Five Principles of Ki Breathing

Onegaishimasu.  Let me begin by reading Shokushu #15, Ki Breathing:

“The breath goes out, reaching everything in the universe and all of humanity.  The breath comes in and falls into an infinitely small space in the lower abdomen.  Ki Breathing is the unknown practice that brings us to being one with the universe.

If you do this alone at night when the universe is calm and quiet, you will wonder if either you are the universe or if the universe is you.  In other words, you will experience the ultimate joy of being one with the universe.  At this moment the life energy of a human being becomes fully active.”

Thank you everyone for joining us. For some of you, it is six o’clock in the evening and for some of you it is five o’clock in the morning. And for I think some others of you, it is somewhere in the middle of the night. I really appreciate your attending this class. 

If you haven’t done this with us before, I should introduce this by letting you know that at Maui Ki Aikido, my student Sayaka Reasoner and I have taken the time to translate and re-edit much of Koichi Tohei Sensei’s principles teachings. These principles were originally translated soon after the beginning of his coming to Hawaii, which was in 1953.  This was the initial introduction of Aikido in the West. Those former translations of these principles, that we have all become familiar with, often contain liberties clearly intended to offer further guidance, but were additional to Koichi Tohei Sensei’s teaching. These can often be misleading.

For instance, I will list the original translation of the Five Principles of Ki Breathing here:

  1. Exhale gradually with purpose and control.
  2. Exhale with a distinct but barely audible sound.
  3. At the end the breath continues infinitely, like a fading note.
  4. Inhale from the tip of the nose until the body is saturated with breath.
  5. After inhaling, calm the mind infinitely at the One Point.

This may sound fine to us because we have heard it so often, but it’s not exactly what Tohei Sensei wrote. Here are the Five Principles of Ki Breathing, as we translated from his original words:

  1. Exhale gradually with ease.
  2. Exhale with the smallest sound possible.
  3. Exhale gradually from head to toe.
  4. Inhale from the tip of the nose and fill the body from toe to head.
  5. After inhaling, calm yourself at the One Point in the lower abdomen.

“Exhale gradually with ease.” One thing that really strikes me as different between these two translations, is that Tohei Sensei’s original words were more simple and directly supportive. This is an important contribution to Ki Breathing practice. As with many things in our lives, we often make Ki Breathing a difficult task. For instance, look at the difference between exhaling with “purpose and control” versus exhaling with “ease.” If we had this correct translation in the beginning of our Ki Breathing practice, we might have had a very different take on exhaling! Being directed to do something with “purpose and control” at five o’clock in the morning is just not the same as feeling invited to enjoy something like “exhaling with ease.” 

Tohei Sensei meant these five principles to invite and encourage this practice, not to create further struggle in our lives.  Both Tohei Sensei, and my teacher on Maui, Shinichi Suzuki Sensei, always spoke of the joy of this exercise, never the difficulty of it.

This reminds me that Suzuki Sensei’s famous phrase was always “breathe, breathe, breathe.” When he said that, he was saying, “enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, not “work, work, work.” He was not asking us to take on a heavy burden but to learn to appreciate and celebrate the single most important aspect of living; breath.

When I acted as otomo for Suzuki Sensei, we often traveled together to various parts of the world as he taught seminars. In those days, we always stayed in the same hotel room since there were never sufficient finances to allow anything else. In the morning, we would rise early, of course. He would begin his breathing practice sitting on the far side of his bed with his back to the room, and I would sit on the floor on the other side of my bed facing his back. Like this, we would begin breathing together. After the first hour, he would stand up and stretch out his arms. And then he would either say, “Okay Chris, time for breakfast,” or he would sit back down, and we would breathe for a second hour together We never breathed in smaller increments than an hour. 

Usually, this did not last more than two hours. But on occasion, it was three hours. And on some special occasions, it was four hours. I am only telling you this because that’s how I learned to truly enjoy Ki Breathing. If you’re doing Ki Breathing with your teacher, and you must sit there for four hours and breathe with him, and you don’t like Ki Breathing or it’s difficult for you to do because you’re struggling, then you definitely will not be able to continue this. 

