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Coordination of Body, Mind and Spirit

by Aaron Hoopes(more info)

listed in chi energy martial arts, originally published in issue 79 - August 2002

Awareness of the Spirit

Everyone has had moments in life when everything became bright, clear and alive - everything was perfect. There was a glimpse of pure awareness, when past and future no longer existed and total attention was focused on the moment.

At that one point in time you were aware of your spirit. Your aches and pains vanished. Your worries and problems faded away. All of your wants, needs and desires disappeared. For that moment you weren't just experiencing life - you were the experience. Your body and mind were in perfect coordination, and you were completely open to your spiritual essence.

It is easy to define the body. It is your physical presence. You can see it when you look in the mirror. The mind is not as tangible but it is also ever present. It is the conscious essence in your head that defines who you are in the physical world. The spirit, however, is more elusive. It is not easy to put your finger on because it is much more than the in-the-world entity you define yourself as. Your spirit is connected to the infinite essence of the universe, and trying to restrict it and define it is as futile as trying to grasp water. The harder you try to hold it, the faster it slips through your fingers. When you look for it, it is not there, yet at the same time it is everywhere. It is your true being. If you try to define it, categorize it, or put it under a microscope to study, it will still remain beyond your reach.

So how do we discuss the spirit without being able to discuss it? We do it by concentrating on the parts of ourselves we are able to discuss and allowing the spirit to arise of its own accord. A healthy, happy and energized body and a calm, clear, quiet mind offer fertile ground for the spirit to grow and flourish. By combining body awareness (through conscious or dynamic breathing) with mind awareness (through a meditative state of peaceful serenity I call Quietism), we can cultivate a state of being that is in the highest degree receptive to the spirit and capable of experiencing the ultimate fullness of existence.

Qi and Dynamic Breathing

The Chinese word 'qi' or 'ch'i' (pronounced 'chee') refers to the natural energy of the universe, which permeates everything. All matter, from the smallest atoms and molecules to the largest planets and stars, is made up of this energy. It is the vital force of life.

Qi within the body is like power in a rechargeable battery. Occasionally it needs to be replenished. The qi of the universe is inexhaustible, yet the body needs fresh qi to maintain its vitality. You take in food, water and air and convert them to energy within your body. During sleep, while your veins are relaxed and open and your brain is calm, you are able to take in a fresh supply of qi. When you are tense or nervous, you become rigid and qi circulation is blocked; you have difficulty sleeping, and your reserves of qi dwindle. When you are exchanging the qi within you with the qi of the universe, you feel healthy and vigorous. By energizing the body with qi it is revitalized naturally, enabling it to fight off illness and maintain good health. The true secret to replenishing qi resides in your breathing.

The body can go for days, even weeks, without food. It fails after two or three days without water. But it is virtually impossible to go without breathing for more than a few minutes. Without fresh oxygen to the brain the bodily systems quickly shut down and we die. Breathing is a natural, automatic function. The body works efficiently without our having to pay attention to our breathing. This normal, everyday breathing can be defined as unconscious breathing. It brings just enough oxygen into the body to keep it working. Unconscious breathing, though meagre, is adequate as long as the body is healthy and active. But what happens if there is an accident, sickness or trauma? Without an excess of stored energy, there are no reserves to tap into when needed. It becomes difficult for the body to repair itself.

Conscious breathing, or dynamic breathing as I call it here, is the process of modifying the body's breathing rhythm to maximize qi intake. Nearly 4,000 years ago in ancient China and India, people understood that becoming conscious of the body as it is breathing is the key to a long, healthy life. Just the action of noticing the breath brings our awareness to it and increases its quality. One of the most common themes in the teachings offered by spiritual leaders is the principle of internal cleansing, getting rid of that which is old, worn out and stale, and exchanging it for what is new, fresh and energized. That, of course, is the central principle of dynamic breathing as well. During inhalation we are bringing in fresh oxygen, nutrients and vital energy. During exhalation we are expelling carbon dioxide and other toxins and poisons that we produce or collect in our daily living.

The deep rhythmic respiration of the abdominal cavity during breathing exercises brings another, more hidden benefit. The vigorous expansion and contraction of the diaphragm act as an internal massage of the stomach, liver, kidneys, spleen and intestines. This passive massage strengthens and energizes the internal organs, making them less susceptible to disease and degeneration.

