Except for the mechanical tickings of a clock, time is an illusive concept inseparable from experience that occurs in space. Does time heal all wounds? Not necessarily. It’s what happens in time that can heal. What connects one point in time to another is breath. If the breath is short and labored, or hurried and unruly, or suffocating, there is not going to be any healing – not in a million years. On the other hand, if the breath is full and harmonious, regular and rhythmic in accordance with the Yin and the Yang, then it can, indeed, heal all wounds. Here we are going to talk about the two basic breaths: the Yin and the Yang breaths with which we can regulate our moods, our emotions and, hence, our subjective experience. But first, let’s differentiate between moods and emotions.
An emotion has an identifiable cause. You feel sad if a dear one leaves you, happy if you run into a surprise fortune, or simply because the sun comes out from behind the clouds. The important thing is that most of us assume that the emotions we experience are inevitable and inescapable. Some of us identify with them so completely that we honor them as the essence of our being, and we allow them to govern us. When a negative experience causes fear, pain, or regret, we tend to replay the experience and its accompanying emotions over and over again, reinforcing and deepening the wound. In fact, we have a choice. Instead of walking down that same road over and over again, we can choose another. We can leave it as it is, accept it, and walk away, or we can relive that experience in a different way and become conscious of all the positive aspects we had previously been blind to. Breathing the proper way will help us achieve this transformation.
Then there are moods. Moods have less identifiable causes.The lyrics of the standard “Almost Like Being in Love” come to mind:
What a day this has been
What a rare mood I’m in
Why, it’s almost like being in love
There’s a smile on my face
For the whole human race
Why, it’s almost like being in love
All the music of life seems to be
Like a bell that is ringing for me
And from the way that I feel
When that bell starts to peal
I would swear I was falling
I could swear I was falling
It’s almost like being in love
What is the source of this wondrous feeling? A ray of sunlight, a scent that evokes primeval feelings, or just an awareness of the lightness of being? Often we are not sure. And then there are those foul, deep, blue moods that have inspired so much great music. Both are equally overwhelming, equally mysterious. Do they come from nowhere? No, their origin is our connection with the larger forces: the natural cycles, the seasons, the stars, and the cosmos. But even here we have a say. We can rectify our moods with proper breathing.
The science of breath may be complicated but the basics are simple: it boils down to the Yin and the Yang breaths. But first, some science. The lung is a large organ with five lobes. It is wider at the bottom and narrower at the top so there are more lung cells (alveoli) lower down. Breathing is not only about sucking air in; it is about getting rid of carbon dioxide and toxins and oxygenating the blood – a marriage of blood and air, of heart and lungs. When the breath is shallow, as in chest breathing, it only hits the upper part of the lungs. Not enough oxygen is brought in, and the heart immediately works double time to compensate. The effect is palpitation and shortness of breath, a sensation that gives rise to feelings of panic and anxiety. When the breath is full, as in abdominal breathing, the heart is relaxed, resulting in a sensation of comfort and well being. In both the Yin and Yang breaths, we use abdominal breathing.
In abdominal breathing, direct the breath to the lower abdomen, the part between the navel and the top of the pubic bone. In Daoist practice, this is called the Dantian, the field where the elixir is cultivated. Put your mind there. This means you put your consciousness there, watching the rising and falling of the abdomen with the breath, aware of its warmth and light. It also means that you withdraw your mind from your brain with all its endless clingings and chatterings. The energy is pulled down to the Dantian. The rising, the falling, the light and warmth. Ever-watchful, but no conscious thoughts. Now breathe like this nine times and see how you feel.
The Yin Breath
The abdomen is completely relaxed in the Yin Breath. There is only watching and little doing. Breathing in, the abdomen rises and bulges out a little. Breathing out, the abdomen sinks in. Put your mind on the abdomen and watch it expand and contract like bellows. Bring the consciousness to the diaphragm. Feel it contract and push downward with the in-breath. Feel it relax and rise up with the out-breath. We are usually not conscious of the diaphragm muscle, but, with some attention and practice, we can feel how this muscle works. The Yin breath focuses on watching, on not doing. It is a relaxing breath that calms the racing mind and soothes anxiety. It is the breath to use to gain grounding, anchor, and balance. Now breathe like this nine times and see how you feel.
The Yang Breath
In the Yang breath, the Dantian is charged with intention. When breathing in, the lower abdomen is also gently drawn in and back toward the spine. By compacting the space while air is drawn in, the Qi is concentrated. When breathing out, the lower abdomen slowly relaxes and bulges out a little. In the Yang breath, there is as much doing as watching, but the doing is gentle, natural, and not forced. The doing has more to do with intention than a physical act. Try to find that balance. If you feel strained, you are doing too much. The Yang breath is an activating breath. It is most suitable to use when you feel tired, listless, or depressed. Now breathe this way nine times and see how you feel.