Friday, June 22, 2012

Mechanics of breathing

The following is a very simplified explanation of the mechanics of breathing. To get this kind of understanding may help you develop greater awareness of what you actually do when breathing. 
There are 3 basic ways to breathe. Some are better adapted to different types of activity. 
Read this and experiment. In a later post I will propose some basic exercises.

Basic Architecture of the Torso :

The Chest at the top contains the Lungs and Heart. The Chest is a cavity formed by the spine in the back, the sternum in the front, and 12 pairs of ribs on the sides.

Under the Chest the Abdomen contains the digestive organs : stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, intestine; the kidneys and bladder, and the reproductive organs.

Chest and Abdomen are separated by the Diaphragm, a flat muscle shaped as a dome. In the center of the diaphragm is a hole through which run the esophagus and some veins and arteries. The shape of the diaphragm is modified during breathing. Inhalation corresponds to a flattening of the diaphragm. 

The lungs located inside the ribcage have the general shape of a bell. Their structure is similar to that of a sponge and they are elastic. Muscular action can stretch or compress the lungs, (exhalation or inhalation). When the muscular action ceases, the lungs revert to their original shape and volume. If you try to force yourself into inhaling lots of air, and then relax, your lungs will naturally empty. If you try to force yourself into emptying your lungs as much as you can, when you relax, air will naturally fill them up again.

The digestive organs in the abdomen are not elastic. Their shape and position can be changed by muscular action, but not their volume. Separated from the lungs by the diaphragm, they act as a sort of piston which can move up or down under the lungs, pushing or pulling them up or down.

There are 3 basic ways to modify the shape of the lungs :
  1. lifting or lowering the chest.
  2. expanding or squeezing the bottom of the chest.
  3. raising or lowering the digestive organs.

  1. Lifting or lowering your chest : Inhale by raising your chest : straighten your spine and lift your ribs; exhale by letting your ribs fall and rolling your spine down. This is the shallowest kind of breathing, there is not much room for expansion of the top of the lungs.

  1. Vary the diameter of your chest. By expanding or squeezing your lower rib cage sideways. This is a deep way to breathe. The ribcage can expand quite a bit sideways, and the bottom of the lungs can expand a lot to inhale lots of air.

  1. Upward or downward movement of your abdominal organs, through action of your abdominal muscles..

Exhalation happens by contracting one's lower abdominal muscles. This action lifts the guts. They push the diaphragm and the lungs upward. This type of breathing is very adapted to intense activity such as fighting where emphasis should be made on short forced exhalation through contraction of the abdominal muscles. Inhalation just happens by itself in between each exhalation. 


Inhalation is produced by contracting the higher abdominal muscles. This pushes the guts downward, which pulls the diaphragm and the bottom of the lungs down. This way of breathing is less common. It does not allow for a very deep breathing, because the same action that pushes the guts down also limits the ability of the chest to expand laterally, but for some non-mechanical reasons, it is very interesting for meditative purpose.

Of course, it is possible to combine these actions, and practically we very often do it. For example, when we are out of breathe, we combine lifting and lateral expansion of our ribcage in order to inhale huge quantities of air. Or when we sneeze, we roll our spine to the front to lower our ribcage, and contract all muscle groups that squeeze the chest and push the guts upward.

In a later post, I will propose a few exercises. for now I suggest you try to figure these 3 modes out by yourself. 

Have fun...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The amazing Race to Enlightenment !

This week, on the amazing "Race to Enlightenment", can Jim and Suzy achieve right mindfulness ? And will Joe and Candy be eliminated for relentless clinging to the self ?

This is funny - and then, when I see on the net that some (self-appointed ?) Roshi guarantee enlightenment to their disciples, it reminds me of the scam of the "Black Belt Clubs" of certain martial classes, where you pay a hefty fee when you join (10 years ago about $2,000.00) to be a proud member of the exclusive club. 

This gives you the right to wear a special cool patch on your Uniform,

and to see your future Black belt, with your name embroidered on it proudly displayed on the dojo wall, waiting for you to test for it...

Like Great Master (Chief Inspector) Clouseau would have put it :

The old Black Belt Club ploy...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I’ll still be here to guide you

As some of you may know, I have a personal connection and appreciation for Korea. I have learned a lot in that country. One day I will expand on that.

