body that shocks them into wakefulness. It’s not a good idea to get out of bed in this state of anxiety, so I suggest a 5 minute meditation technique that can be done in bed to calm the mind and body before getting up.

If you wake like this, lie back in bed, gently stretch your arms and legs out a little from the body (in corpse pose (Sivasana), keep your eyes open (to avoid going back to sleep) and just breathe gently and evenly through the nose. Try to take deep even breaths that go into the belly rather than the upper chest. Stare up at the ceiling and try not to be distracted by thoughts. If thought arise (which they will) just let them pass, do not attend to them or give them any mental energy. If you can do this for 2-3 minutes you should start to calm your nervous system, slow down your heart beat and stop the butterflies in your belly. If you have the time, take long enough in this breathing meditation for all those relaxations- heart, belly, nervous system – to take place.

At this point, being more relaxed, you can now direct your thoughts to the tasks ahead of you. Deal with each task one by one. Decide which task is most important to do, which is least important, which can be deferred, which ones can be combined, which can be delegated to others. Spend a couple of minutes working out an order and schedule that makes sense to you.

You are now ready to get out of bed and face the day. It might be a good idea to write down your tasks so you don’t need to clutter your mind with them. But in any case you should have a clear idea of what you need to do, and a calm mind and body with which to do them. The more often you do this meditation, the easier it gets to do, and your mind and body soon get habituated to this new regime. That is, your mind and your body memory both begin to recognise this type of deep breathing as the trigger to a relaxed state and so your system moves into that state more easily and quickly.

This is the real secret of breathing meditation. We always assume that meditation is something we do in a specific meditation pose, usually a cross-legged Lotus posture. There is no doubt that this posture, allied to a peaceful space and sufficient free time, will give the best results for meditation. But real meditators take the tranquil mind and relaxed body that they get from sitting meditation out of the meditation room. They try to keep that tranquil mind while they are brushing their teeth, eating, taking the tube, walking, working on a computer, talking with others and so on.

This is also something you can do. If during the day you get upset, angry or stressed, just sit down, stop what you are doing, close your eyes and just begin breathing as you did in bed. A few deep and even breaths reminds your body and mind that you want to enter a relaxed state –  and you will.

September 8, 2009 at 10:31 am Leave a comment

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