Too many people neglect breathing. They think you just take in a load of air, and expel that load of air, and take in another.
– But, Honorable Master –I replied-. I have been able to breathe quite nicely for nine years or more. How else can I breathe but the way in which I have always managed?
-Lobsang, you must remember that breath is indeed the source of life. You can walk, and you can run, but without breath you can do neither. You must learn a new system, and first of all you must take a standard of time in which to breathe, because until you know this standard of time there is no way in which you can apportion the various ratios of time to your breathing, and we breathe at different rates for different purposes.
He took my left wrist and pointed out a spot saying:
-Take your heart, your pulse. Your pulse goes in the rhythm of one, two, three, four, five, six. Put your finger on your pulse, and feel, and then you will understand what I am talking about.
I did so; I put a finger on my left wrist and felt my pulse rate as he said, one, two, three, four, five, six. I looked up at my Guide as he continued, “If you think about it you will find that you breathe in air for as long as your heart takes to beat six times. But that is not good enough. You will have to be able to vary that breathing quite a lot and we will deal with that in a few moments.”
He paused and looked at me and then said:
-Do you know, Lobsang, you boys—I have been watching you at play—get yourselves really exhausted because you do not know the first thing about breathing.
You think that as long as you take in air and let out air that is all that matters. You could not be more incorrect. There are four main methods of breathing, so let us examine them and see what they have to offer us, see what they are. The first method is a very poor one indeed. It is known as top breathing, because in this system only the upper part of the chest and lungs is used, and that as you should know is the smallest part of your breath cavity, so when you do this top breathing you get very little air into your lungs but you get a lot of stale air in the deepest recesses. You see you make only the top of your chest move. The bottom part of your chest and your abdomen are stationary, and that is a very bad thing indeed. Forget about top breathing Lobsang, because it is quite useless. It is the worst form of breathing one can do, and we must turn to others.
He paused, and turned to face me, saying:
-Look, this is top breathing. Look at the strained position I have to adopt. But that, as you will find later, is the type of breathing done by most Westerners, by most people outside Tibet and India. It causes them to think in a woolly manner, and to be mentally lethargic.
I looked at him in open-mouthed amazement. I certainly did not imagine that breathing was such a difficult affair. I thought that I had always managed reasonably well, and now I was learning that I was wrong.
-Lobsang, you are not paying much attention to me. Now let us deal with the second system of breathing. This is known as middle breathing. It is not a very good form either. There is no point in dealing with it more fully because I do not want you to use it, but when you get to the West, you will hear people refer to it as rib breathing, or breathing in which the diaphragm is kept stationary. The third system of breathing is low breathing, and while it is possibly a little better than the other two systems it still is not correct. Some people call this low breathing abdominal breathing. In this system the lungs do not get completely filled with air. The air in the lungs is not completely replaced, and so again there is staleness, bad breath, and illness. So do nothing at all about these systems of breathing, but do as I do, do as other lamas here do, the Complete Breath, and here is how you should do it.
– Ah! I thought, now we are getting down to it, now I am going to learn something, now why did he tell me all that other stuff, and then say I mustn’t do it?
– Because, Lobsang, my Guide said—obviously having read my thoughts—“because you should know faults as well as virtues. Since you have been here at Chakpori,” said my Guide, the Lama Mingyar Dondup, “you have undoubtedly noticed that we stress and stress again the importance of keeping one’s mouth shut. That is not merely so that we can make no false statements, it so that one can breathe only through the nostrils. If you breathe through the mouth you lose the advantage of air filters in the nostrils, and of the temperature control mechanism which the human body has. And again, if you persist in breathing through the mouth the nostrils eventually become stopped up, and so one gets catarrh and a stuffy head, and a whole host of other complaints.
I guiltily became aware that I was watching my Guide with open-mouthed amazement. Now I closed my mouth with such a snap that his eyes twinkled with amusement, but he said nothing about that; instead he continued.
-Nostrils really are very important things, and they must be kept clean. If ever your nostrils become unclean, sniff a little water up them, and let it run down inside the mouth so that you can expel it through the mouth. But whatever you do, do not breathe through the mouth, but only through the nostrils. It might help, by the way, if you use warm water. Cold water may make you sneeze.
He turned, and touched the bell at his side. A servant entered and refilled the tea jug and brought fresh tsampa. He bowed, and left us. After a few moments the Lama Mingyar Dondup resumed his discourse to me.
-Now, Lobsang, we will deal with the true method of breathing, the method which has enabled certain of the lamas of Tibet to prolong their life to a truly remarkable span. Let us deal with Complete Breathing. As the name implies it embodies the other three systems, low breathing, middle breathing, and top breathing, so the lungs are truly filled with air, and the blood is therefore purified and filled with life force. This is a very easy system of breathing. You have to sit, or stand, in a reasonably comfortable position and breathe through the nostrils. I saw you just a few moments ago, Lobsang, crouched over, absolutely slouching, and you just cannot breathe properly when you are slouched over. You must keep your spine upright. That is the whole secret of correct breathing.
