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What is medicinal breathwork, and how is it different from other types of breathwork? by Simon Cheng


Medicinal breathwork has been the second cornerstone of my health routine for the past 10 years. (My first cornerstone was turning to plant medicine, herbalism, and tea.) I first tried it was when I was 15 years old. I would hang out in the woods reading Herman Hesse and Jack Kerouac and meditate using techniques taught by my Chinese teacher. But it wasn’t until I almost completely destroyed my health that I got serious about it. Funny how many of us find ourselves in that boat.

Qigong is the most ancient meditation practice. It’s actually been around for 5,000 years! It’s also the most common form of meditation in the Far East and the basis of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and acupuncture. Put simply, it's the practice of using your breath to manipulate the flow of life force, qi (chi), or prana in your body to achieve better health. It can also be used to develop abilities in martial arts, like tai chi, or to withstand extreme conditions, like renowned breathwork experimenter and "iceman" Wim Hof, known for his incredible physical feats like running a half marathon in the Arctic Circle (barefoot, wearing only shorts).

The medicinal breathwork I practice has a single-minded goal: health improvement. Like all things, attention begets energy, and energy is a catalyst for change. Medicinal breathwork is not about spiritual enlightenment or martial arts. It’s meant to help you heal from illness and make you vital—extremely vital. I have found that with very simple techniques, I was able to turn my breath into medicine. In my experience, it’s a simple, yet powerful practice that helps the body heal and regenerate itself.

OK, but how does it work?

When we get stressed, anxious, or agitated, our "fight-or-flight" response—also known as our sympathetic nervous system—activates. Our bodies produce cortisol and adrenaline, blood pressure and heart rate go up, the breath gets short and rapid, and noncritical functions like reproduction, immunity, and digestion are suspended.

Sound unhealthy? It is. Sadly, many people experience chronic stress and live in the fringes of this state. I did for a decade and can attest that, for me, it led to accelerated deterioration and disease. The good news is, studies suggest that breathwork can turn on the opposite response system: your "rest-and-digest" response, which is the parasympathetic nervous system.

This is when your heart rate slows, intestinal and gland activity increase, muscles in the GI tract activate, cortisol lowers, and blood pressure returns to normal. All this can lead to improved gut, endocrine, heart, and emotional health, which often mean improved performance and longevity.

Here are some sample medicinal breathwork techniques.

These are examples of medicinal breathwork techniques I do and have taught to simply and intentionally activate my rest-and-digest response.

  1. Exhale focus.
    I breathe naturally without thinking about my breath or deliberately making it wispy, extended, and long. I just lightly place my intent on the exhale. People sigh in relief (exhale) and gasp in terror (inhale). One leads to "rest and digest" and the other to "fight or flight."
  2. Sink the Qi
    With each exhale, I place my intent in my gut or sacral chakra, which is 3 inches below the belly button and in between the front and back of the abdomen.
    Then I imagine a light bulb going on there with every exhale—if you try it, feel free to use any other visualization that resonates with you.
    In "fight or flight," all the qi or energy in the body rises up toward the head and heart. It's common for your face to flush and head to feel swollen as your heart rate and blood pressure increases. By guiding qi back down, the body can deprive itself of the intense energy needed for "fight or flight" and divert it to fuel a "rest-and-digest" response.
  3. Release tension.
    With each exhale, I find and release a bit more tension.
    This can happen area by area or totally randomly.
    The task is to be mindful of sensation anywhere in your body. Think about the way your whole face feels when unclenching your teeth—that's what I'm going for in other areas.

In each part of the body where tension is released, blockages open, stagnation is cleared, and the flow of qi improves, and the ancient texts say that health and vitality returns.

After having tried several different types of breathwork, I’ve found medicinal breathwork to be one of the easiest to master, incorporate into a busy life, and see fast results from. I should note, however, that this is the bare-bones explanation of a very powerful practice.

If you're curious about breathwork and want to learn more, check out this introductory article and try this simple, calming breathing technique.

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