by Elizabeth Reninger Updated July 22, 2018
Have fun exploring these three simple Taoist breathing practices—all of which can be beneficial in numerous ways. There are three things to remember are you explore and practice:
- Stay relaxed, particularly through your face, neck, jaw and shoulders. Maintaining a gentle smile—as in the Inner Smile practice—will help with this.
- Keep the tip of your tongue in gentle contact with the roof of your mouth, right behind the upper front teeth. This facilitates beneficial communication between the Ren and Du meridians.
- Maintain an attitude of patience and curiosity. Do your best to stay gently focused on the practice, but without creating tension. There’s no hurry.
Find a comfortable place to sit, with your spine in an upright position. Close your eyes, and bring your attention to the movement of your breath, simply observing your inhalations and your exhalations, in no way attempting to alter their natural rhythm. Follow the breath in this way for ten rounds.
Now, place your hands gently on your lower abdomen, with the tips of your thumbs touching each other directly over your navel, and your first fingers gently touching each other several inches below your navel—so that your hands are making a triangle shape over the lower part of your belly, in the area of what in Taoist practice is known as the lower dantian.
To practice “abdominal breathing,” let this lower portion of your abdomen, beneath your hands, gently expand (lift into your hands) with each inhalation; and let it relax back to its starting position with each exhalation. That’s all—simple. Inhale, expand. Exhale, relax. Repeat for ten rounds of the breath.
Once again, let your spine be upright, and follow the natural course of your breath, with eyes closed, for ten rounds, making no effort to change its quality or rhythm in any way.
Now, to practice “reverse breathing,” once again place your hands, in that triangle shape, over your lower abdomen, with the tips of the thumbs touching, right over the navel. As you inhale, draw the lowest portion of your abdomen—the part that’s beneath the tips of your four fingers (first, middle, ring & pinky)—gently inward, toward your spine, away from your hands. This is the “reverse” of abdominal breathing—hence the name. It might feel like a gentle scooping, inward and upward along the front of your sacrum and spine, as you draw that lowest portion of your belly inward. Just notice that. As you exhale, allow your abdomen to naturally expand outward, back to its starting position. So, once again: Inhale, lowest belly draws inward. Exhale, relax. Repeat for ten rounds of the breath.
What is called “vase breathing” is mostly a variation of abdominal breathing, with just a touch of reverse breathing added to it, along with a beautiful visualization. Begin in the same way as in the previous two practices, by following your natural breath for ten rounds, and then placing your hands in a triangle shape over your lower belly.
As with abdominal breathing, allow the lower belly to expand outward into your hands with the inhalation. As you inhale in this way, imagine that your abdomen and in fact your entire torso is like a vase and that the inhalation is like fresh, clean, clear water that you’re pouring into the vase. Like water being poured into a vase, feel that the inhalation fills the bottom of the vase—the bottom of your abdomen – first, and then continues to fill, from the bottom of the vase upward to its very brim—your collarbones.
As you exhale, allow your abdomen to relax back toward it’s starting-point but—and this is where a touch of reverse breathing is incorporated—instead of letting your belly rebound completely to its starting-point, let it go just 85% or 90% back—maintaining, toward the end of the exhalation, a gently rounded vase-like shape of the lower abdomen. By maintaining this slight vase-like shape of the lower belly, at the very end of the exhalation, we’re more easily able to welcome the next inhalation—the next “pouring” of water into the “vase.” Since vase breathing is a bit more complex than abdominal breathing or reverse breathing, it’s best to start with just two or three or four rounds; then return to your natural breathing cycle for a while, and then come back to vase breathing—until you become more familiar and comfortable with the practice.
Meditation Now - A Beginner's Guide by Elizabeth Reninger. This book offers step-by-step guidance in a number of Taoist Inner Alchemy practices (e.g. the Inner Smile, Walking Meditation, Developing Witness Consciousness & Candle/Flower-Gazing Visualization) along with more general meditation instruction, including how to work skillfully with the breath. An excellent resource!