The Power of Emptiness
Updated: Oct 3
It’s common to see someone in the gym take quick, short, powerful breaths before making a big lift. While we think these types of breaths might be great for “pumping” us up, in fact, this type of hyperventilation may actually be weakening us.
The power of the breath has been known for thousands of years. In fact, the Sanskrit word for breath, prana, actually means, “life force.” The Taoists speak of qi (prounounced, CHEE), which is synonymous with breath and again, means “life force.”
The type of breathing practiced in these Eastern traditions, however, is not that of the hyperventilating weightlifter in your local gym. Prana and Qi are cultivated with slow, intentional breaths, through the noise with your mouth closed and your tongue on the roof of the mouth, beginning in the diaphragm and billowing up like a wave. There is a slow exhale with a breath hold at the end.
While it’s easy to focus on the inhale, imagining that the true power comes with the entry of oxygen into your body — the true power is in the exhale, with the breath hold at the end. This is because with that “air hunger” comes a little bit of hypercapnia.
Hypercapnia is a state in which you have too much Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in your body. This can happen when you take too many breaths, or take short breaths. You’re not fully expelling the CO2.
Your body needs a healthy balance of oxygen and CO2. Here’s why:
When you inhale, you bring oxygen into your body.
The oxygen goes down to the alveoli in your lungs.
From there, the oxygen is carried into your blood stream via hemoglobin in your red blood cells.
The hemoglobin acts like a city bus, giving the oxygen a ride to your organs and tissues.
Once at your tissues, the hemoglobin releases the oxygen and replaces it with CO2.
The hemoglobin gives the CO2 a ride back to your lungs…
And you exhale the CO2.
If your oxygen and Co2 levels are imbalanced, the hemoglobin bus won’t adequately release the oxygen into your tissues. This is because your blood will become more acidic (lower pH), and as a result the hemoglobin holds on to the oxygen instead of letting it off at the right stops.
Hence, simply bringing oxygen into the body via your inhale isn’t enough. The power is in the exhale — when you expel the CO2 and keep everything in balance so the oxygen can actually get to your tissues.
So those short, powerful inhales to help you lift more weight — may actually prevent you from doing so.
True power comes through the emptying of your lungs.
Continuing down the biology track a bit further, another bodily process that empowers through emptying is that of autophagy. The word autophagy has Greek roots that actually mean, “self-eating.” Think of as a Pac-Man naturally eating up and clearing out old or excess cells in your body. This is a healthy process of emptying, and has been credited with preventing diseases that result from cellular disease.
But our “emptying” theme doesn’t end there.
One way to stimulate autophagy is by fasting. Fasting is a stressor that signals to your cells to get rid of the old, inefficient cells to create newer, healthier ones.
You can actually strengthen yourself by emptying out your body (fasting) which empties you of old, unhealthy cells (autophagy). Oh, and by focusing more on slower exhales, you strengthen yourself by emptying excess CO2 to help more oxygen get to your muscles.
Is this power of emptiness limited to the physical plane?
About 2500 years ago, the Taoist sage Lao-Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:
Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,
By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use;
The use of clay in moulding pitchers
Comes from the hollow of its absence;
Doors, windows, in a house,
Are used for their emptiness:
Thus we are helped by what is not
To use what is.
In other words, a door, a window, a house, a pitcher — wouldn’t actually be useful without the emptiness inside.
Emptiness is also a foundational principle in Buddhism, with a doctrine spelled out in The Heart Sutra. There are a variety of ways emptiness can be applied to one’s life in this context, but one way is to empty your mind of the preconceptions and illusions of your programmed identity. We’ve all picked up such programming over the course of our lives and it can confuse us of what’s real versus what’s true to who we are as humans.
That programming can also create noise within our minds and prevent us from being truly present and, instead, residing in the trauma of the past, or anxiety about the future.
Emptiness is not a new concept, and it’s not related to simply the physical plane.
How can we use this principle in designing our freedom businesses?
More on that in an upcoming post...