By Enrico Colmi, physician and instructor of Tai-chi-chuan and Baguazhang
Complete respiration of the spine: this is how Mantak Chia calls it. It is the base of all physical, energetic and spiritual exercises and techniques inspired by Taoism.
Basic position: feet parallel to shoulder width; lower limbs slightly bent; seated-like position; straight back; gaze straight forward; head suspended from above by a thread; body completely relaxed (Zhang Zhuan or 'pole position').
The exercise consists of two movements, executed at the same time in a harmonious way.
Movement of the spine
On the inhale: arc the spine as much as possible, paying particular attention onto bringing the head to the back (extending it and not bending it) and the sacrum (duck-like position); the lumbar zone reaches its maximum bent.
On the exhale: the spine comes back to a straight position; so does the head by bringing the chin backwards; the pelvis moves forward; the lumbar area straightens up.
Thoracic cage and upper limbs movement
On the inhale the thoracic cage opens up as much as possible, the sternum expands; the arms accompany the movement: the forearms rotate outwards, fists slightly closed, without tension.
On the exhale the thoracic cage closes up, the sternum comes back; at the same time the forearms get closer with an inward rotation.
The aim of this exercise is to stretch the column, making it more elastic. The opening movement allows a maximum stretch and during the exhalation we go back to a natural and relaxed posture. We can compare this movement to stretching a bow (arching, tensing) preparing to strike the arrow (returning position). This action is used in Chinese martial arts – Taoist styles – such as Tai-Chi-Chuan, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, etc. A correct posture of the spine, in movement as well as in static position, is the base for a good posture of the whole body; moreover, inside the column there is the marrow, from which all the nerves that regulate sensory and moving functions throughout the whole body depart. A bad spinal posture jeopardizes and alters the functionality of the entire peripheral nervous system.
THE THORACIC CAGE
On the inhale the thorax expands to its maximum capacity, on the exhale the thorax empties out. This parameter (the difference between volumes during maximum inhalation and full exhalation) is called, in western physiology, 'vital capacity' because in a sense the vitality of the individual depends on it. We need to remember that through inhalation oxygen is allowed into the organism (presiding anabolic phenomena), while through exhalation carbon dioxide gets eliminated (elimination of waste elements, catabolic phenomena).
It is interesting to consider that an excessive opening of the thorax, characteristic of our culture (belly in, breast out) and of certain bodybuilding practices (muscular development) leads to wrong posture and forceful inhalation while generating difficulties during the exhalation (because the thorax cannot close up); the result is an inhibition of the catabolic phase. Both of these posture and way of breathing are similar to symptoms of emphysema.
SYNCHRONIZING TH BREATHING
Movements should be synchronized with breathing; this, at the beginning, should be as natural as possible. With time and practice we should increase the breathing tempo (which means to slow down the frequency); this will help relaxing body and mind and better distributing the energy throughout the whole body. This kind of breathing does not include apneas. In a more advanced phase it is possible to accelerate the sequence at leisure and execute the movements faster. This is what occurs (and is sought after) in Chinese martial arts.
The movement described does not present issues in itself. Nevertheless its dynamics, both from a physical as well as from an energetic standpoint, move energy around (bloodstream) which gets accumulated in specific areas of the body (thoracic cage, kidney's region). This can cause problems, especially to beginners and to hypotensive individuals due to lack of oxygen to the brain.
It is recommended to start with few repetitions (6-8 complete respirations) and then increase the number as one gets used to the exercise. There should be no unpleasant sensations (fainting or nausea). With time and regular practice (at least once a day) there will be no contraindication to worry about.
One last thought: this exercise is naturally energizing; it is recommended to practice it in the morning and/or during the day. Evening practice can cause insomnia due to overexcitement.