In the Shokushu, Tohei Sensei says that in Ki Breathing we will “experience the ultimate joy of being one with the universe.” In the beginning I did have a difficult time. But I learned, and after all this time, as I think back on those hours, I see that Suzuki Sensei was really teaching me that very thing; just to back off on the “efforting,” and learn to enjoy the deepest levels of Ki Breathing. 

Why do we practice with the breath? Breath is the key to life.  We cannot go without breath for four or five minutes and remain alive. And perhaps even more important is that our breath is directly connected to our state of mind. When our breath is deep and calm, we feel deep and calm. When we are like this, the deepest aspects of mind become available to us.

This first principle of “exhaling gradually with ease” is essential to being able to calmly enjoy Ki Breathing.

The second principle states that we “exhale with the smallest sound possible.” Now, I suspect that, originally, like me, you were taught to make a noise when you exhaled. Right? Maybe even a loud noise. The “old-timers” all know this. Tohei Sensei clearly asked us to exhale with the smallest sound possible. However, someone added into that second principle the word “distinct.”  This may be one explanation as to why exhalation was taught so differently for so many years. At any rate, those of us from the second generation all struggled for years, feeling we had to force a loud exhalation sound to be doing Ki Breathing correctly. Now everyone is openly taught to exhale with the smallest sound possible. This is, at the least, evolution.

When I’m doing Ki Breathing, if you are sitting near, you may hear something. I can hear a sound of my own exhalation, but just barely. It is the smallest sound possible for me. At the same time, that means we’re doing it with the least force as possible, the most relaxation as possible, and the most calmness as possible. 

“Exhale gradually from head to toe.” The third instruction asks us to exhale gradually emptying the body as if pulling water from a well, the level dropping until we are empty of breath.  

Inhale from the tip of the nose and fill the body from toe to head.” The fourth instruction echoes the third but refers to the process of inhaling like filling a container with liquid.

Koichi Tohei Sensei taught three levels of Ki Breathing. These two principles are describing inhalation and exhalation from the perspective of the first level of Ki Breathing, which we call “Whole Body Breathing.” This is the description of the beginning level of breathing, in which we breathe in and fill our body from the tips of our toes to the top of our head. And when we breathe out, we breathe out from the top of our head to the tips of our toes, emptying our body as if it were one big lung. 

The second level of Ki Breathing is called “Universal Breathing.” When we move to Universal Breathing, it becomes more like Ki Meditation in that we breathe out to the ends of the universe, and to all of humanity. This is similar to “kahudaiho” (expansion) in Ki Meditation. Then, when we breathe in, we take all of the universe and all of humanity into the infinitely small One Point in the lower abdomen. This is similar to “shuchuho” (contraction) in Ki Meditation. Again, this is Universal breathing. 

The fifth principle of Ki Breathing says, “after inhaling, calm yourself at the one point in the lower abdomen.” This is meant as a refinement to intensify our attentive capacity. As our ability to be in attention while practicing Ki Breathing increases, so increases our level of calmness.  As our level of calmness increases, we begin to see the art of breathing in a new and completely different way.

This brings up the third way of experiencing this practice. Tohei Sensei called this “Musoku.” “Soku” means breath and “mu” means none or empty. Of course, this does not mean there is no breath.  If we have no breath, we are dead. So please don’t attempt to practice that. “No breathing” or “no breath” means “no one is breathing.” Simply put, this means that the nearly silent and utterly calm Ki Breathing continues, but no one separate individual self is in evidence doing the breathing. Awareness is here, but no one is driving the breath. There is no “doer” in the mind body. The breathing just happens. 

This experience is one of direct being.  This is living our life directly and completely. This may not happen for most students during casual living. But it can happen often in something like Ki Breathing. And once musoku begins to appear, then this way of being becomes more familiar. I mean to say this way of living, this “do nothing” way of seeing the world and interacting with the world, becomes more familiar to us. The experience of this is as if we are being lived by the universe, and this is finally what Tohei Sensei has been teaching us from the beginning. 

