Thursday, December 03, 2020

Training The Breath For Reserves

 Following on the heels of last week's article on the "four quarters of breathing" allow me to introduce you to my newest toy:  the Breather Fit, which allows you to add variable resistance to both the inhale and exhale.

Yes, it does look exactly like a crack pipe. 

Breather Fit

I haven't had a chance to play with the app yet.

So, why would we want to bother adding resistance to our breathing?

In one word: reserves.

Let's take a look at the graphic below, detailing lung volumes and which corroborates my premise that a full breath cycle should have four quarters.


Failure to maintain adequate reserves is the physiological equivalent to living paycheck to paycheck.  It's all good until you find yourself in a high demand state. We want to keep as much money in reserve as possible to cover those unexpected bills.

Our bodies are constantly adjusting to the signals it receives; if all they ever receive are weak signals, our bodies adapt towards weakness.

When's the last time you heard somebody complaining they had too much time in the day? Technology hasn't saved us any time in our day to day lives, but it has saved us energy.  It generally takes a lot less effort to complete tasks today than in the past, and that reduced effort translates into reduced signaling to the body to maintain vital adaptations like strength and mobility, or the ability to ventilate and meet our demands for oxygen.

In the 21st Century, if we don't apply deliberate effort to continuously expose ourselves to mechanical, molecular, and environmental stress, our reserves dwindle to the bare minimum necessary to support life in the narrow bandwidth of sitting indoors in central air and artificial lighting, leaving us unprepared for the unexpected and inevitable.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Qigong Breathing For Health

This week's video is a breathing exercise adapted from the yijinjing set taught by Master Jiru of the Mid-America Buddhist Association (MABA).  Ven. Jiru is my meditation teacher and I learned the yijinjing from him while on meditation retreat at MABA.

Humans are the only mammals (that I'm aware of) that have voluntary control over their diaphragm; in most other mammals, under load, the action of the diaphragm is controlled by the gait cycle.  In other words, when the animal stretches out while running, the rib cage expands and inhales and during the "pull" phase of their stride the rib cage condenses and they exhale.

These movements are similar to what's called "bellows breath" from yoga.

In the second phase of the exercise, we bend over.  Bending over relieves the diaphragm of it's obligation as a core stabilizer and allows you to use it 100% to assist in respiration, which is why you feel like you need to put your hands on your knees to recover your breathing after a big effort.

The third phase of the exercise slaps the kidney like a drum.  The kidneys are a very important aspect of Chinese medicine and in fact play an important role in our endocrine system as well as filtering/eliminating waste from our system.

To learn more about Venerable Jiru and MABA click here:

DISCLAIMER:  I am not a doctor.  Video is for informational purposes only.  Follow the exercises at your own risk. Always consult a physician before engaging in this or any other exercise or lifestyle change. 

 Now you can join me for I Liq Chuan classes from Tempe, or wherever you are in the world online.  Choose a time from the calendar below and RSVP!

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Four Quarters of The Breath

GM Sam Chin likes to say "if it's a circle, it has a center.  If it has a center it has four quarters."

We tend to think of breathing as simply inhale and exhale, but I began to notice during my breathwork a year or so ago, one full breath cycle should also have four quarters.

Each inhale and exhale has two phases; an active phase and a passive phase separated by a neutral point.

The neutral point is when the diaphragm is completely relaxed and there is no movement of either inhale or exhale because the relative pressure inside the lungs matches the external pressure.

If we inhale from here, the inhale is active, requiring some effort from muscles like the external intercostals of the ribs, and if done properly the rib cage expands as the lungs fill with air.  At the very top of the breath, we reach maximum pressure inside the lungs.

From here we can simply relax and the built-up pressure will cause the air to rush out of our lungs until we reach the neutral point again.  This is the passive phase of the exhale.  Below the neutral point, we can use some effort to continue to exhale actively, which should cause the waist and rib cage to continue to condense by activating muscles like the internal intercostals and transversus.

At the bottom of the active exhale, we've built up some negative pressure inside the lungs;  if we simply relax, the vacuum will draw some air into the lungs until we reach neutral, and this is the passive phase of the inhale.

We need to acknowledge and actively train each of the four phases to some degree.

Why? Like anything else, it's "use it or lose it" as we age.

Lung function declines by almost 40% over the lifetime of an average individual, more so in men than women.

Most people develop a shallow, "vertical" breathing pattern that involves too much involvement of the neck and shoulders as their activity levels decline, spending most of their time breathing at and just above the neutral point.

