Continue Reading: The "Heart-Pulse Method"
Passive Yoga and the Heartbeat
A good example of passive Taoist yoga is in the way one can use awareness of the heartbeat as a relaxation, meditation, and self-healing technique. The notion of working with the pulse as a mind-body training is an ancient Taoist technique. As Ishida explains, observing the pulse is a form of working with the body’s “protective and constructive energies:” [i]
One can imagine the pulse as the waves of the various fluids flowing around the body. It is in these waves, sent out originally from the heart, that the spirit takes up its residence. [ii]
Ishida adds: “Assuming that the pulse represents the basic wavelike nature of all the energies of the body, one may depict their relationship as follows:”
Aspects of Mind and Pulse as Represented in Classic Traditional Chinese Medical Texts Based on the depiction by Hidemi Ishida, “Body and Mind: The Chinese Perspective,” Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques
Arterial Pulse connected to the "Mind."
In traditional terms, the notion of the arterial pulse being connected to “mind” that moves around the body is expressed in ancient Taoist and Confucian texts (Diagram 3-33). Consider that the Huainanzi states that “the mind moves around throughout the body [because of the pulse],” [i] which, as Ishida explains, forms the basic understanding that led to the formation of Taoist practices that emphasized first control over the body and then management of the emotions, which in turn leads to tranquility and emptiness of mind. [ii]
Passive Neiguan Exercises
Passive neiguan exercises, when utilized as a relaxation technique, usually begin in the most relaxed position possible. However, once proficiency is
sufficient, many techniques can be adapted to walking, running, and even as a technique to improve athletic performance. The benefits of the exercise described below, known as “heart-pulse training,” are often noticed immediately, especially the relaxation and calming effects.
An example of how the heartbeat and pulse can be used to reduce stress is illustrated by in the experience of a client who, following service as a Marine Corps officer, started a small business in Malibu, California. We met weekly at her office for training in meditation, martial arts, and qigong. During some of our sessions, she would describe her business challenges. She would often seem angry and upset about the day's mishaps, and on one day in particular she was distressed to the point that she was unable to concentrate on the planned lesson. Detailing the stressful events of the day, she provided a verbal list of things that had gone wrong, from office landlord issues to product containers that had failed to be delivered as promised. Instead of the planned lesson, I asked her to lie on the floor, face up, placing her hands over her chest, and instructed her to observe the heartbeat.
A minute or two later, she began to relax. She continued to practice placing attention on the heartbeat, and, seeing the relaxation of her tense facial and jaw muscles, I knew that she had calmed down. After a few minutes more, I asked her to once again review the day’s events. This time, although the information she conveyed was the same, her description of the day's events was new and improved. As she repeated the list of the day’s calamities, her mood was lighter, and at times she seemed close to laughter.
Rather than feeling angry and frustrated, she now observed the day’s events from a new perspective, viewing them as a sequence of humorous events. Although the same day’s events remained part of her experience, the way she described them, and presumably her immune system’s stress response, was significantly different. The principle is explained in the Secret Teachings of the Red Monk, which states:
[i] In the traditional Taoist view, the mind is not located in a single place within the body, but moves around through various
body locations. Hidemi Ishida describes the principle of the moving mind in the following way
When the mind is fixated on one spot, it cannot pay attention to another. This means
that the fluids of the constantly flowing body tend to concentrate in one place
or another at any given time. Thus, “when energy fills everything, the mind is
also present everywhere.” This in turn means that every tiny and remote part of
the body is filled with awareness, and the movements and actions of the body
are coordinated to perfection.
Important: Never end pulse practice with attention focused at or near the head. Instead, always end by observing the pulse at the lower abdomen, hips, or feet.
Learning the Heart-Pulse Method
Step 1: Practice with the Heartbeat
Begin by lying completely flat, face up. Lying on a hard (but not cold) surface is better than a soft bed. If you can do it without much discomfort, lie with your head flat and without a pillow. Place your relaxed hands across your chest and release unnecessary tension.