Breathing Exercise

The first step is simple: to become more aware of your breathing capacity. To start, imagine that your lungs are two balloons inside your chest. All day, every day, as you breathe normally, the top third of your lungs is being used to keep you alive while the bottom two-thirds remains unused unless you are doing exercise or something that makes you breathe faster. Dynamic breathing teaches you how to breathe from the bottom of the lungs up, expanding them to their full capacity. With expanded use of your lungs, the intake of oxygen is increased dramatically and more oxygen-rich blood circulates within the body.

Step 1. Exhale completely, then close your eyes and breathe in slowly through the nose. Imagine filling the balloons up from the bottom, relaxing the ribcage and stomach muscles. Concentrate on maximizing the expansion of the lungs;
Step 2. When your lungs feel full, stop. Open your mouth and take one last breath in, topping off your lungs;
Step 3. Hold your breath in for a moment and then exhale completely, forcing out as much air as possible by contracting the muscles of the ribcage and stomach.

Repeat this three times, observing how the balloons fill and expand in size each time. Take note of any changes in feeling within your body.

The change from unconscious to dynamic breathing is accomplished by becoming more aware of your breathing and your body. Most of our behaviour is unconscious. We walk around in our bodies rarely noticing how they feel, unless there is pain. Seldom do we consciously think of the body as feeling good, but feeling good shouldn't be an absence of pain. It should be an invigorated, energetic state where we are comfortable and happy in our bodies. Becoming aware of our breath is a way to reach that feeling. Expanding our breathing ability is a way of extending that feeling. The key, however, is not to force it, just slow down, relax and breathe.

Meditation and Quietism

Rows of skinny, bald monks sit in a cold, empty room and chant hour after hour, stopping just long enough to eat a bowl of dry rice. For many people that is the first image that comes to mind when they hear the word 'meditation'. In fact, that is only one example of meditation. At its core, meditation is simply seeking peace within. It is about perfecting the harmony of mind and body, which enables us to sense the essence of our spirit.

Have you ever stood still and calmly watched a sunrise or sunset? Have you ever sat in a peaceful setting by a stream or waterfall, or on a windy hill, or deep in the woods and simply listened intently? Have you ever allowed yourself to become so immersed in something that the outside world disappeared, leaving you existing in that solitary moment? If so, you have already experienced meditation. At its most basic, meditation is the practice of existing in a quiet place, turning the attention inwards, and following a pattern of breathing that helps both to still the body and to calm the mind. By concentrating on your breathing and letting your thoughts flow of their own accord, you open yourself to finding a deep, inner stillness and contentment that can help you deal with the stresses and tensions of life. This kind of meditation is easily accessible to everyone.

Usually the mind is so preoccupied with ordinary day-to-day distractions and the relentless flood of information the world drowns us in that it flounders and fails to connect with the true reality of existence. The mind has been swept up in a never-ending stream of consciousness that prevents us from taking a moment to ask ourselves if that is really how we want to think or the way we want to feel.

The stream of thought that rushes through your mind all day is like static that obscures the peace and tranquillity of the spirit. The calmer the mind, the longer the spaces between thoughts and the more peaceful you become. [ARH: We liked the sentence you cut from here. Want to reconsider? "This experience can be described as..."]

The measured lifestyle and close contact with nature that characterize more traditional societies are being lost. People today gobble up experiences, swallow them whole, and then stuff more in. As these undigested experiences accumulate, existence becomes more superficial. Watching television has become a substitute for real experience and even that rarely holds our attention for long - we click to the next channel. Vicariously living through the stimulus overload has dulled the senses to the magic of real life. The rapid pace of technological advances creates a sense of urgency while the high-speed transfer of data through the Internet and telephone systems brings an immediacy to everything. When we finally do go out and do something, we often feel driven by an ego-based urge to get through it as fast as possible.

In contrast to this, Quietism is a state of pure calmness unfazed by the pace of the world around you and the myriad of unbidden thoughts that vie for attention in your mind. It is a state of peace and tranquillity that enables you to relax and enjoy the sense of your inner and outer selves being in tune with each other. The mind is not turned off. Instead, it is slowed down and sufficiently quieted so that you can clearly envision and capture the essence of self.

Quietism Exercise

The intent here is not to clear thoughts entirely from your mind. The object is to direct your thoughts down a set path, focusing all your attention on a specific scene or setting so intensely that the usual conscious and unconscious patterns of thinking are overridden. You are not attempting to stifle the mind in this exercise, but simply to cultivate a state of such total concentration that the conscious mind cannot successfully intrude or take control of the quiet domain you are creating. In other words, you are defining the boundaries of the meadow in which your mind may graze.