He looked at me, and sighed, but the twinkle in the corners of his eyes belied the depth of the sigh! Then he got up, and walked across to me, put his hands beneath my elbows and lifted me up so that I was sitting quite upright.
-Now Lobsang, that’s how you must sit, like that, with your spine upright, with your abdomen under control, with your arms at your sides. Now sit like that. Expand your chest, force your ribs outwards, and then push down your diaphragm so that the lower abdomen protrudes also. In that way you will have a complete breath. There is nothing magical about it, you know, Lobsang. It is just ordinary common-sense breathing. You have to get as much air in you as you can, and then you have to get all the air out again and replace it. For the moment you may feel that this is involved or intricate you may feel that it is too difficult, not worth the effort, but it IS worth the effort. You feel that it is not because you are lethargic, because you have got into a somewhat slovenly way of breathing of late, and you have to have breath discipline.
I breathed as directed, and to my considerable astonishment I found that it was easier. I found that my head swam a little for the first few seconds, and then it was easier still. I could see colors more clearly, and even in the few minutes I felt better.
-I am going to give you some breathing exercises every day, Lobsang, and I am going to ask you to keep on at it. It is worthwhile. You will have no more trouble with getting out of breath. That little jaunt up the hill distressed you, but I who am many times your age can come up without difficulty.
He sat back, and watched me while I breathed in the way he had instructed. Certainly I could even now at this early stage appreciate the wisdom of what he was saying. He settled himself again and continued.
-The only purpose of breathing no matter what system one adopts is to take in as much air as possible, and to distribute it throughout the body in a different form, in a form which we call prana. That is the life force itself. That prana is the force which activates man, which activates everything that lives, plants, animals, man, even the fishes have to extract oxygen from water and convert it to prana. However, we are dealing with your breathing, Lobsang. Inhale slowly. Retain that breath for a few seconds. Then exhale quite slowly. You will find that there are various ratios of inhaling, holding, exhaling, which accomplish various effects such as cleansing, vitalizing, etc. Perhaps the most important general form of breathing is what we call the cleansing breath. We will go into this now, because from now on I want you to do it at the beginning and ending of every day, and at the beginning and ending of every particular exercise.
I had been following very carefully. I knew well the power that these high lamas had, how they could glide across the earth faster than a man could gallop on a horse, and how they could arrive at their destination untroubled, serene, controlled, and I determined that long before I too was a lama—for at this stage I was just an acolyte—I would master the science of breathing. My Guide, the Lama Mingyar Dondup continued:
– Now, Lobsang, for this cleansing breath. Inhale completely, three complete breaths. No, not shallow little things like that. Deep breaths, really deep ones, the deepest that you can manage, fill your lungs, draw yourself up and let yourself become full of air. That is right,” he said. “Now with the third breath retain that air for some four seconds, screw up your lips as if you were going to whistle, but do not puff out the cheeks. Blow a little air through the opening in your lips with all the vigor that you can. Blow it out hard, let it go free. Then stop for a second, retaining the air which is left. Blow out a little more, still with all the vigor you can muster. Stop for another second, and then blow out the remainder so that there is not a puff of air left inside your lungs. Blow it out as hard as you can. Remember you MUST exhale in this case with very considerable vigor through the opening in your lips. Now, do you not find that this is remarkably refreshing?
To my surprise I had to agree. It had seemed to me a bit stupid just puffing out and blowing out but now that I had tried it a few times I really found that I was tingling with energy feeling perhaps better than I had ever felt before. So I buffed, and I puffed, and I expanded myself, and I blew my cheeks out. Then suddenly I felt my head swimming. It seemed to me that I was getting lighter, and lighter. Through the haze I heard my Guide:
-Lobsang, Lobsang, stop! You must not breathe like that. Breathe as I tell you.
Do not experiment, for to do so is dangerous. Now you have got yourself intoxicated through breathing incorrectly, by breathing too quickly. Exercise only as I am telling you to exercise, for I have the experience. Later you can experiment on your own. But, Lobsang, always caution those whom you are teaching to be careful to follow the exercises and not to experiment. Tell them never to experiment with different ratios of breathing unless they have a competent teacher with them, for to experiment with breathing is dangerous indeed. To follow the set exercise is safe, it is healthy, and no harm at all can fall to those who breathe as instructed.
