Naturalizing the Breath

The beginning of transcendent wisdom at soul/energy level, in quite a few traditions, is a kind of balance, contained and managed, which allows the motion of life without getting swept up in it. (The East-West difference in conceptualisation of that balance is fascinating, and I’ll get to that next week.) It’s in this context that Epicureanism, or indeed any of the other philosophies in which desire is managed down, are so useful. Not desiring more than one has means being satisfied, content, and peaceful. This is pleasure. That calculus of desire, where what arises is easily satisfied, allows life not to disturb — ataraxia.

It is easy and profitable, like I said before, to retrofit or graft the Chinese sexual techniques, the fangzhong shu, to the Epicurean ethic. Compatibility is the key, as much as or more than similarity. You’ll never find sexual techniques in Epicureanism since Epicurus, along with every one of his successors, was too pessimistic about sex to concoct any. So they never discovered what the Chinese did, which is that sex (with discipline and care) can be all about balance, pleasure, health and ataraxia — exactly the Epicurean aims.

It’s the same with a whole bunch of stuff — the Smile techniques of last week for example. There is nothing similar in Epicureanism but it’s bang on with their goals. Similarly, a big part of what you learn in qigong or kundalini practices is about breathing exercises. These are absolutely essential to what I do, and they are entirely absent from Western ancient records, even though their philosophy is totally compatible with so much Western stuff. The pneuma doctrines the Stoics settled into, especially, are really identical to the doctrines of qi/prana. Aer was important from the beginning with Anaximenes. The doctors of India, China and Greece worked with the energy to heal. But Greece did not develop breathing.

So historically, very few people in the West know what breathing makes possible. You need to experience it. We don’t have any cultural way of describing the change of mind involved in changing breath — nor resulting changes in the matter and energy of the body. Pierre Hadot was very big on ancient philosophy as spiritual exercises which aimed at a way — his contribution is very valuable — but what he meant by “spiritual exercises” was the questioning of assumptions and intentions, along with some asceticism. Good stuff, but the training of breath and mind together is not understood.

(Via the cross-fertilisation of Stoicism with Vipassana now in progress, that may change — although Vipassana is not qigong nor yogic breathing and should not be mistaken for it.)

One person who does get some of this is Thomas McEvilley, whose massive, fascinating The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002) is a beautiful comparative study of Ancient Indian and Greek philosophy. Epicurus and the Pāli Buddha never had a more fruitful and civilised conversation — nor did Pyrrho and Nagarjuna, nor Democritus and Jain atomism, for that matter. Fun at last to see these guys hobnobbing! Academic specialisation tends to maintain a big Berlin Wall between them.

The trap, though, is signalled in the title. It’s a book about thought. It doesn’t touch practice, except at odd moments. And it’s enthusiastic, and the impressionable may see things that aren’t there, like one Amazon reviewer, who said that “Plato’s Academy was a Yoga ashram, in effect”. Perhaps one could get that entirely mistaken impression from statements in the book like: “Every mystical element in Indian thought can be found in Greek thought too.” It’s that word again — “thought”. Thought is not practice. There’s a footnote: “This overlap, however, does not include the practice of yoga, which seems a distinctively Indian accomplishment…” That reviewer didn’t look in the footnotes. Gah! I’ve been there.

Plato was no yogi. Whatever his ‘unwritten doctrines’, which featured plenty of mathematics as I understand, the basics of the academy seem to have been dialectic and geometry, with the new academy meandering to scepticism very soon after his death. There were no real exercises of breath and qi in Platonism, none in Epicureanism, and none in Stoicism, although McEvilley claims not to be sure:

Whether Stoics, like Hindus, attempted to establish the right inner vibration through direct control of the breath is not known; more probably they worked directly on the hẽgemonikon [intent] rather than on the bodily breath … most importantly, the Stoics seem no more than other Greek schools to have taught meditation and bodily discipline in anything like the Indian yogic manner.

And yet — the similarity he mentions between the thought processes of these conversations allows us to retrofit. We don’t need to be naively universalist because there is actual similarity of thought and theory, just as much with China as with India. Along with the theory of breath and qi/pneuma, there are all sorts of compatibilities of thought which allow graftings of practice. (I’m far from the first to notice that Heraclitus is often a Taoist.)

I don’t know why the West never developed breath regimen. It just didn’t. I see more or less nothing major on breath until the 20th century, when Bardon’s system appeared, which does heavily feature breath, but I have no idea where it came from. The system is very different from Eastern methods (more next week), alienatingly so for me, enough that there may be some sort of occult oral transmission I know nothing about. Agrippa hardly mentions breath, although when he does it’s Bardonish I suppose.

