Wu-Wei Breathing 

Overview of Wu-Wei

I first learned the concept of wu-wei in the excellent book “The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee.” As I was thinking of ways to describe our final goal of light, slow, effortless breathing, I was reminded of Bruce Lee’s description of wu-wei. Here’s how Lee puts it:

Wu means ‘not’ or ‘non,’ and wei means ‘action',’ ‘doing,’ ‘striving,’ ‘straining,’ or ‘busying.’ However, it doesn’t really mean doing nothing, but to let one’s mind alone, trusting it to work by itself. The most important thing is not to strain in any way.

So wu-wei literally means “non-action” or “effortless action.” But, it’s not about doing nothing. It’s about getting out of your own way and letting your art (in our case breathing) happen naturally. In his book “Trying not to try”, Edward Slingerland expands on the essence of wu-wei (my bold for emphasis):

Wu-wei literally translates as ‘no trying’ or ‘no doing,’ but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. […] Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures.

I love that: “…the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.” And the last sentence in bold really gets the point across. When we’re breathing correctly, the way our bodies were designed, it is both relaxing and enjoyable. And, although you were not straining or even trying, you feel accomplished afterwards. That is wu-wei breathing.

The Practice

My advice for practicing wu-wei breathing is simple: Sit or lie down and breathe at a rate of 3-6 breaths/min, while also taking smaller breaths so that you introduce a slight feeling of air hunger. This will combine the therapeutic effects of slow breathing with the benefits of increased CO2.

However, from the above description of wu-wei, this advice seems wrong. For most of us, breathing at a rate of 3-6 breaths/min while also maintaining air hunger will take some effort and striving. And that’s the point.

Effort leads to effortless

Business Insider did a great piece on how Kobe Bryant practices. Here are a few my favorite examples of Kobe’s work ethic:

  • Showed up at 5 a.m. and left practice at 7 p.m. ... in high school

  • He'd make high school teammates play one-on-one games to 100

  • He used to practice by himself without a ball, says Shaq

  • He watches film of himself at halftime

  • He trains for four hours a day during the season, and more than that in the offseason

You get the idea. The man is a beast. So what’s the point of all that practice? It was so that when game time came, he did not have to think. He just played. And it clearly paid off. All his effort made his playing effortless. We could argue that once game time arrived, he was in wu-wei.

As diabetics, we are in a constant game with our blood sugars, our emotions, our health. Our “game time” is all the time. So we deliberately practice slow, light breathing every day. Then, when we’re not practicing, it comes naturally. We breathe slower. We breathe less. Without thinking about it. Over time, that practice adds up. We notice that our blood sugars don’t fluctuate as much. We notice that we don’t have as much anxiety. We notice improvements in our overall health.

Therefore, what I describe as the “wu-wei breathing practice” is by definition not wu-wei breathing. However, the practice will lead to more experiences of effortless, unselfconscious, wu-wei breathing. And, luckily, the practice itself will be relaxing, enjoyable, and deeply rewarding.