There is one other important point to make regarding the practice of Ki Breathing.  This is not mentioned in the Five Principles of Ki Breathing, but is an essential aspect of Tohei Sensei’s teaching on this subject.  Once, when Tohei Sensei was teaching a Chief Instructors’ Seminar, he said to us, “You folks imagine that the important part of Ki Breathing is the inhalation and exhalation.  But this is not the case.  The most important part of Ki Breathing practice is what happens between the inhalation and exhalation, and visa versa.  When we have completed breathing out, we don’t simply cut off the breath, but even when there is no breath left, we continue extending Ki to the ends of the universe while counting ‘one, two, three.’  In this same way, once we have completed our inhalation, we pause to a three count, and continue extending Ki infinitely into the One Point.”  Please be sure that this practice is included in your Ki Breathing.

Okay, so if you have a question or comment, please just raise your hand. 

Student: I can tell you that I love Ki Breathing. And yet I struggle with it. I struggle with tension in the body. 

When there is tension in our body, the tension causes discomfort. There is uneasiness in many parts of our body, and this makes it difficult to breathe calmly. This sets in motion an unfortunate cycle in our body. The more tension we have, the more we want to do breathing to experience more calmness. And yet, if we have tension, this is always accompanied by a distraction of our attention away from the ease of Ki Breathing practice, and so we can’t experience calmness sufficiently and this makes us more anxious and creates more tension, and this tends to make us try harder. The answer here is, of course, practice, practice, practice. 

When I first met Suzuki Sensei, I was very impressed.  I asked him if he was born like this or is there was some exercise that I could do to get like him. He replied, “If you want to be like this, you must breathe one hour every morning from now on.” Unfortunately, there was no way I could do that right away because I had too much tension in my body as I worked away at what I thought was Ki Breathing. It took nearly a year for me to learn to do Ki Breathing even for one hour, and then I was still practicing incorrectly. It took many more years before I was exhaling gradually with ease, and so really enjoying the breathing. 

Of course, like everything else, in the beginning we must have discipline. Even when the breathing is not going exactly as we expect or desire, we continue, nonetheless. If we dedicate ourselves in this way, at some point change begins to happen. And the deeper our experience goes, the more we fall in love with this. And then it’s not just breathing, of course. I mean, now you are in love with this process of sitting deeply and at ease. And when it is like this, then the breathing serves like a powerful bellows of the universe to stoke us and take us deeper and deeper into this great sense of simplicity and satisfaction which Tohei Sensei called “the ultimate joy of being one with the universe.”

Student: Thank you very much. I wanted to ask you if you could elaborate about the shift from Universal Breathing to Musoku. What do you feel in this moment?

Okay, that’s a difficult question to answer. Of course, I can only speak from my own experience here. When I’m doing Universal Breathing, I have a very distinct sense of myself in this locale here, in relation to the universe out there, this infinitely small center of that infinitely large space. I have a very distinct sense of me being the central cause of what is happening.  I am still breathing purposefully. This, of course, is only a little more advanced than doing Whole Body Breathing, because the perspective continues to be dominated by the subject/object paradigm. When doing Universal Breathing, there still is a definite sense of separation between myself and the universal. At this point I am still the one who is breathing in and breathing out. And then, suddenly, there comes a shift, and it is like everything remains the same, but no one can be found that is actively doing anything. 

This doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does happen, it is not because of anything I do to make it happen. It just happens. I will say that there’s a deep calmness that will always be there or it doesn’t happen. And there is a kind of expansive awareness that seems to be present everywhere, instead of in me as a subject. There’s still a center at the One Point and there’s still an infinite sphere, an infinity, and an inclusiveness. But there isn’t any feeling of separation between any of it. 

When musoku happens, it is always accompanied by a sense of awe and wonder. It may be emotional now when I am speaking about it.  But it is not necessarily emotional in the same way when it is happening. 

