Isn’t it the case that a practitioner who is well informed is worth two? Here is some essential information on one of the key elements of zazen : the breath. There are a lot of explantations going around on this subject, some of them seemingly contradictory.
To prepare the ground, I have relied on my double experience as a meditator and a chanting teacher, and have also called on knowledge of anatomy and martial arts: the whole package!
Comments and questions are always welcome. Above all : have a good practice.
1. What is abdominal breathing?
Abdominal breathing, or breathing with the stomach – can be summed up in this magic formula “On the in breath, the stomach inflates – on the out breath, the stomach deflates.” The other way of breathing is breathing “ high up” or “ thoracic breathing,” which I won’t describe, just so that you don’t get any bad habits. (But I could sum up by saying that if your chest expands when you breathe in, you’ve missed the point.)
From the point of view of technique, the diaphragm plays an important role in abdominal respiration.It concerns a muscle formed like a half balloon, which divides the torso in two at the level of the solar plexus ( in a horizontal plane, if you are following..)
There is nothing better than a little video to see this clearly :
On the inhale, when the air enters the lungs, the diaphragm descends. With this movement, it presses on the visceral organs (stomach, liver, and all that stuff we have in the abdomen) and sets in motion an inflation of the stomach. No air actually in the stomach, you understand. On the exhale, it’s the reverse : the air goes out, the lungs contract, the diaphragm goes back up and the stomach deflates ( unless you drink beer, then it’s a different tale.)
During zazen (zen meditation), this abdominal breathing builds up gradually provided the posture is sufficiently relaxed and balanced. At the beginning, this isn’t the case.
So discover some “magic tricks” to help free your breath…
2. Two magic tricks for harmonious breathing
A. Be like Droopy
Although it’s highly unlikely that you would find this mentioned in traditional Buddhist teachings, this is essential. Droopy – apart from the way he drags himself around – is characterised by a drooping jaw, such that would make an over booked stockbroker jealous.
During zazen, relaxing the jaw and cheeks allows your diaphragm to let go and your breath to coil up comfortably in your stomach, as if by magic. In effect, although the idea seems strange at first glance – the jaw and the diaphragm are linked by the muscular system, which makes them work together. (If this idea interests you, study the work of the famous revolutionary kinesiologist Francoise Mezieres.) Test it out : if your jaw relaxes, your stomach inflates …and your energy fixes itself in the lower body.
2 The cowboy
Remember the great westerns of yesteryear? A cowboy on his horse, swaying along to the rhythm of his mount. His belly follows the movements of his horse with a natural fluidity. For abdominal breathing, it’s the same thing, just minus the horse. So look at this: when we breathe in, when the stomach inflates, the pelvis shifts slightly to the front, the back gently hollows. When we breathe out, and the belly deflates, the pelvis reverts to its original position.
Of course, the movement is a lot more subtle than for our rider , more of a micro movement. But if the pelvis is stuck, the breath itself will also be stuck and prevented from following its natural movement.
Situated ideally in the centre of the body, the pelvis is a sort of pivot, that has a wave – like movement, allowing the body to move harmoniously toward the top and then towards the bottom.
3. How should we breathe in zazen (zen-meditation) ?
The principle is simple: breathe without interfering.
This may seem to contradict the previous explanations, which encourage you to free the breath deliberately, so I need to be a bit more precise. The essential rule in zazen is to ‘let it be.’ The Sanskrit term Tathatata ( Shin Nyo in Japanese) that we can translate as ‘thus’ or ‘thusness’ reflects this idea. Things are as they are – thus – and the practice of zazen invites phenomena to appear ‘without choosing or rejecting.’ For the breath , then, the same contest. I observe how ‘this body’ breathes, that the breath is slow, fast , high or low. Just observe and let it be.
And above all, take advantage of it: in this world of performance, for once, there is nothing to do But how to reconcile this with what has gone before? The two points I have offered above ( relax the jaw and bring life to the pelvis) are remedies that should be sparingly applied. Products with a short sell by date. If the body is particularly tense, for example, offer it a bribe by concentrating on one of these points, or both of them for a few seconds or minutes. How many times? How long for? When ?
These are questions you will have to resolve for yourself, through practice and knowing your own normal functions. Then, after this soft focus of attention, after relaxing your jaw and anchoring yourself in the pelvis, come back to simple observation of the breath Tathata, just as it is. And then …let things be.. in full Presence.
Learn more with this video (FRENCH)
Thanks to Hilary Mac Ray for the translation