This lack of excursion (change in diameter) causes ossification in the rib cage. As the rib cage becomes increasingly stiff, we're forced to take more breaths to maintain our normal 5-6L of air per minute. Heart rate and sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system activation are directly linked to our diaphragm, this increased number of breaths per minute shifts us into mild chronic physiological stress.  

The alveoli, the tiny sacs in our lungs where O2/CO2 are exchanged, become deflated and increase dead airspace within the lungs reducing our ability to take in fresh oxygen.

Respiratory muscle strength decreases with disuse, impairing effective airway clearance leaving us prone to infection.

We're also left with less and less reserve to meet our needs during high demand states like when we're fighting off a bear (or pneumonia).

Pulmonary (lung) function measured as a function of forced expiratory volume has been shown to be a reliable indicator of life expectancy.

We also have research that shows that breathwork can and does improve lung function in older adults, so if your over 50 and you haven't been doing breathwork your whole life, you don't need to throw in the towel.

Start today and do what you can, with what you have where you're at.

Here's what to do
  • become more mindful of your breathing all the time. Make sure you're spending time breathing in all four quarters throughout the day.
  • incorporate max inhales and exhales during your breathwork.  Reach both hands above your head, inhale to your max and try to flare your ribs as wide as possible like the hood of a cobra
  • Ball your hands into fists and pull arms down close to your sides and exhale as much as possible.  Feel your rib cage and waist get as small as possible. Repeat 10x. (bonus, if you're training a martial art like I Liq Chuan, when you fajin, you're already training your forced expiratory volume!)

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Circle To Center - Weekly I Liq Chuan Online Class Highlights

Ninety degrees is the maximum angle for control.  This is the quality of "circle to center" that we talk about in I Liq Chuan.

The rotation of the radius and ulna is an important quality to look into for being able to maintain circle to center. 

If the rotation is off, you'll miss then center and you'll be losing power and control; you're point of contact will be slipping off because it's not direct. 

Matching the rotation of the radius and ulna is also an import skill for I Liq Chuan's sticky hand training; matching the rotation allows you to maintain a flat point of contact. A flat point means the opponent has no pivot point. Without a pivot point, you can change. A pivot point is "yin/yang" or full and empty at the point. 

Join me live every week for I Liq Chuan online here:

 Now you can join me for I Liq Chuan classes from Tempe, or wherever you are in the world online.  Choose a time from the calendar below and RSVP!

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Find Movement In Stillness - I Liq Chuan's Zhan Zhuang Exercise

In this week's online class highlights, we cover incorporating all five qualities of movement into one exercise of "standing posture" also translated as "standing post" (zhan zhuang); generating circles within circles.

"If you understand one point; that one point has 6 directions, 3 dimensions, that reduce—sometimes later they call it  the primordial energy, the beginning of energy, the balance energy. That’s why Feng, Zhi Qiang calls it [ ?? ] Hun4 Yuan2 Tai4 Ji2—source of the beginning—the origin, that’s primordial."

~GM Sam FS Chin

 Now you can join me for I Liq Chuan classes from Tempe, or wherever you are in the world online.  Choose a time from the calendar below and RSVP!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Marrow Washing - Breathe Your Way To A Younger, Healthier Brain

 At its core, all qigong essentially boils down to coordinating your breathing and movement, with focused attention; yi dao, qi dao, li dao (attention arrives, energy arrives, power arrives).

Shaolin is famous for two sets of qigong in particular;  the yijinjing and xisuijing (although you'll be hard-pressed to find any two teachers who agree on exactly what they should look like).

The yijinjing, loosely translated means "muscle/tendon changing classic".  This is the set that Master Jiru teaches as part of his approach to "mindfulness of feeling".

Xisuijing means something like "marrow washing exercises".  Dr. Yang Jwingming writes "Xi means "to wash" or "to clean." Sui includes Gu Sui , which means "bone marrow," and Nao Sui , which refers to the brain—including cerebrum, cerebellum, and medulla oblongata. Jing () means "classic or bible." This work is commonly translated "Marrow Washing Classic," but "Brain/Marrow Washing Classic" is a more accurate translation."

In I Liq Chuan, GM Sam Chin teaches that expand and condense helps to cycle the qi from the center of the bones (the marrow) out through the ligaments, tendons, and skin and back and considers this training to be xisuijing.

Other systems of kung fu, like Little Nine Heavens, teach specific exercises using weights tied to the genitals as a major component of, if not the singular focus of xisuijing.