I can’t imagine not having this kind of practice, not having this kind of experience in my life. People don’t usually ask me about that, so thank you.

Student: With Ki Breathing I often fall asleep. 

Oh, good. That’s okay.

Student: That’s okay? Sensei, I try to stay awake to continue breathing, but well…I just don’t concentrate well.

Well, if you are tired you may need to be sleeping.  I take it you are breathing late in the evening instead of early in the morning, yes?

Student: Yes.

One reason I sit first thing in the morning is because I am less likely to fall asleep, whether I am either meditating or breathing. After eight o’clock at night, I just go right to sleep. It’s wonderful. But it’s not very conducive to paying conscious attention, which is what sitting is all about. That’s why I always recommend sitting it in the morning. The older you get, the more natural it is to just fall asleep when you’re comfortable. 

Student: Thank you, Sensei. Okay.

Student: You have watched me struggle with Ki Breathing for years. And, you know, I have a particular limitation in my lungs because I’ve had surgery. So, when I do Ki Breathing, it really lights up the pain in my lungs. And I’ve never managed to relax my lungs. So, yeah, you know, except that I’ve had a few moments, when you’ve guided me, that I’ve been able to breathe with ease. But when I’m trying to do it on my own, it’s like I always hit this pain.

Yes, this is what you often tell me. But I have also experienced with you, as you say, times when you love doing the breathing, and those lungs of yours do not bother you at all. I think you want to know what the big difference is between those two times? It would be easy to say that on one occasion you’re struggling and on the other you’re not, and that is true. But I think you want more. 

You have the habit of moving a lot while you are practicing Ki Breathing. It appears from the outside like a kind of harshness, a stubborn struggle in your body, even to the point of pushing down on your thighs with your hands to that your shoulders come up. This, of course, creates tremendous tension in your chest and shoulders, surrounding your lungs. It looks incredibly uncomfortable. And when I stop you and encourage you to sit up straight and to bring your attention to the ease of the breath going in and out you seem to be able to do it very well. 

However, when I see you the next time, you have always reverted to that struggle. So, we can see that is a deep thing with you. I can see that you’re convinced that it’s going to hurt and so naturally you resist it, and sure enough, that hurts! Doing that may be further damaging to your lungs as well. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it proves to be exactly as you suspect each time. Whereas if I’m with you, you trust me enough that we can breathe together and then it’s a completely different experience. Okay? This is something to be aware of and notice as it takes place.  The fear of pain is not necessary.

Student: Thank you Sensei.

Student: In Tohei Sensei’s book called “Ki in Daily Life,” there is a photo with a horizontal line from the nose through the back of the head and out. This is depicting the breath inhalation from the tip of the nose.  Is this still accurate?

Okay, so I have a couple things to say about that. First, we do breathe through the tip of our nose but then we imagine the breath coming in and going down our spine to One Point in the lower abdomen, and further, as he says, filling us “from the tips of our toes.” 

Secondly, I once asked Koichi Tohei Sensei about something from his book on Ki Breathing. And he said, “Oh, Curtis san, don’t read that book any more. Things have changed since then. That’s the trouble with writing books. They don’t allow change take place.” 

And many years later, change continues. I was with Shinichi Tohei Sensei in Oregon in the early 2000s. He was giving an informal talk, and he said, “Koichi Tohei Sensei’s fundamental principles will never change. They will always be the same and always be honored. However, the method of teaching and passing on those principles will change.” I have noticed that sometimes the change is substantial enough as to make this teaching unrecognizable from the old way, but still the correct principle is maintained.

That’s important to remember, for all of us. All teachers experience this in their own practice and teaching. And all teachers will pass away at some point, and then you folks will go on changing and developing until the way that you share this teaching with other people evolves  even further. However, we must do our best never to allow the essentials of this teaching to be lost. This is why looking deeply into Koichi Tohei Sensei’s principles is such an important part of our practice.

Okay, thank you very much for joining me.  I must say goodbye to everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. Domo arigato gozaimasu.