The relation between chi and breathing is not unique to Taoism. In fact, knowledge of chi is not today, and never has been, exclusive to China. The idea that chi is an "intelligent" energy that protects the body and coordinates its functions has appeared in many cultures.
This "living energy" is called prana in India, and in fact it very likely has been studied in that country for a longer period of time than in China itself. In his book The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath, Yogi Ramacharaka succinctly describes prana:
"Prana is the name by which we designate a universal principle, which is the essence of all motion force or energy, whether manifested in gravitation, electricity, the revolution of the planets, and all forms of life, from the highest to the lowest. This great principle is in all forms of matter, and yet it is not matter. It is in the air, but it is not air nor one of its chemical constituents. Animal and plant life breathe it in with the air, and yet if they contained it not they would die even though they might be filled with air."
The notion that chi and breathing are related was a favorite theme of the Indian sages of the Vedic Period. (Veda means wisdom in Sanskrit, the holy language of ancient India.) During this historical period, which began nearly four thousand years ago, the ancient sages began to record their ideas in written form. Many texts from the Vedic Period have been preserved to this day.
Studying this literature, we realize that the idea of relating chi and breath is as old as time itself. In Sanskrit, prana means "ultimate energy," and when used in context with living organisms, it is recognized as the "vital animating force" in living things.
Ever since that time, practitioners have believed that it was necessary to breathe to acquire this force, so the intimate relationship between the act of breathing and staying alive and well was established in this way. Consequently, innumerable breathing techniques from many different sects were developed specifically to increase the amount of available chi and to use it for special purposes.
Exactly who these ancient sages might have been, no one knows. The only traces of them are found in the Vedic literature and perhaps in some of the yogic practices.
Their legacy, however, offers a wealth of information on topics related to the vital force in human life and how it may be purified. They observed in their incomparably poetic way, for example, that the basic emotions, such as fear, passion, rage, and anxiety, would cause corresponding physiological responses, all negative.
The yogis, who later followed these secret teachings, noticed that these physical states were invariably related to, among other things, heart rate, muscular tension, and respiratory rate, and that undesirable mental states, such as confusion and disorientation, accompanied these changes.
The Benefits of Breathing Control
Breathing control, as it turned out, was central to the yogis' success in regulating these physiological responses. By controlling such variables as the volume of air, the rate at which it is inhaled and exhaled, the timing between the inhale and exhale, and the location in the lungs in which the air is placed, they could affect both mental and physical states of being.
Using carefully prescribed breathing techniques, the masters learned to induce special states, such as deep meditation or heightened awareness, for use in specific situations. As a result of their painstaking research over the course of centuries, the masters made exciting discoveries related to health, strength, longevity, and even happiness.
These ideas were systematized and became a basic part of the many different systems of psycho-physical exercises such as yoga. It was during this period of research that the relationship between chi and breathing was firmly established.
It seems there is considerable truth to the hypothesis that special breathing techniques can indeed enhance certain functions of the body. It is well known, for example, that children with weak respiratory systems may be able to overcome their deficiencies if given a wind instrument to practice at a young age.
The idea is that the act of exercising the lungs consistently over long periods of time will strengthen the muscle groups responsible for respiratory functions and increase the supply of oxygen to the entire body. According to traditional Chinese medical theory, by strengthening their breathing, children will increase the quantity of available pectoral chi, which is not only responsible for respiratory functions but also for the proper operation of the heart.
On the next page, learn how chi can be cultivated through the practice of chi kung.
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