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The Breath, the Yin-Yang Cycle, and the Ba Gua

I discuss the attitudes one can have to the breath in meditation, and how I sometimes use the Taoist concept of the yin-yang cycle to enhance my breath experience. I use the ba gua, or the eight trigrams of the I Ching, to portray this cycle.

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The Breath in Meditation

Using the breath in meditation is present in many traditions, and has been talked and written about for thousands of years. One of the Buddha's most famous talks was on this topic, the Anapanasati Sutta, which I write about elsewhere on this site.

I see three basic attitudes on how to use the breath in meditation. One approach is to follow a set of instructions, whereby you try to breathe in the way that someone told you, often in some detail. A second approach is to try to be aware of your breath 'as it is', just observing it and not attempting to influence it in any way. I have spent many years meditating using each of these two approaches.

However, for the last two years or so, I have been approaching it a third way: experimenting with it. The days of my following one particular teacher's set of meditation instructions are over (see my articles in the Teachers section of this site). And I find the simple-sounding approach 'be aware of your breath as it is' just that - too simplistic. To begin with, I find the mere fact of my being aware of my breath changes it, so I cannot be aware of my breath 'as it is', in the sense of my awareness having no effect on it. Instead, I can accept this fact, and be aware of how my awareness changes the breath; and also be aware of how breathing in a certain way at a certain time changes my awareness. This is what I mean by 'experimenting' with it.

I write about my use of the breath in the early stages of a meditation sitting in my article A Typical Body-Based Meditation Sitting. I also sometimes like to use the concept of the yin-yang cycle, and feel how my breath, in a body-based sense, plays out this cycle.

Yin and Yang

I quote Barefoot Doctor's take on yin and yang in my previous article. Yin and yang, and their continuous transformation from one to the other, are fundamental concepts in Taoist philosophy, and the change from yin to yang, and from yang to yin, is often pictured by means of the ba gua, or the eight trigrams. These eight trigrams were built up into the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching (or the hexagrams came first, and the 8 trigrams were derived from them, according to who you read). 'I Ching' means 'book of changes' and is an attempt to provide insight into the changing characteristics of whatever situation one brings to it.

Reading accounts of recent investigations into the early I Ching, and how it was used as an oracle, one fact impresses me: there never was, and is not now, one and only one 'correct' way of reading it and using it. The I Ching, the 64 hexagrams, the eight trigrams (the ba gua), and the concepts of yin and yang themselves, are all a framework for looking at a fundamental principle of the created universe. How any individual uses that framework is up to them. I don't believe in the 'correctness' of any one interpretation in an objective sense, but only what I myself find useful in my own meditation and understanding.

The ba gua or eight trigrams

So with that caveat, here is an interpretation, or a way of looking at the yin-yang-yin cycle using the ba gua (8 trigrams), that I find useful, particularly when I apply it to my breath.

The eight trigrams are the 8 possible arrangements of 3 binary values - let's call these binary values the digits 0 (zero) and 1. Let's call zero 'yin', and 1 'yang'. Then we have one trigram that is all yin - 000; and one trigram that is all yang - 111. Traditionally 1 is a continuous horizontal line, and 0 is a broken line, and they are arranged one on top of the other.

000 is traditionally called Earth, which brings up the image of the receptive nuturing of all things - pure yin. 111 is traditionally Heaven, or the Sky, the creative, pure yang.

However, in the everyday world that I inhabit, nothing is ever 'pure' yin, or 'pure' yang; there is always a mixture, a changing from one to the other. So I view the Earth and the Sky trigrams as more archetypes than descriptions of the work-a-day world. Even their names - Earth and Sky or Heaven - conjure up large all-embracing concepts.

So let's consider the changing yin and changing yang, with their less vast images. As yang starts to change to yin, we have 011, traditionally called 'the Wind', having the properties of penetrating, but gentle, movement. The left-most binary digit (here zero) would be traditionally a broken line at the bottom, with the two continuous yang lines above. Also, in these 6 trigrams (the eight less the two 'archetypal' ones 000 and 111) the single digit defines whether the trigram is yin or yang. So although 011 (Wind) has one yin zero, and two yang 1's, it is considered overall a yin trigram; also the zero in the first (left-most) place is the start of yin, the beginning of the change from yang to yin - often called the 'first daughter' or 'young yin'.

The next trigram is half-way through the change from yang to yin, where the zero has moved one place along, to give us 101 - traditionally called Fire, with connotations of consuming, light-giving and clinging - yin in action, getting stronger (the middle daughter, or yin in the middle of the move towards full yin).