Below are a number of settings in which to practise this exercise. Try a few and choose the ones that make you feel the most at ease and relaxed. Seat yourself comfortably and begin your observation. Observe the setting as a whole as well as running your eyes over each part of it. Listen to it as well - and smell it, touch it and taste it if you can. Slowly bring all of your attention to focus on it, rejecting extraneous thoughts. Actually, you can allow yourself any thoughts you want as long as they are connected to the target setting, but herd them back when they stray outside the context. Each target has its own unique characteristics and qualities that should further your ability to achieve the overall feeling of Quietism. Focus on these characteristics individually, separating them out and studying them while you attempt to identify the essence or essential nature of each and absorb it into your own sense of being.

Watching the Sky/Clouds

The sky is vast and encompassing. It contains the qualities of depth and clarity. The clouds moving through the sky embody the qualities of silent movement and change. While you sit and watch the sky, time seems to slow down as the clouds drift quietly above. As you watch, you soon become aware of their subtle movement and change as they drift above you subtly moving and changing shape. If you imagine each cloud as an occasional intruding thought, you see how easy it is to let them pass by. Often the clouds will form familiar or fantastical shapes. This is the mind attempting to make sense out of chance formations. Observe these shapes and accept them as they change to others. Keep your attention on the clouds, not the thoughts that their shape triggers. If the day is stormy, let yourself be drawn into the tumult, let the thunder reverberate through your own being. If the sky is clear, lose yourself in its vastness. Be aware of where the sun is and of its path across the sky. Notice the colours generated by the sunlight at different times of the day. If a bird flies over, think about the bird. When it is gone, let the thought go. Release the mind and let it be free within the confines of the sky and all that is there. Let your mind wander to any aspect of the sky or clouds, but no further.

Watching the Stars/Moon

In the night sky the stars present the quality of silent eternity. The constellations are symbols of ancient knowledge or beliefs. If you know some of the stars and constellations, identify them as they move through the heavens. Each constellation has its own unique presence. As the seasons change, different stars and constellations appear and disappear, slowly arranging themselves in different patterns. Calmly observe them as they wander across the night sky. Also become aware of the moon and its quality of solitary serenity. The light from the moon embodies an almost magical strength and beauty. Follow the phases of the moon, from a thin sliver to its full magnificence. Does your life change at all with the different phases - if only in your feelings as you observe them? Become more acutely aware of how the moon and the sun are revolving around the planet in an endless dance. Keep your thoughts contained within the night sky. The mind is loosed to ride the heavens, and all other thoughts are quickly and easily let go.

Watching the Stream/River/Waterfall

Moving water contains the qualities of perpetual motion and unstoppable force. Every body of water has its own pace. The stream may quietly trickle through the woods, the mighty river may drift by - a sleeping giant, or it may rage past - a rampaging elephant. The waterfall may roar over the lip of the cliff to crash on the rocks below. Whatever the water, the continuous movement onward reflects life as time passes. If you try to focus on one spot or object in the water, it soon floats out of sight tugging your mind along with it. Instead, let the mind flow with the water. Let the mind become water. Extra thoughts that appear in the mind can be imagined as leaves floating on the water. Let them drift along in the current and soon they are gone. Feel the sound of the water as it passes by. Let it flow over you.

Watching the Trees

Trees embody the qualities of life and change. Observe an individual tree as a living entity with its own unique structure and identity. Its roots sink deep into the ground, connecting it to the Earth and supporting the upper structure. The tree's life reflects the cycle of all life. From seed to sapling, from mature tree to deadwood, the tree passes through the cycle of life just as we all do, each tree unique. Observe a grove or a forest. Think of how the trees reflect life. Notice them moving together as the wind blows. They don't fight against the wind, instead they move with it, swaying back and forth in rhythm with the world. Bring that feeling within yourself. Watch the trees in the wind. Bend with them.

Watching Fire

Fire is dynamic. It contains the qualities of warmth and vitality as well as a potential for wild, unpredictable strength and destructiveness. It is impossible to focus on a single point of a flame or fire. The irregular quality of movement reflects the mind's penchant for flitting from one thought to another. Forcing yourself to stare at a certain part of it is an effort in futility. Watch the fire as a whole. Don't focus the eyes; instead simply let the eyes follow the flame's movement. Watching the fire this way reflects how consciousness follows the dance of the mind. Let the mind flow with the dance of the fire. Whether a campfire, a fireplace or a candle, the primal, hypnotic beauty of fire has the potential to revitalize you with elemental energy. Feel the fire within you.