Daehaeng Kun Sunim passed a few weeks ago after an amazing life. She was a Korean Seon (Zen) Master. She was self enlightened, as the 6th patriarch Hui Neng was. Or Bankei Yotaku was. She had a very difficult Childhood in Korea when the communist troops invaded the Southern part of the Peninsula. Like Bankei before her, she puts emphasis in her teaching on simple things, trying to soothe suffering for others. She does not use complicated concepts but speaks simple words of love and compassion. Expressed in a plain, simple and direct language that anyone can understand, her Zen is refreshingly clear and simple. You don't have to be learned, live in a monastery or even necessarily consider yourself a Buddhist to effectively practice it.

The following comes from one of her Dharma talks. According to the author, although it may be tempting to think that she's speaking in metaphors, she isn't. She once gave him a fierce look and said, "I always keep my promises!" :-)

Let me talk about one more thing before we end today’s talk: Some of you are worried about what happens after I pass away, that I won’t be here to guide you. Right? However, because you are practicing and learning to rely upon your fundamental mind, I will always be with you, just as if I was alive. No..., not “as if.” I will be there, alive. Even now, I often leave this body behind to go take care of things. So if I need “this” shape to help save people, I go use this shape. When I need “that” the shape to help save people, I use that shape. If the shape of an old monk is needed, that’s shape I take. If a beggar is needed, then I go become a beggar. If a bug is necessary, I become a bug. Could you call any of these shapes me? No. “I” don’t exist. Not even a little bit. Not even now. If you all work hard and deepen your practice, what is there that you couldn’t do?! So there’s nothing for you to worry about!

 You can read the original post on Wake up and Laugh

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What is Humanity ?

The movie Sanshiro Sugata – by Akira Korisawa – describes the beginings of Judo in Japan at the end of the 19th century.

The hero of the movie, Sanshiro, has spent a good part of the night fighting quite a few people in the red light quarter of the town. In the morning, Sanshiro comes back to the Dojo, his clothes are damaged... His master Yano has been waiting for him...

This is a transcript of a discussion between Yano Sensei (Jigoro Kano) and his disciple Shanshiro Sugata (Shiro Saigo).

Pay attention to what Yano defines as “humanity”. Try to keep that in mind when practicing your art.

Y : Well – You must have enjoyed fighting...
S : I'm sorry
Y : I should have been there to watch you fight.
You're strong, very strong. Maybe even stronger than me. But...Your Judo and my Judo are world apart. And do you know why ?
Because you don't understand humanity. Teaching Judo to such a man is like giving a knife to a lunatic.

S : Sensei ! I understand humanity

Y : You don't – You live without reason or purpose. Where is your humanity ? Humanity is nature's rule by which we live and die. Only according to this principle can you die in peace. It is the true essence of life... And of Judo as well.
Sugata ! You have not realized this !

S : But Sensei, I am willing to die if you tell me to :
Y : Liar !
S : No ! I am !
Y : Shut up ! You are a reckless bully, your words mean nothing to me !
S : I'm willing to die !

To demonstrate to Yano Sensei his willingness to die, Sanshiro threw himself in the pond adjacent to the house. This did not at all impress Yano Sensei, as it was just another show of bravado on part of his student... So he let him stand in the pond for as long as necessary to realize the futility of his action... The rest of the movie is about the way Sanshiro - through very hard fights - was able to actually realize what Humanity was in the eyes of Yano Sensei.

Notes :

  1. Jigoro Kano was the founder of Modern Judo – I believe this man was some sort of genius and/or a Boddhisatva...
  1. Jigoro Kano invented the system of Kyu and Dan belts used in most modern Japanese Martial Arts. Before that, in traditional Japanese Martial Arts, there were no grades formalized by a belt color, or levels in black belt. Shiro Saigo was the second student in the world to obtain the grade of Black Belt in Judo.
  1. After he threw himself in the pond to convince Yano that he was willing to die, Yano told him to die. Sanshiro held on a post that was sticking out of the water. Finally he saw the moon raise and had a vision of a lotus flower growing our of the muddy water. He then decided to come out of the pond and apologize to Master Yano. From then on, Sanshiro slowly becomes more “human”. In reality, it seems that Kano Sensei threw Saigo into the pond – the result was the same...