These are some basic guidelines from my study and practice of chi gong. The body produces a fixed amount of oxygen and sugar, that can be used for mental concentration or physical exertion. Eventually the brain cells decrease in efficiency due to fatigue toxins and overuse: same for muscles.
The basic breathing method is Buddhist breathing, where upon inhaling, the belly gets big as the lungs expand from the bottom up. By controlling how long and how much air you inhale vs exhale, you can modify the rate at which your body replenishes oxygen to your cells. Considering that the brain cells use 10 or 12X more than other cells, thinking and creative use can often expend copious amounts of oxygen and nutrients. While you can control how much nutrients you can intake and digest, controlled breathing is a method not often taught or known in the West. By inhaling and exhaling quickly, you are able to energize the body with fresh oxygen, allowing it to do more work and apply more strength, for a brief burst.
Here are some natural examples of breathing that people may not have ever thought about. Laughter, longer exhalation joined with short inhalation, produces heightened emotions, tension, and energy. The opposite, deep inhalation with short exhalation, produces a decrease in energy and is the normal way people who are sad breath. Neither one is 100% good to do all the time. Eventually as you keep laughing you will find that you will run out of oxygen and the cells in your body will start emitting pain as a result. Often a consequence of people who can’t stop laughing. If you are sad for a long time, you can get into a major depression where your body starts malfunctioning.
These two types are generally what you can use to relieve your stress and recover your energy. The longer you exhale, the more energy you send to your muscles and the surface of your skin, causing an increase in physical and mental energy. The second type is the long inhalation: the more you inhale, the more oxygen is stored in your lungs, allowing you to concentrate energy but not release it. Inhalation relaxes the body and calms the mind, while at the same time supplying the body with a reserve of oxygen to use for many things. Since people should be relaxed when inhaling, this energy goes to their brain and removes the toxins, rather than goes to the muscles via breathing out.
First, learn how to breathe in, by making sure that your belly expands first, and then your chest. Then relax and let the air out, or if you are focusing on doing some physical activity (try this with opening a jar lid), harden the abdominal muscles and force the air out like whistle or funnel as you apply power to the muscles. For mental energy balancing, the process is relatively the same except in reverse: breath in more and exhale softly and quietly.
If you feel yourself too stressed, breath in long and breath out short. Stress is unused energy and a result of too much thinking. Re-balance yourself providing additional oxygen to the brain and supplying oxygen to the tense body. If you are coming home after a day of hard work, mental or physical, it can pay great dividends to breath in and breathe out, longer on the out than in. By taking in extra oxygen, you are giving your body more resources to achieve harmony, and can speed up your recovery. When you are given an opportunity to fix the problem causing your stress, then you can heighten your energy levels and exhale faster, to produce more energy for your body and your mind. More oxygen to the brain means clearer thinking and better focus. More oxygen to your muscles means greater endurance and strength.
Try it out and see for yourself. You may just realize that it’s a more affordable and more efficient method than taking external supplements like caffeine or energy drinks. Even better if you have both resources at your command.
P.S. If you feel uncomfortable during your practice, simply breath in and then release the air in your lungs as you breath out. This allows equal in and equal out, so you don’t have to worry about complexities. It’s not much different from telling people to inhale deeply as a way to calm down. But there are great depths to this, which are only unlocked with diligent practice and study. Relaxation is the best way for beginners to feel the full benefits. Tension will usually interrupt things. It’s not enough to do this for a few seconds or a few breathing cycles. Breath work or chi gong, is done for 30 minutes or even 60 minutes. A beginner, however, can usually see benefits almost immediately because they probably have never utilized such breathing methods and will see a remarkable difference. The large rewards, however, only come through diligent practice. Which is why chi gong is often associated with gong fu or martial arts.
EDIT: Some corrections have been made to clarify the distinction between breathing in vs breathing out. For more information on this, I recommend people buy Dr. Yang’s book or DVD set at YMAA. There’s no way I can cover the subject in detail on a blog. I can only provide you some tips that beginners can use.