Constitutions and Breathing
Light and Salt
Dr. Dowon Kuon
There are two kinds of breathing: thoracic and abdominal. In thoracic breathing the chest expands in inhalation and shrinks in exhalation. We use thoracic breathing when we inhale with our arms up and exhale when we put our arms down. In abdominal respiration the stomach expands in a manner similar to a rabbit’s breathing. If you look at babies carefully when they are sleeping, you see their stomach rather than their chest moving up and down; this is abdominal breathing.
You may think that people breathe with their chest because of the location of the lungs. Actually, abdominal breathing, the kind practiced by babies, is more natural and healthy. If a person’s shoulders go up and down when he breathes, or if his chest is moving, it might indicate that he has a problem with his lungs, and therefore the breath cannot go deeper than his lungs. It is also possible that he has abdominal dropsy or a swollen stomach, so the breath cannot go all the way down. This kind of breathing is unhealthy.
Then what is hypogastric breathing, which is popular and is known as a healthy method of breathing nowadays?
The hypogastric center of our body is located about five centimeters below the navel. Hypogastric breathing requires the breath to be concentrated slowly and deeply toward the hypogastric center, and this kind of breathing is known to improve health.
Traditionally, people believe that this kind of breathing is healthy, because they think that the hypogastric center contains a universal mystery and that when the inhaled air reaches that point during breathing, it generates a mysterious power that improves health. However, the actual reason why this method of breathing increases health is because it causes the lower part of the lungs to push the diaphragm deeper down. As a result, the blood that has been stuck in the mesentery is released through being pressed by the breath and can circulate throughout the entire body. This makes one’s body warm and causes one to feel relieved and healthier. In other words, this method of breathing is an exercise of the diaphragm through deep abdominal breathing.
While this breathing method is helpful and satisfying to some people, it does more harm than good to other people. These individuals might suppose that the harm is due to their lack of patience or understanding of how to breathe in this way when instead, the harm is in fact due to a difference in this constitution.
Traditionally, the key to hypogastric breathing is, through practice, to increase the time of inhalation to make it longer than that of exhalation. Individuals with certain constitutions are recommended to have air in their lungs as long as possible, whereas individuals with other constitutions should, in contrast, keep their lungs empty of breath as long as possible. Constitutions in the first category include hepatonia, cholecystonia, pancreotonia and vesicotonia, which are characterized by weak lungs. Individuals with these constitutions experience improvement in their health while they have their lungs filled with air, because their weak lungs are strengthened and the imbalance between the lungs and the other organs is reduced. The stagnant blood in their body is also brought into circulation. But for individuals with the pulmotonia, colonotonia, gastrotonia and renotonia constitutions, which are characterized by strong lungs, this type of breathing may help the stagnant blood circulate but may also cause their strong lungs to become even stronger, which may result in the further imbalance in function between the organs.
Seven or eight years ago, I had a chance to give a lecture at Ko-ryo University, and during the lecture I mentioned that hypogastric breathing must be practiced according to constitution. After the lecture some students came up to me and said that they had had a hard time learning to practice hypogastric breathing, but their instructor only rebuked them for their lack of patience in practicing. When I was asked why this method of breathing was so painful for them, I explained that the reason was based on their constitution; these students were all born with a strong respiratory organ.
When monks chant sutras, they read a long line with one breath until they cannot hold it any longer and then breathe in the next breath very quickly. This presses the diaphragm with a deep and strong power, which causes the stagnant air and blood to be released. Since the long sutra chanting limits the function of strong lungs by keeping them empty for a longer time, it helps to improve health through enhancing the circulation of the stagnant air and blood. This is a suitable method of breathing for individuals with the pulmotonia, colonotonia, gastrotonia, and renotonia constitutions. Therefore, chanting energizes and never exhausts individuals who have these four constitutions, and they can even master sutra chanting. But for individuals with the hepatonia, cholecystonia, pancreotonia, and vesicotonia constitutions, who have naturally weak lungs, chanting sutras only exhausts them and they can never master it.
Then is hypogastric breathing beneficial only for those who have weak lungs, and is chanting sutras beneficial only for those with strong lungs? Of course, it will not work if those who have weak lungs read one line of sutras with a short breath and make the inhalation longer. Therefore, sutra-chanting requires a breathing method that does not benefit those who have weak lungs but that is beneficial for those who have strong lungs. However, it is a matter of course that an individual who has strong lungs would not necessarily want to become a sutra-chanter simply because they want to be healthy.
Luckily, the hypogastric breathing method is good not only for those who have weak lungs but also for those who have strong lungs. Those with strong lungs can practice this breathing method by extending their exhalation and shortening their inhalation. To make their breathing more effective, they should breathe out for as long as possible and breathe in as quickly as possible. The strong and quick inhalation works to press the mesentery so that the pressure may squeeze the stagnant blood out of it.
The hypogastric breathing method, if done properly according to constitution, can be an easy and versatile health practice for everybody. It may impart a good complexion and a sober mind, reduce fatigue, and also help you to sleep well.
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