The lama stood up, and said:
-Now, Lobsang, it will be a good idea if we increase your nervous force. Stand erect as I am standing now. Inhale as much as you can, then when you think that your lungs are full force in yet a little more breath. Slowly exhale. Slowly. Refill your lungs completely, and retain that breath. Extend your arms straight in front of you, not using any effort, you know, just to keep your arms in front of you with just enough strength to keep them horizontal, but use as little effort as you can. Now, look, watch me. Draw your hands back toward the shoulder, gradually contracting the muscles and making them tight so that by the time your hands can touch your shoulders the muscles will be quite taut, and the fists clenched. Watch me; see how I am clenching mine. Clench your hands so tightly that they tremble with the effort. Still keeping the muscles taut push the fists slowly out, then draw them back rapidly several times, perhaps half a dozen times. Exhale vigorously, really vigorously as I told you before, with the mouth, with the lips pursed up, and with just a hole through which you blow the breath as strongly as you can. After you have done that a few times finish by practicing the cleansing breath once again.
I tried it, and I found it as before of great benefit to me. Besides it was fun, and I was always ready for fun! My Guide broke in on my thoughts.
-Lobsang, I want to emphasize, and emphasize again, that the speed of the drawing back of the fists and then tension of the muscles determines how much benefit you can get from this. Naturally you will have made quite sure that your lungs are absolutely full before doing this exercise. This, by the way, is a truly invaluable exercise, and will help you enormously during later years.
He sat down and watched me go through that system, gently correcting my faults, praising me when I did it well, and when he was satisfied he made me go through all the exercises again to be quite sure that I could do it without further instruction. Eventually he motioned for me to sit beside him while he told me how the Tibetan system of breathing was formed after deciphering the old records deep down in the caverns beneath the Potala.
Later in my studies I was taught various things about breath, for we of Tibet do not cure only by herbs, but we also cure through the patient’s breathing. Breathing is indeed the source of life, and it may be of interest to give a few notes here which may enable those who have some ailment, perhaps of long standing, to banish or to alleviate their suffering. It can be done through correct breathing you know, but do remember—breathe only as advised in these pages, for to experiment is dangerous unless there is a competent teacher at hand. To experiment blindly is folly indeed.
Disorders of the stomach, the liver, and the blood, can be overcome by what we term the “retained breath.” There is nothing magical in this, mind, except in the result, and the result can appear to be quite magical, quite without parallel. But—at first you must stand erect, or if you are in bed, lie straight. Let us assume, though, that you are out of bed and can stand erect.
Stand with your heels together, with your shoulders back and your chest out. Your lower abdomen will be tightly controlled. Inhale completely, take in as much air as you can, and keep it in until you feel a slight—very slight throbbing in your temples
to the left and to the right. As soon as you feel that exhale vigorously through the open mouth, REALLY vigorously, you know, not just letting it drift out, but blowing it out through the mouth with all the force at your command. Then you must do the cleansing breath. There is no point in going into that again because I have told you about that as my Guide, the Lama Mingyar Dondup, told me. I will just reiterate that the cleansing breath is absolutely invaluable to enable you to improve your health.
Before we can do anything about breathing we must have a rhythm, a unit of time which represents a normal inhalation. I have already mentioned it as it was taught to me, but perhaps repetition in this case will be a useful thing as it will help to fix it permanently in one’s mind. The heartbeat of the person is the proper rhythmic standard for that particular individual’s breathing. Hardly anyone has the same standard of course, but that does not matter. You can find your normal breathing rhythm by placing your finger on your pulse and counting. Put your right-hand fingers on your left wrist and feel about for the pulse. Let us assume that it is an average of one, two, three, four, five, six. Get that rhythm firmly fixed in your sub- conscious so that you know it unconsciously, sub-consciously, so that you do not have to think about it. It does not matter—to repeat—what your rhythm is as long as you know it, as long as your sub-conscious knows it, but we are imagining that your rhythm is the average one in which the air intake lasts for six beats of your heart. This is just the ordinary work-a-day routine. We are going to alter that breathing rate quite a lot for various purposes. There is nothing difficult in it. It is a very easy thing indeed which can lead to spectacular results in improved health. All acolytes of the higher grade in Tibet were taught breathing. We had certain exercises which we had to do before studying anything else, and this was the preliminary procedure in all cases. Would YOU like to try it? Then first of all sit erect, you can stand if you like, but there is no point in standing if you can sit. Inhale slowly the complete breathing system. That is, chest and abdomen while counting six pulse units. That is quite easy, you know. You only have to keep a finger on the pulse in your wrist and let your heart pump out once, twice, three, four, five, six times. When you have got the breath in after your six pulse units, retain it while your heart beats three times. After that exhale through the nostrils for six heartbeats. That is, for the same time as that in which you inhaled. Now that you have exhaled keep your lungs empty for three pulse units, and then start all over again. Repeat this as many times as you like but—do not tire yourself. As soon as you feel any tiredness, stop. You should never tire yourself with exercises because if you do you defeat the whole object of those exercises. They are to tone one up and make one feel fit, not to run one down or to make one tired.
