Qigong Breathing and Pareto’s Principle

Before discussing breathing in Qigong, I’d like to provide a little background. Pareto’s principle is best known in business and economics even though it applies to a many disciplines. A basic way of expressing this principle is:

80% of the effects comes from 20% of the causes

Pareto, an Italian economist, formulated this principle after discovering that 80% of the peas produced in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods. He started noticing this ratio in many places.

Portrait of Vilfredo Pareto

Vilfredo Pareto: Not a Qigong practitioner

An example of how this principle applies in daily life can be seen using school as an example. It is very easy to a B grade in most classes. By expending 20% of their energy and focus, a most students are able to get 80% of the questions and assignments correct. But to get 100% of all questions and assignments right requires significantly greater energy.

In other words, the greater level of skill a person achieves the more difficult it is to increase their level of skill. The Pareto principle applies to breathing as well.

Take a regular, natural breath. Don’t force it or interfere with your breath, just notice what your body does naturally. Inhaling and exhaling happen easily because your body naturally exerts the right amount of energy in breathing. When breathing naturally, you only fill your lungs to about 80% of their capacity, and after exhaling you still retain some air in your lungs.

Now, take an extremely deep breath. Expand your lungs as far as they can go. Fill your abdomen, chest, and shoulders. Make sure every inch of all five lobes of your lungs are filled with air. Then finish the breath by expelling every bit of air in your body. Your body should double over in its effort to get all the air out. Notice how much energy it takes and how difficult it is it inhale 100% and to exhale 100%.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that you can fill about 80% of your lungs using 20% of the energy it takes to completely fill them, and you can exhale 80% of the air in your lungs using 20% of the energy it takes to completely empty them.

To further illustrate this point, try holding your breath on both the inhale and the exhale. When taking an 80% breath (a natural breath) it is simple to cut of the air flow and hold the breath for a short period of time. But when you take a 100% breath, holding your breath causes immediate strain on your chest as your body forcibly tries to return to a more comfortable state.

While there are some breathing exercises that use 100% breaths in order to increase lung capacity, most Qigong exercises require that you DO NOT take such deep breaths! The strain and tension that results from 100% breathing blocks your Qi and defeats the purpose of allowing your energy to flow freely.

Instead you should try to keep your breathing natural by inhaling to 80% of lung capacity and exhaling to the point where your lungs are still 20% full.

X-Ray of Lungs

Do not overfill. Do not empty.

Deep breaths in Qigong do not referring to 100% breathing where your lungs are completely filled and emptied. However, it you should still take in more air than most people normally do when they breath. Instead of forcing your lungs to expand beyond their natural ability, you should improve your posture so that a regular breath brings in more air without expending more energy.