Close your eyes, and become aware of your heartbeat. If you cannot feel it at first, be patient. Eventually, you will be able to feel your heartbeat fairly easily, anywhere and anytime that you choose. The effect of this simple exercise is more powerful than you will be aware of. It gives you conscious control to immediately influence and calm your nervous system.
Through your relaxed hands on your chest, become aware of the sensation of the heartbeat in your chest as detected through your hands. For most individuals, as they start to become aware of their heartbeat, they also notice an involuntary deepening of their breath. This is a good sign relating to entrainment, the attainment of synchrony between various body rhythms, which will be addressed in Section VII and again in later chapters.
Step 2: Distal Training
Next, attempt to detect the feeling of the pulse in another area of your body. The hips, abdomen, or anywhere in the pelvic area will provide a good pulse signal to work with. Identifying the secondary location is often challenging to begin with, but it is a very important part of the training. The technique requires you to notice and pay attention to an internal biofeedback signal (the pulse) anywhere in your body.
To help you find and intentionally engage the pulse, use your hands as a pulse-detection “instrument,” placing them on your lower abdomen. While doing this, keep your hands very relaxed –- think of them as sensitivity / detection instruments — and if you have trouble relaxing them while keeping them in place on your abdomen, try hooking your thumbs into a belt loop. The aim is to keep them as relaxed as possible while you learn to feel the pulse in the abdomen.
With your hands in position on the lower abdomen or pelvic area, search for the sensation of the pulse. As an example of how internally-directed focus can influence a specific area of the body, as well as the entire nervous system, during this step most individuals immediately notice relaxation in the area. Since this step leads to increased circulation, most individuals will feel improved warmth and blood circulation to their legs and feet. When you perceive increased flushing warmth in the lower body, relax and enjoy the sensation for a moment longer.
With practice, the act of intentionally attending to the pulse becomes easier. Search for the feeling of the pulse originating deep within the abdomen. Then, with your attention turned inward, search for the feeling of the beating pulse from the blood moving through the arterial vessels. Just as with Step 1, you might notice the occurrence of a sudden deep breath as tension releases; if this happens, just relax and observe. This is another good sign, as it means that you are gaining some conscious control over normally unconscious aspects of the nervous system.
Step 3: By Attention Only
Next, learn to trigger the same sensations that you are concentrating on, but without using your hands as a “signal detector.” In this step, the goal is to consciously pay attention to the pulse in your body, using your attention to trigger, and become aware of, the feelings of warmth and flushing at various locations, while using internally-directed focus alone. This is a significant accomplishment, since it is a sign that you are gaining more conscious control over normally unconscious processes.
Next, begin by lying flat, face up, with your hands open, relaxed, palms facing upwards. When you are ready, place attention on the heartbeat in your chest. As in Step 1, some individuals might have difficulty with this at first, especially if they are tense or stressed. If you are feeling anxious or nervous, notice, as you attend to the heartbeat, how this produces a relaxation response. As you relax, observe how your breathing will sometimes deepen automatically.
Step 4: Targeted Attention
This step involves learning to attend to, and observe, your pulse in different areas of the body. With practice, it will become increasingly easy to observe to the pulse wherever and whenever you wish. Here is a typical sequence of attending to the pulse / relaxation training:
- Place attention to the heartbeat at the center of the chest.
- Then, observe the pulse at the lower abdomen.
- Back of the neck –- above the top thoracic vertebrae.
- Back to the center of the chest.
- Then back to the abdomen.
- Then the pelvic area. When you complete this step successfully, you will be able to direct and influence the pulse in any area of the body you choose.
With practice, the yogic art of attending to the pulse can be undertaken while a person is sitting or standing. When perfected, the pulse as a signal can be attended to while one is moving, talking, or even as a background signal while one is participation in sports. Practice your “pulse training” while sitting or standing, working to develop the awareness of the pulse in your lower back, abdomen, or another area throughout your normal day.
† Section VII includes examples where the protocol is applied to mock combat practice.