Tai Chi – Breathing
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During our tai chi practice our breathing plays an important role and has a huge influence on many aspects of our forms and health. Breathing has an influence on expansion and contraction, concentration, energy movement and timing of our postures. Without proper breathing or timing our tai chi form becomes nothing more then a physical exercise, it is the proper execution of breathing that draws us into our internal form. If we are to gain maximum benefits from our tai chi practice we then need to learn proper breathing techniques and timing in order to bring everything together as a whole.
Breathing is something that we aren’t usually conscious of until we are out of breath, it happens automatically so we don’t give it much attention. But have you ever noticed how it changes dependant on how we are emotionally? Our emotions affect our breathing, often in a way that makes it shorter and shallower; stress for example leaves us breathing short breaths in our upper chest. This type of breathing lowers our oxygen levels and can make us gasp for air; it also creates a lot of tension in our upper body.
Using our upper chest to breathe is pretty common in our society; it has many aspects that I will cover that create health problems. This type of breathing can not only be attributed to negative emotions but also to cultural influences. All through my youth we were taught that to be beautiful or handsome was to pull our stomach in and press our chest out. This in particular has applied to woman throughout the ages who through cultural pressures on what was attractive made them seek various ways to have a slim looking waistline. This even led to practices such as corsets and self starvation to fit within this mould of what is attractive.
This type of thinking led to us holding our stomach in when we breathed, because to breathe how we were meant to would mean to push our stomachs out and this is considered unattractive. Our only alternative was to breathe in our upper chest, the problem with this being that it mimics our physical stress response.
Watch a young child and you will see how to breathe properly or observe someone when they are relaxed or asleep, free from life’s problems. To breathe properly means to use our diaphragm, as it drops it sucks the air in, as it contracts it pushes the air out. This type of breathing increases the amount of oxygen we receive in our bodies giving us more energy and helping us to remove toxins.
The lowering of the diaphragm also has added benefits, when we breathe in and the diaphragm drops it compresses and squeezes our internal organs, when we breathe out it raises and creates a reverse sucking. This can be imagined by thinking of squeezing and releasing a sponge, this has the effect of increasing the circulation and function of our internal organs therefore increasing our health. If we only breathe into our upper chest our internal organs don’t get massaged and this creates stagnation.
Diaphragm breathing also has the added effect of strengthening our abdominal muscles giving us a trimmer waist as every in and out breath is exercising this area. Chest breathing means that if we are not specifically targeting our abdominal muscles through other exercise we tend to get weak and flabby. There are many benefits to breathing properly and only ones based on vanity for not breathing in the right way.
Hindrances to Breathing
As mentioned earlier breathing happens automatically but it is one of the few aspects of our body that we can consciously control. If you don’t think about breathing it will just happen by itself but if you decide to take deep breathes you can. This is what allows our breathing to be influenced by our emotional state, but it is also what allows us to consciously change the way we breathe to influence our own health.
If you are not used to diaphragm breathing the first thing you may notice is that when you try to do it you can’t take a very big breath. In most of us the muscles in this area are quite weak, which is directly reflected in our lower back problems, also the muscles can become very tense through emotional stress. This tension stops the diaphragm from dropping properly stopping our lungs from breathing to their full capacity.
Don’t try to force your breathing, If you try to force the air in beyond this point you will become tired quickly and start to tighten up. You may even experience hyperventilation symptoms making you dizzy and puffed. If you experience this be patient, loosening these muscles is like doing any other stretching technique, it takes time and patience. Don’t over breathe trying to get better results, breathe gently whilst performing your tai chi and naturally over time your muscles will loosen, your diaphragm will drop and breathing capacity increase.
Once you have learnt and are comfortable with your tai chi practice it is time to add some breathing to it. The breathing can be divided into two stages, normal breathing and reverse breathing; these two breathing techniques can be identified in the following ways. Place the palms of your hands on your abdomen, and breathe in and out. During normal breathing when you breathe in your abdomen expands, breathing out it contracts. This is the type of breathing you will use when you first start your practice. It is gentler and will not raise your oxygen and energy levels too fast making it easier to control in the early stages. During reverse breathing when you breathe in your abdomen contracts, breathing out it expands, this type of breathing is not natural breathing but controlled breathing.
