Ancient Origins – Introduction

Ancient Chinese thought developed quite differently from Western thought.  Whereas in the west we tended to focus on dividing things into discrete individual components and examining them seperately, in China they were more interested in understanding the connection between things.  Chinese thought led to the formulation of frameworks for understanding remarkable sets of relationships between things from the very small through to the universal scale.  One of these frameworks which is informative and useful to us in understanding breathing is Yin Yang theory.

Ancient Origins Yin Yang

This theory states that there are two opposing forces or states in the universe.  They are never really separate because they are more like opposite sides of a coin than separate things, but these states create a dynamic tension that is the stuff life is made of.  Yin generates Yang and Yang generates Yin in a cyclical fashion.  There is no such thing as pure Yin or pure Yang, because each contains the seed for the genesis of the other.  Yang always has a little bit of Yin and Yin always has a little bit of Yang Within it.

Yin and Yang have distinct opposing characteristics to one another.  Below are a few of these characteristics that relate to our understanding of breathing.

Yin                                                                                                          Yang

Inside Outside
Soft Hard
Passive Active
Cold Hot
Full Empty
Rises Sinks
Slow Fast
Deep Shallow
Small Large

Referring to this theory gives us great insight into the effect of different types of breathing on our body.  You will recognize many of these from the things we have discussed earlier in this course.

From the Yang characteristics, breathing fast and shallow through the larger opening of our mouth will make our body harder or more tense and warm it up.  Emptying or breathing out will be the Yang phase of breath and will cause the energy of the body to sink.  The external or outside muscles will be more active during the Yang phase of breathing.

From the Yin characteristics, breathing slow and deep through the smaller opening of our nose will make the body softer or more relaxed and cool it down.  Filling or breathing in will be the Yin phase of breath and will cause the energy of the body to rise.  The internal muscles (the diaphragm) will be more active during the Yin phase of breathing.

Remembering Yin/Yang theory will help you to understand and remember the different effects of different breathing patterns on the body and will help you to figure out what the purpose is of new breathing patterns that you may encounter in the future.


This focus on the relationships between things, led the Chinese to come up with the concept of ‘Qi’, lifeforce or energy.  They found that some of the things the observed or experienced in the body were not a matter of physical structures, but of energy or forces moving within the body, much like the movement of internal force up and down in the body with the breath.  They found that this Qi was affected by many things, what someone ate, the environment around them, their physical movements and most importantly breathing.  The Chinese character for Qi is so strongly associated with breath that many Chinese people simply translate it as breathing.  They also found that how we think about things has a great effect on the Qi within the body.  The following exercises will make use of mental focus to affect some of the more subtle functions of our bodies through breathing, to circulate and move Qi around our body.