14 April 2009

The Shintaido non-method of breathing (4): Tenshingoso

Tenshingoso (天真五相, loosely translatable as "five expressions of the reality of the cosmos") is one of the basic forms of Shintaido, which includes vocalization of five sounds (A, E, I, O, Um) in combination with movements.

According to Shintaido instructor Giovanni Rossi, our general natural tendency is to inhale when we extend our arms upward or outward and to exhale when we bring our arms downward or closer to ourselves. For example, observe your natural tendency to inhale when reaching up for something on a high shelf.

In contrast, when practicing Tenshingoso, in conjunction with vocalizing, we exhale while our hands and arms are extending upward or outward. So because of the vocalizing, Tenshingoso is certainly a form of breath control or a breathing technique (even if the method of breathing is never explicitly mentioned).

In other words, we can consider any way of breathing which is different from what we tend to do without any special training or practice as "breath control" or a breathing technique. This raises the question of whether Tenshingoso can be considered a type of qigong (氣功, sometimes also transliterated ch'i kung). Qi (Japanese ki) can be translated as "life force energy," while gong means "skill acquired through training". Generally, qigong is a Chinese discipline associated with both martial arts and health exercise that encompasses a broad range of methods for working with the life force.

I can say from experience that Chinese recognize some Shintaido techniques as qigong. During a trip to China in 1987, Michael Thompson and I visited the Beidaihe Qigong Rehabilitation Hospital of Hebei Province (Hebeisheng Beidaihe Qigong Liaoyang Yuan, 河北省北戴河气功疗养院). In spite of not having a letter of introduction (de rigueur in China), we were graciously received and the director met with us and gave us a quite enthusiastic and detailed explanation of qigong and its medical applications. Unfortunately a lot of it was beyond my linguistic capabilities, but one main point stuck clearly in my mind:

True qigong consists of the harmonious integration and disciplined training of three elements:
  • breathing
  • movement
  • visualization
I'm sure that most Shintaido practitioners would agree that Tenshingoso fits this definition quite well and therefore can be considered a type of qigong.

03 April 2009

The Shintaido non-method of breathing (3)

Well, that last post was really more about how breathing is not taught in Shintaido than about how it is. So let's get down to the nitty-gritty.

Shintaido jumping exercises (shin shin kaihatsu taiso 身心開発体操) were discussed in an earlier post from the point of view of getting in touch with our instinctive intentionality. If we look at these techniques from the point of view of breathing, a few things become clear:

1. They are generally very physically demanding aerobic exercises, typically involving elevated heart rate and breathing (maybe a little sweating as well).

2. Opening movements of the hips, waist, chest and abdomen are emphasized.

3. Many of these exercises also involve serious challenges to our balance. That is, movements where we deliberately transgress the boundaries of the the zone within which we can easily maintain physical balance activate reflex arcs (discussed in this post), which are mechanisms by which the body instinctively recovers its stability.

4. The combination of 1, 2 and 3 means that the abdomen, ribcage, diaphragm, spine, hips and pelvis — composing the core or trunk of the body — are being intensively exercised in several different ways simultaneously. Heavy demands are placed on the body core in regarding mechanics of physical movement, maintenance of stability and of breathing or oxygen intake all at the same time.

5. Obviously there is a profound connection between emotional states and breathing. Emotions such as fear, anger, joy (including laughter), etc. affect our breathing patterns. At the same time, the features of the shin shin kaihatsu taiso movements mentioned in 1-3 (intense physical exercise, opening the most vulnerable parts of the body, and being off-balance) have a potentially dramatic influence on our emotional condition. In combination, it's clear that these movements can directly affect our breathing patterns, and also impact our emotional condition, which then affects our breathing.

The above may explain why even people who are "in good shape" can quickly feel exhausted when introduced to these exercises for the first time. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, breathing lies at the cusp of the autonomic and consciously-controlled functions of the body. Likewise, we might also say that it lies at the cusp of our physical and emotional or spiritual lives. This is probably key to the meaning of the name shin shin kaihatsu taiso — "mind/heart* and body opening exercises." (* "Mind" and "heart" are the same word in Japanese).

To sum up, the practice of Shintaido shin shin kaihatsu taiso exercises is clearly a method that has potentially profound impact on our way of breathing, even if nothing is explicitly said about "breathing" in the teaching and learning process.

This may also have important practical implications for the future development of the Shintaido curriculum, as many instructors are involved in bringing modified versions of Shintaido to communities with special needs (for example elderly people). Obviously, very few elderly people should be encouraged to do classical shin shin kaihatsu taiso exercises. However, as we develop modified versions of many Shintaido movements suitable for specialized audiences, I believe that identifying and maintaining the underlying principles of the movements will help us stick close to the essence of what Shintaido is about, even as the specific movements may be presented in modified form.