The final move of yin is the 'third daughter', or 'old yin' as the yin zero moves to the end position - 110, traditionally called the Lake, or a body of still water. Perhaps after that, we may touch 'pure' yin momentarily (the Earth), but I prefer to think of the Lake, 110, as the maximum yin move in everyday terms, and the next change is the waning of yin and the waxing of yang.

As yin changes to yang, we now have the solitary digit 1 moving from left to right (or in the traditional trigrams, the single continuous yang line moving from bottom to top). First we have 100, called Thunder, the arousing, the energetic start of yang action, the first son. Then to portray the middle of the yin to yang cycle, we have 010, the River, or water moving in a directed and purposeful flow. The final position of yang, 001, is the Mountain, expanded, firm, still.

In this portrayal of the yin-yang cycle, we have two trigrams suggesting movement and the begining of action at the two reversal points of the cycle. 100, Thunder, the arousing, as yang begins; and the gentler and more penetrating Wind, 011, as yin begins, but still suggesting movement, albeit in a yin fashion. Half-way through the change, each 'middle' trigram suggests energy, things happening: 010, the yang River of directed purposeful yang action; and 101, the yin Fire, action again but staying in place and consuming, in yin fashion. And as both yin and yang reach their fullness, we have two trigrams suggesting stillness, a point of rest: 001, the Mountain, yang stillness expanded; and 110 the Lake, yin stillness lying low and reflecting.

Applying the Yin-Yang Cycle to my Breath - Version 1

When I first thought of my breathing in terms of yin and yang, I first assumed the traditional interpretation, where full exhalation is empty, receptive - yin. And full inhalation is expanded, full - yang. Then the cycle went like this:

As I started breathing out, first there would be beginning yin, the gentle Wind of my starting the out-breath (the first escape of air was sometimes audible, like a soft wind sound), then half-way the consuming of Fire (middle yin), and at my full out-breath the Lake, the still emptiness of having exhaled, full yin. As I started to inhale, first the arousing of action (beginning yang), half-way the purposeful force of flowing (the River, middle yang), ending with my full in-breath as still and expanded, like the Mountain of full yang.

And this felt good, and was interesting, and added a little spice to the Focusing that I write about on this site. But doing Pilates exercises, where the emphasis is on the out-breath, which accompanies forceful motion, I realised that the opposite was also viable and meaningful:

Applying the Yin-Yang Cycle to my Breath - Version 2

With this second interpretation, yang is now full exhalation. The in-breath is now a relaxation, increasing yin; without any volition from me, I fill up with air, and my body-frame relaxes as I do so. First, the gentle Wind of young yin, then the consuming Fire as I suck the universe in with my relaxing in-breath (middle yin), and finally the receptive Lake as my relaxed in-breath ends, with my body-frame a little sunk, full yin. In other words, as my lungs, chest, abdomen (and the soft organs of my inner body generally) expand, my skeleton frame (head, backbone, shoulder girdle, hips) relaxes a little, sinks a bit, and it is this that gives my full inhalation the yin flavor.

Then yang starts with the arousing as I start to breath down into my belly and perineum, the purposeful flowing of the River as I breath out in this way, with my frame (skeleton) expanding both down into my perineum and upwards (Alexander-style), and finally Mountain-like stillness as my out-breath ends with my skeleton expanded but with all viscera soft, relaxed and dropped.

The Alexander technique involves many subtleties, but one of them is this 'expansion' of the body-frame (neck free, head forward and up, backbone extended, shoulders and hips wide) without consciously moving the muscles to achieve this. It is an awareness of the possibility, which at some point you suddenly realise is happening, without the thinking you being involved.

When I found that in a meditation sitting I was becoming too relaxed, and was beginning to slump, I wanted to straighten myself up; but in a natural way, in harmony with how I was breathing, and in an Alexander-technique fashion. When I was experiencing my breath as in version # 1, the natural way of expanding and straightening my body-frame was to do it on the in-breath; after all, that was the expanding, filling-up, yang part of the cycle.

But I soon found, much to my surprise, that in fact version # 2 was much easier. As I breathed out, it was as if two opposite things were happing - the exhalation was accompanied by a softening of the viscera, and all soft-tissue parts of my body were dropping downwards (it felt), along with my breath energy, into the belly and perineum; except for my body-frame of head, backbone, shoulder girdle and hip girdle, which were expanding and holding my body upright as everything else followed the out-breath out.

[Return to list of Body-Based articles]    [next article] Last revised Dec 19 2004

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