Ever since I first found out that the kidneys take part in the breathing process, I couldn’t help but wondering: How did the ancient Chinese figure that out? Whenever I could, I ran various experiments with breathing on myself, and I came across several rather curious observations that may shine some light on the kidneys’ part in the breathing process. Of course, there is no way of knowing whether or not my experiments resemble the ones that contributed to the theory of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but considering that the philosophy of TCM is not based on faith but observation, these experiments shouldn’t be too far off.
Whenever you run to the point of being out of breath, you can witness the following: As you are trying to catch your breath, you are inhaling a lot of air, much more than you actually need. Yet, you feel that whatever you are inhaling is insufficient. Apparently, we judge whether or not we’ve inhaled enough air by the feeling of satisfaction that normally comes with every regular inhalation, and you find yourself gasping when the air that you draw in doesn’t bring you that satisfaction. In a minute or two, you start catching your breath, and this is when things become interesting. At this point, you can feel something tightening in your back, grasping an inhalation every time its movement reaches the inferior portions of your kidneys. And once that happens, every breath from that point on begins to bring the sense of relief (that is, satisfaction) as you continue catching your breath more and more. While this phenomenon is easier to observe after you run for a while, it also occurs in all other activities you do, because they all require breathing.
Did you ever notice that when people work out, they tend to hold their breaths? It is particularly obvious when they do something strenuous, such as weight lifting. You can observe men and women alike halting their breathing process until the weight-lifting (that is, strenuous) portion of the exercise is over. If you try it yourself, then you would feel that after you hold your breath several times in a row, your inhalation does not give you the satisfaction that it usually does, and then it takes you several inhalations to restore that grasping sensation in your back, after which your breathing becomes normal, again.
You do not need to do strenuous exercises, however, to witness the strange phenomenon that the ancient Chinese described as “the Kidneys dominate reception of qi” (1), “kidney failing to absorb qi” (2), and “[t]he Lungs govern the qi, the Liver spreads it, and the Kidneys provide its basis” (3). It plays a crucial role in breathing, no matter what you do—be it light exercises or routine, everyday movements, or staying motionless during sleep. The next time you walk, for example, try to pay attention to what is happening to your breathing. Every movement that you make interferes with your breathing process. If you are relaxed and strolling carelessly in a park, this interference is mild. But when you are running late or simply used to hurrying no matter where you go, your effort impedes your breathing to a much greater degree. We are not interested in the whole breathing process, however. What we are interested in here is whether or not your inhalations reach the kidneys, and you can feel that with certain movements and workloads—particularly with those in which you need to bend your torso forward or turn at your waist—the inhalation does not go that far down. Whenever that happens once or twice, your body recovers almost immediately. But when your inhalations consistently do not reach the kidneys, when they finally do, your kidneys can’t grasp the qi that is drawn in with the inhalations until the kidneys restore themselves to function normally.
Whether it is walking or doing a light exercise, it is hardly surprising that any physical activity makes you feel tired. But why and how does tiredness appear during sitting? You may think that your brain consumes a lot of energy, and it makes your whole body feel fatigued, but then you don’t exactly feel tired when you do something interesting and completely consumed by what you do. Oftentimes, the cause of your feeling tired after sitting for several hours straight is simply not breathing deep enough. Particularly when you are sitting at a table—the position that usually makes you slouch—your inhalations end in the upper torso, never reaching the kidneys. You can test the theory that it is the shallow breathing that makes you tired by straightening your torso and keeping it upright while breathing normally for two minutes every ten minutes or so. At the end of your work day, you will feel more energetic. In fact, if you train yourself to breathe deeply without even interrupting your work flow, by the end of the day, you’ll feel the same way as you did when you came to work in the morning. Do not forget, though, that it takes more than one or two inhalations to restore your kidneys’ ability to grasp qi as they normally do—just as it occurs when you need to catch your breath after you run for a while. But when the kidneys restore their function, you will feel how each inhalation refreshes you.
While ensuring that each inhalation reaches your lower torso is difficult, it is worth the effort. When you train yourself to feed enough qi to your kidneys so they can function normally most of the time, it will take you running longer at higher speed, walking much faster, and many more hours than it usually does sitting at your desk to make you feel tired. Making sure that breathing deep enough becomes part of your nature should also keep you as healthy as your nature allows you to be.
(1) Deng Liangyue, Gan Yijun, He Shuhui, et al., 1996. Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 4th edition. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing.
(2) Nigel Wiseman (tr), 1995. Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine, revised edition. Paradigm Publications, Brookline, Massachusetts.
(3) John O’Connor and Dan Bensky (tr), 1996. Acupuncture: A Comprehensive Text, 13th printing. Eastland Press, Seattle, Washington.