Exercise in the form of what we artificially categorize as physical and spiritual practice plays an important part in my life. I get up at 3:00 a.m. and by the time I leave for work at 7:15 a.m. have usually done over 150 pushups, balance exercises, abdominal exercises, pull-ups, some form of aerobic exercise, and misogi breathing. All these exercises are valuable, but I consider misogi breathing a realm apart. The “physical” or callisthenic aspect of exercise - all the pushups, pull-ups, etc. – serves maintenance and practical purposes. If you practice Aikido or any similar art, it pays to easily handle your body weight. If the average student can do 50 pushups and 5-10 pull-ups in good form, he or she is in good enough shape to practice and need not worry about getting stronger. (Note that this standard applies to women as well as men as women’s pushups involve a different motion and their pull-ups involve less distance.) Here a disclaimer: it is not necessary to attain this benchmark of minimum strength to practice Aikido. It helps, but there are plenty of excellent practicants unable to handle their weight. Aikido involves learning to harmonize with your body as it is and is not a body building program. For this reason I regard the muscular strength aspect of Aikido as the “toy store” aspect of training. The ability to comfortably handle your weight helps with practice and daily chores. It is what your muscles were designed for – after all, but is not essential. The real root of power lies in ki and, in my experience, Misogi breathing is the best developer of ki. Therefore, I’d like to describe some of my experiences with misogi breathing in case you find them of some value.
As to background: In Boston in the early 1970s, I twice experienced “breathing to the furthest shore.” It is not something I talk about to non-Aikidoists or ever write about because it would seem a fanciful hallucination to most, and I have no use for appearing to justify fanciful claims. That said, once you’ve experienced “breathing to the furthest shore” it as real as a slap in the face or the ground you walk on; you are left in no doubt that the “spiritual” strength of ki power is much greater than “physical” strength.
Despite my remarkable experiences in Boston, the physical strain and intense suffering I experienced getting “there” caused me to leave off misogi breathing until recently. For the last 6 years, I’ve done a minimum one ten minute session every day. I’ve enjoyed the results so much that I’m considerably expanding my effort, and it’s the nature of that expansion I write about.
My out-breath has reached 31seconds. I’m comfortable with that time frame, at least in the early morning when I have partaken of neither food nor liquid. (Any amount of food in my stomach decreases my capacity dramatically.) While I am satisfied with my exhalation, my inhalation remains poor. Remember that Tohei Sensei sets his maximum standards as follows: 40 seconds for the exhale; 25 seconds for the inhale. Using these guidelines, my inhalation should take about 17 seconds, but, as the elasticity of my lungs has decreased with age, I’m far away from reaching that goal. Accordingly, I’m content to modify my training until my intake reaches 17 seconds. This system of timed breathing, basically breathing to a metronome, has its value in that it affords an objective index of increase in lung capacity and aerobic efficiency, but it also has its limitations: accomplishing your time-constrained goals can become an end in and of itself and the sterility of future goals mitigates the purpose of misogi, which is vitality in the here-now.
Conscious of having fallen into that trap, I often supplement my daily metronomic labors with open ended misogi sessions, usually lasting15 minutes. I say “open ended” because I breathe without time limits. I softly exhale to the sound of SU for as long as possible; then I inhale as long as possible; after which I hold my breath for about 10 seconds (some counting here, I lied) before repeating the cycle. You do not have to intone the syllable SU. Koichi Tohei Sensei uses the AH sound. My experiences with Nakazono Sensei and his love of the Kototama Principle have caused me to prefer a power sound like SU to the more affective sound of AH, but here one quibbles over minutiae. You may use any sound or none. The important thing is that you sustain a steady and consistently powerful out-breath until your lungs empty. Freeing yourself from goals and losing yourself in your out-breath-syllable purifies your practice and greatly increases both its potency and the likelihood of your breathing to the furthest shore. Such practice supplemented with a daily 10 minute timed session gives you the best of all worlds.