<---WARNING: long, but relevant tangent ahead--->

In his book "Qigong, The Secret of Youth" Yang, Jwingming translated many old documents detailing the practice of xisuijing, and while there were exercises that involved the testicles, no mention was made of swinging weights from them, therefore I'm inclined to think that either only certain schools adopted this practice as part of their specific approach to marrow washing, or over time the practice was abandoned by most schools.

Remember the semi-mythical founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, was an Aryan prince turned monk who'd traveled to Shaolin from India around the 5th century AD, where he found the monks in poor health due to lack of exercise (they spent all their time translating sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese).

As the story goes, Bodhidharma taught the monks various yogic practices, which became the foundation of Shaolin's qigong and kung fu. There are Indian yogis who also practice hanging weights from their genitals, so it almost certainly pre-dates its practice in China, and potentially was an important part of the original xisuigong.


In his article on the purpose of xisuijing, Yang Jwingming writes
"Most important of all, the practitioner of Brain/Marrow Washing Qigong is able to lead Qi to his brain to nourish it, and to raise up his spirit. To the Daoists and Buddhists, Brain/Marrow Washing Qigong is the path to reach the final goal of enlightenment or Buddhahood."

How does one lead the qi? With focused attention: yi dao, qi dao, li dao. Where the attention goes, energy goes.

Now that we've established some background on marrow washing and the role of focused attention and breathing in qigong methods, let's take a look at some recent discoveries that support the premise that we can use intentional breathing exercises to optimize the health and function of our brains.

Our brains are our most metabolically active organs; they account for only about 2% of our body weight yet consume ~20-25% of all the calories we eat; as a result, it produces large amounts of metabolic waste products. Accumulation of these harmful substances, like amyloid plaques, are associated with cognitive decline as seen in Alzheimer's, and one of the most important functions of sleep is clearing out waste from the brain by circulating (i.e. "washing") the CSF, or cerebrospinal fluid. Breathing however also plays a role in the process!

A recent study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports showed that slow breathing had a considerable impact on the flow of CSF.


The volume of CSF circulated was four times greater from breathing than from heart rate, and this was for a "normal" breath rate of 15 breaths per minute.

On Instagram, Dr. Steven Lin writes "During an inhale and exhale the chest rises and falls. The change in pressure flows upward to the CSF dynamics around the brain.

​Here’s how it works:
Breath in (inspiration) – Lowers chest pressure and empties the venous plexus. CSF flows down the spine.
Breath out (expiration) – Increases chest pressure and fills the venous plexus, pushing CSF up the spine into the head."

Slower breathing, like that used in qigong and breathwork, can be 5-6 breaths per minute (or less).

In an article from Science Norway, study author Vegard Vinje explained why fewer deep breaths have a greater impact on the flow of brain fluid than faster, shallow breathing. Essentially, the longer waves that result from deep breaths can carry more volume. He compares it to ocean waves hitting the land.

“Imagine a beach with rubbish. A long wave will remove garbage and clutter on a beach more efficiently than a short one,” he said.

Although there is a certain risk of trying to shoehorn modern data to fit into ancient practices, I believe that the old masters developed deep insights into the inner workings of their bodies and minds, and modern imaging technology is finally allowing us to see and measure what they were feeling all along.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Grip Strength & Martial Arts [VIDEO]

A video of me demonstrating a feat of grip strength by tearing an entire deck of cards in half.

Traditional martial arts instructors often frown on strength training (or at least the version of it that most often practice in the West), and my own teacher GM Sam Chin is no exception, however, one type of strength and strength training revered by almost all martial artists is grip strength!

When it comes to "lifting weights" even GM Sam Chin is in favor of training the grip.

Your feet are how you connect to the ground to generate power (not including ground fighting like jiu-jitsu), but the hands are how you connect to your opponent, or to a weapon to apply power.

In addition to training with heavy weapons like long spears and poles, maces and swords, traditional martial arts often used additional grip training methods like "gripping jars" called nigiri game by practitioners of karate and the stone locks of China (similar to kettlebells) to develop multiple aspects of grip strength like crushing and pinching strength.

Most traditional martial arts emphasize four categories of techniques: striking, kicking, wrestling and grappling which involves grabbing the opponent's limbs and essentially "bending and twisting" to either dislocate a joint or break bone.   All wrestling and grappling require maximum grip strength to be effective.

In more modern times, scientists have even discovered that grip strength is an excellent indicator of your overall health: many studies, like the PURE study, have shown that grip strength is a better indicator of your risk of death in the following 10-12 years than biomarkers like blood pressure!

Whether you want to be an effective martial artist, or just want to be lean, strong and healthy, train your hands!

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