We always started with the cleansing breath exercise and that cannot be done too often. It is completely harmless and is most beneficial. It rids the lungs of stale air, rids them of impurities, and in Tibet there is no T.B.! So you can do the cleansing breath exercises whenever you feel like it, and you will get the greatest benefit from it.
One extremely good method of acquiring mental control is by sitting erect, and inhaling one complete breath. Then inhale one cleansing breath. After that inhale in the rate of one, four, two. That is (let us have seconds for a change!) inhale for five seconds, then hold your breath for four times five seconds, that is, twenty seconds. When you have done that breathe out for ten seconds. You can cure yourself of a lot of pain by breathing properly, and this is a very good method; if you have some pain either lie down, or sit erect, it does not matter which. Then breathe rhythmically; keeping the thought in your mind that with each breath the pain is disappearing, with each exhalation the pain is being pushed out. Imagine that every time you breathe in you are breathing in the life force which is displacing the pain, Imagine that every time you breathe out you are pushing out the pain. Put your hand over the affected part, and imagine that with your hand with every breath you are wiping the cause of pain away. Do this for seven complete breaths. Then try the cleansing breath, and after that rest for a few seconds, breathing slowly and normally… You will probably find that the pain has either completely gone, or has so much lessened that it does not bother you. But if for any reason you still have the pain, repeat the same thing, try the same thing once, or twice more until eventually relief comes. You will of course quite understand that if it is an unexpected pain, and if it recurs, you will have to ask your doctor about it because pain is nature’s warning that something is wrong, and while it is perfectly correct and permissible to lessen pain when one is aware of it, it is still essential that one does something to find out what caused the pain, and to cure the cause. Pain should never be left untended.
If you are feeling tired, or if there has been a sudden demand on your energies, here is the quickest way to recuperate. Once again it doesn’t matter if you are standing or sitting, but keep your feet close together, toes and heels touching. Then clasp your hands together so that your fingers of each hand interlock, and so that your hands and feet each form a sort of closed circle. Breathe rhythmically for a few times, rather deep breaths, and slow in the exhaling. Then pause for three pulse units, and next do the cleansing breath. You will find that your tiredness has gone.
Many people are very, very nervous indeed when going for an interview. They get clammy palms and perhaps shaky knees. Thereisnoneedforanyonetobelikethat becauseitissoeasytoovercome,andthisisamethodofdoingitwhileyouare, perhaps in the waiting room, possibly at the dentist! Take a really deep breath, breathing through your nostrils of course, and hold that breath for ten seconds. Then exhale slowly with the breath under full control all the time. Allow yourself to take two or three ordinary breaths, and then again inhale deeply taking ten seconds to fill your lungs. Hold the breath again, and exhale slowly, again taking ten seconds. Do this three times, as you can without anyone noticing, and you will find that you are absolutely reassured. The pounding of your heart will have stopped and you will feel much strengthened in confidence. When you leave that waiting room and go to your place of interview you will find that you are in control of yourself. If you feel a flutter or two of nervousness, then—take a deep breath and hold it for a second or so, as you can easily do while the other man is talking. This will reinforce your flagging confidence. All Tibetans use systems such as this. We also used breath control when lifting, because the easiest way to lift anything, it may be furniture, or lifting a heavy bundle, the easiest way is to take a really deep breath and hold it while you lift. When the actual act of lifting is over, then you can let out your breath slowly and continue to breathe in the normal way. Lifting while you hold a deep breath is easy. It is worth trying for your self. It is worth trying to lift something fairly heavy with your lungs full of air and see the difference.
Anger, too, is controlled by that deep breathing, and by holding the breath and exhaling slowly. If for any reason you feel really angry—justly or otherwise!—take a deep breath. Hold it for a few seconds, and then expel that breath quite slowly. You will find that your emotion is under control, and you are master (or mistress) of the situation. It is very harmful to give way to anger and irritation, because that can lead to gastric ulcers. So—remember this breathing exercise of taking a deep breath, retaining it, and then expelling slowly.
You can do all these exercises with absolute confidence, knowing that they just cannot harm you in any way, but-a word of warning—keep to these exercises, and do not try anything more advanced except under the guidance of a competent teacher, because ill advised breathing exercises can do quite a lot of harm. In our prison camp we had our prisoners breathe like this. We also went far more deeply into the matter, and taught them to breathe so that they would not feel pain and that, allied with hypnosis, enabled us to do deep abdominal operations and to amputate arms and legs. We had no anesthetics, and so we had to resort to this method of killing pain—hypnosis and breath control. That is nature’s method, the natural way.