In many traditions there is the notion that as long as the energy is strong, the body will adapt. Chinese medical theory suggests that we normally rely on three sources of energy:
– food (and drink)
– ‘essence’ (jing – inherited life force, the spark of life).
Food energy comes from the food we start to digest in the mouth and stomach.
Breath we digest in the lungs and its benefits, such as oxygen, are spread by the circulatory system on behalf of the heart, pumping blood around the body.
The kidneys hold our essence – the inherent vital essence that we receive upon conception from our mother and father, from our ancestors, which permits us life, and that, when finally exhausted, means the body perishes.
When we expend energy we must use energy from at least one of these three sources.
Very important in Chinese medicine is the concept that we must preserve our jing, our essence from being used when not necessary. If we are not sufficiently supported by the qi coming via the Lungs and the Stomach on a daily basis, then instead we must use more qi from our jing than necessary, from our Kidneys. This happens from overwork, insufficient sleep, overtraining, insufficient exercise, too much sex; which in the Chinese view, shortens our life span.
So it is imperative for great health that we eat well, chew well, and breathe deeply and consciously – taking care not to overload ourselves when eating by watching tv, reading and engaging in deep conversation – all of these employ our digestive function and inhibit the body’s ability to digest food as efficiently as possible.
We can also make sure that we make the best use of the food and air we receive, through exercise both strenuous (yang) and gentle (yin). We can use our energy to enrich our minds and bodies, and should always ensure that we nourish the yin as well as the yang. This is why internal martial arts such as meditation, qigong and tai chi quan are very popular in China, as they help support our yin, our vital health on the inside, a calm mind and flexible body, in a similar way that external martial arts (kung fu) strengthen our yang, the development and protection of our body on the outside and in the world at large. In fact, the internal martial arts are seen as primary, external as secondary. Some masters won’t even teach their martial art until the student has practised internal arts for between 1 and 5 years; based on the theory that yang develops from yin, so by developing our yin first our yang practice will be stable and will not cause violence and destruction to others or our own bodies.
Qi Gong, also spelt chi kung, can be translated as –
– qi/chi – ‘energy’, ‘breath’, ‘life force’
– gong/kung – ‘cultivation’ or ‘work’
Kung Fu, sometimes spelt gongfu, can be translated as –
– kung/gong – ‘cultivation’ or ‘work’
– fu – can mean both ‘man’ and ‘intensity’
This demonstrates the idea of soft and hard practices, internal and external.
When our breath is carefully observed we see that in times of stress and anxiety, fear and pain; our breathing is shallow and inhibited. By regulating the breath we can reduce pain, improve flexibility of mind and body, and encourage the healthy free flow of blood and qi through our internal architecture.
Taiji (tai chi) breathing is the practice of mimicking the alternation of yin and yang within dao. Yin (like the receptive in-breath) and yang (like the motive out-breath) are ultimately perfectly equal and perfectly balanced within the dao, each changing into the other; so our breathing ought to be smooth, cyclical, with no discernable end of the in-breath and start of the out-breath, no slow or fast parts, no strong or weak parts in the cycle. The smooth, cyclical, balanced breath deep into the belly becomes a meditation on dao; and helps develop the calm, relaxed focus that gives the body the best opportunity to use the air we breathe in the best way.
This way we allow our jing the opportunity to be used as necessary for stimulating birth, growth, reproduction and development.