Breathing Patterns

Taking a Taiji class with master practitioner Tony Wong, I learned a lot about meditation. In one seminar with a guest teacher, we received a surprising observation about breathing. It took a while to make sense of what we heard. This article records the results.

Originally published 2011

Which Way Does the Breath Travel?

When visiting master Chen Youze gave a class on the art he teaches in China, he made a suprising statement:

The breath starts in the chest, then travels to the abdomen.

He was being translated, so we had to double-check what we heard! We all understood that, when breathing abdominally, the breathing starts in the abdominals and travels upward, to the chest.

After we checked, we found out that we had heard him right. It was just hard to believe. But given that Chen Youze was especially accomplished, and had been doing this all his life, it was not possible to completely discount the statement. It had to be taken seriously. But how to make sense of it?

The other day, practicing a meditation I learned in my Ipsalu Tantra practice, I simply watched my breath, and the answer immediately became apparent: Everyone is right!

Different Patterns of Breath

Pattern #1

If I am totally relaxed and just watching my breath then, even though I am breathing abdominally, here’s what happens:

  1. I feel a slight expansion at the top of my chest.
    It’s not a major muscular contraction, but rather a subtle, internal change in the space of the chest cavity.
  2. I feel that inner expansion in the middle of my chest.
  3. I feel it in my sides.
  4. I feel the abdomen rise and then fall, at which point the subtle movements reverse themselves.

Pattern #2

If I chose to take a deeper breath on the inhale, still keeping the abdominals relaxed on the inhale, then sequence #1 occurs, followed by this sequence:

  1. The abdomen expands.
  2. The sides of the chest wall expand.
  3. The middle of the chest expands,
  4. The top of the chest expands.
  5. The trapezius muscles rise ever so slightly, in a movement that is mostly internal, to make just a millimeter more space.

Pattern #3

If I contract the abdominals during the exhale, then only sequence #2 occurs. The lungs fill from bottom to top, without sequence #1, as far as I have been able to tell.

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