Stephen Chang includes information on various forms of Crane Breathing, Reverse Breathing, and Bone Breathing

On the less heathen angle, there’s a page of breathing in Loyola’s Exercises (which would be 16th c.), more or less equivalent to an impassioned Christian version of Herbert Benson (20th) which in a more Humanist mould is where Glenn began too. But of the breathings available on my reading lists — the belly breaths, the reverse breaths and so forth — there is no hint in any Western document of any period, that I have seen yet. I’d love to be shown some.

I’m told the following inscription may well date from 500 BCE, right in the floreat of Heraclitus (or Pythagoras or Xenophanes). Just then, the path we know as Taoism was coming to exist. The Neiye, that masterpiece of early China which advocates the joy and health of quiet practice in a way that would gladden any Epicurean, was still a century off. Laozi and Zhuangzi weren’t born nor thought of. But already there was breath in this inscription whose history remains obscure:

When transforming the breath, the inhalation must be full to gather the magic. To gather the magic, fullness must be extended. When it is extended it can penetrate downward. When it can penetrate downward, it is magic. When it descends it becomes calm, solidifies, and is both strong and firm. When it is strong and firm, it will germinate. If it germinates it will grow and retreat upward. If it is attracted back, then a man can reach both heaven and earth in the same breath. When it retreats upward, it reaches the top of the head. When it falls forward, it can caress the feet and still press down. The secret powers of Providence move above. The secret powers of the Earth move below. He who follows this will live; he who acts against this will die.

Chinese Breath Inscription, ?500 BCE

That’s Glenn’s preferred translation of it (Martial Arts Madness, 1999). I reproduce the original at right. I have four other translations, found in the 2 Glenn-approved vols. of Jane Huang’s Primordial Breath (2 vols., 1987 and 1990), which translate some intriguing texts on this stuff from the Taoist Canon. The theory there was, we don’t know what a lot of these symbols mean for sure these days so safety lies in numbers. The calm, the solidity and firmness, all relate to the balance and ataraxia with which I began this post. Anyone who thinks ‘magic’ is a poor word doesn’t know breathwork (and didn’t know Glenn!)

It’s by such cultural productions that you know China is going to develop breathwork, but Greece produced nothing of the kind. Maybe Peter Kingsley would tell me there’s the odd word in Empedocles. But it’s thin. What there is, though, is compatibility. Personally, I feel like this stuff fulfills a promise that simply never fruited in the Western past.

Anyone interested in breath will find useful stuff in Glenn’s books — see Reading List. From the Qigong Reading List, I indicate particularly Bi Yongsheng, with Stephen Chang and Takahashi/Brown also relevant.

Since not everyone has caught up with the excellence of the Bi Yongsheng book yet, I’ll end by transcribing a passage I’ve found very helpful. Of course, as recent events on this blog show, I certainly am not always quite as peaceful as I’d like to be! :) But then, I have major experiences going on at the moment which maybe one day I’ll write about. Meanwhile, the following on what you might call the ataraxia of breathing has helped me a great deal:

The ancients laid much stress on the manner of breathing in their practice of regulation of respiration, stating four phases (xiang) of respiration: wind phase (feng xiang), gasp phase (chuan xiang), air phase (qi xiang) and rest phase (xi xiang). With the wind phase, one can hear the rough sound of his own breath; with the gasp phase, though he may hear no sound of his breath, he may feel stagnated and obstructed ventilation of air; with air phase, he may neither hear the rough sound of breath nor feel the stagnated and obstructed ventilation of air yet his breath is not even; and with the rest phase, which is a state of extreme quietness, he may achieve deep, long and even respiration. It was believed in ancient times that “concentrating on the wind phase may derange the mentality, on the gasp phase may cause knotted mentality, on the air phase may strain the mentality, and only on the rest phase can the mentality be set peaceful”.

— Bi Yongsheng, Chinese Qigong Outgoing-Qi Therapy (1997), p. 167


2 responses to “Naturalizing the Breath

  • Matt Rouge


    Very interesting. For a breath beginner, so to speak, like myself, what would you recommend as a first step?

    • Jason Wingate

      Hi there Matt, :)

      There’s some stuff in here, as I mentioned in the post. It’s good for anyone. (Will cost you 5 bucks!)

      Compare/contrast with chapters 3 and 5 in here — totally free. Includes instruction and shows how far it can go.

      Much depends on what you are trying to do — if you already have a great deal of peace in meditation with a straight spine, simply add in the above.

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