Other Targets for Focus

There is, of course, any number of other targets ideal for Quiet Watching. Virtually anything that you can keep your concentration on is suitable: a mountain (ageless strength), a garden (living beauty), a pond or lake (vibrant stillness), a crystal (complex simplicity), a sword (exquisite power). Try to come up with something that has a special meaning for you, which will enhance your ability to concentrate on it. It is not the target that is important. It is your state of mind as you do the watching. Peaceful concentration on the qualities of the object, as well as a gentle firmness in keeping the mind focused, are required. Try to spend at least five minutes a day watching. As you grow accustomed to the exercise, you will notice your skills of observation increase and focusing your mind will become easier.

Once you reach a state of Quietism your mind has been freed of its habitual thought patterns. You can begin to open up to all the possibilities of existence and experience because a simple, quiet calmness pervades your being. And you will begin to understand what meditation means. At its most basic level, meditation involves simply sitting quietly and breathing deeply. Keep that in mind as you begin the process.

Body and Mind as One

Concentration is at the heart of all breathing and meditation exercises and is the pathway to putting your mind in tune with your body. Body and mind reflect each other. As one calms, the other relaxes, and vice versa.

There are three essential keys to concentration. These keys identify qualities of dynamic breathing that provide a framework for improving your breathing skills. They work in two ways:

* By bringing an awareness to the breath and making it important, we cause the body to relax and enhance the effectiveness of breathing;
* Focusing on the keys helps to calm the mind and brings your thoughts into harmony with your breath.

Key 1: Deep and Long

Deep and long breathing draws the air fully and completely into and within the body - not in the sense of inhaling to the maximum and tensing up the muscles, but in the sense of actually feeling the breath reach all of the deepest recesses within. Keeping the chest and surrounding muscles relaxed allows the breath to fill the lungs to their ideal capacity. Lengthening your inhaling and exhaling allows your body time to adapt to the deep expansion within. The longer and deeper the breath, the more in tune you become with the natural world around you.

Key 2: Silent and Slow

Silent and slow allows even more relaxation. The silent breath is felt with the whole body instead of being heard. We become aware of the sensation of breathing. We begin to feel the lungs expanding and contracting and the breath flowing through us. Slowing the breath relaxes the entire breathing process and extends the length of the breath to a point where it reaches a calm and natural state.

Key 3: Soft, Even and Continuous

Soft, even and continuous breathing brings completeness to the breath. Soft breath loosens the mind's control over the breath, allowing it to reach a more spiritual level. Keeping the breath even brings the mind into a meditative state where thoughts flow with the breath. Continuous breath is like a circle. Inhalation creates exhalation, which in turn creates inhalation.


As we move towards awareness of our spiritual selves, the coordination of body and mind is essential. It may seem impossible at first. The body is tangible. It has shape. The mind has no shape. How can we bring these two opposites together? The answer is that they are already together. It is our natural state to have body and mind functioning in harmony. But the rigours of daily living fracture our attention and disrupt our awareness. Our mind is scattered and our breathing is shallow. Our spiritual nature is blocked and remains unable to develop because body and mind are not coordinated. It is our belief that that coordination or harmony can be brought about through the principles of dynamic breathing combined with the essence of Quietism. In doing this we break down the barriers between body and mind and allow them to unite again and form our spirit. When the body and mind are coordinated the spirit expands, and as it does we realize that our potential is unlimited.


  1. Shyam said..

    Human body is indeed a mystery as so many functions are simultaneous keeping the body fit. We hardly realize even the simple process of inhaling and exhaling leave alone the intricate blood circulatory system. We have advanced in automobile and mechanical engineering and established co-ordination among various functions we perform during driving. Human body has an amazing co-ordination among brain, heart and lungs practically for every second of our living.

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About Aaron Hoopes

Aaron Hoopes is the author of Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit (Turtle Press, February 2002). He holds a degree in Asian History and Japanese Culture from Tulane University and has spent more than 20 years studying Eastern philosophy, the martial arts and alternative medicine in the United States, Australia and Japan. He is a certified instructor of Traditional Japanese Shotokan Karate and holds a 3rd degree black belt. He is also certified as an instructor of Shanti Yoga and Meditation. He has taught classes in breathing and martial arts at Tulane University, Dartmouth College and the University of Vermont, as well as at the Sakai Shibu in Osaka, Japan, and the Shanti Yoga Meditation Institute of Australia. At present he conducts personal training in breathing and Quietism. He can be contacted on


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