Keep practicing normal breathing until your abdominal muscles become more flexible and relax and your diaphragm starts to drop creating big long deep breathes. Do not use effort when you breathe, keep it gentle and natural for now. Once this becomes comfortable you can time your breathing with the movements in your form, which I will discuss further below. If this at any time feels awkward and you feel puffed or dizzy then don’t try to control your breathing in any way.
Once this becomes more comfortable you can try reverse breathing, to use reverse breathing when you breathe in you consciously contract your diaphragm, when breathing out your abdomen expands. This is opposite to normal diaphragm breathing; it creates higher oxygenation and energy levels. Place the palms of your hands on your abdomen, and breathe in and out, see what reverse feeling feels like. At first it might feel strange and unnatural but with practice it will happen automatically.
Reverse breathing also has an added advantage, when timed with the yin and yang portions of your tai chi movements it provides a strong feeling of expansion and contraction in your form.
During tai chi practice we don’t just breathe in and out but time our breathing with our movement. Any yin or contracting movement correlates with an in breath, any yang or expanding movement correlates with an out breath. The timing of this breathing is also important, the movement and the breath begin and end at the same time; this means the whole of the yin movement equals one complete in breath and the whole of the yang movement equals one complete out breath.
In the beginning you may feel that you cannot do this and that you need to take a number of breathes which each movement or you will get tired or puffed. This is because your breathing capacity has not yet been fully developed, in this case return to normal breathing and allow the breathing to find its own path.
Often the fault of difficulty in timing of breathing can be traced not only to lack of fitness but also to the issue of control. Remember breathing is one of those rare functions in the body that can be performed automatically or can be changed emotionally or controlled mentally. The problem with unskilled control is that the breathing will become tense and we will not be able to relax therefore slipping back into the stress response.
Everyone’s breathing changes its rhythm throughout the day whether we realise it or not. When we are asleep it becomes longer and deeper, after we wake up and the day progresses it becomes shorter and shallower depending on the challenges we come across during the day. We all mainly notice this when we are feeling the work load of the day and our breathing becomes more strained.
You know the saying when you are stressed take a couple of deep breathes? This works because our mind and body are interrelated, breathing deeply is a sign that you are relaxed; this then affects how you feel mentally and you get some mental relaxation from it. In the same way if you are mentally relaxed then your body and breathing will also relax; this understanding is a key to getting benefits from your tai chi.
The first place you may find difficulty in timing your breathing during tai chi practice is in a class setting. This is because everyone’s breathing rate is different, yet in a group we need to time our movements with everyone else otherwise we will all run into each other. During group practice it is advisable to allow the breathing to take care of itself, everyone’s breathing will be different so to try to adjust your timing will just make you tense and tired.
When performing with a group breathe normally and physically judge your timing based on the person on the corner of the group in the direction you are looking at. In this way the people on the four corners can time out the groups speed and everyone will have beautiful synergy.
During individual practice it is quite different, you can move at whatever speed is comfortable, you can find and follow your own breathing rhythm. The biggest hurdle here is the misunderstanding on how to breathe; it is common belief that your breathing should be timed with your movements. The problem with this thinking is that it gives a fixed timing to your tai chi movements, in other words they are controlled by your ego. Controlled by your belief that the form should be performed this speed or that, with this thinking it is easy to get into a competition with yourself or others as to who is the slowest, who’s slow form takes the longest to do.
If you are taking one breath per movement, the reality is that you can only go so slow before you either have to hold your breath or use more then one breath per movement. As soon as you do this your movements and breathing is separate, you are not following tai chi principles. Breathing, movement and mind need to be combined as one to get maximum benefit. This sort of control over the form does not allow your tai chi to follow the flow of nature, it is man made and in that it falls short. The reality is that our breath naturally changes throughout the day and we can take advantage of that.
Following the Breath
Our breathing has its own rhythm, when we are stressed it is short and shallow, relaxed, long and deep. Our tai chi practice is designed to make us relax, so naturally during our forms as we relax, our breathing will relax also. This means that the very act of trying to control the length of our breathing stops us from entering deep relaxed states because in itself it is causing inner tension.
To allow our tai chi to follow the flow of nature we need to take a different approach, one that allows our forms to adjust to the natural changing flow within them. To do this we shouldn’t change our breathing to suit our form but our form to match our breathing. This means that the timing of our postures follow the length of our breath, one yin posture follows a complete breath in, the next yang posture follows a complete breath out.
In this way as we naturally relax doing our tai chi, our breath will become deeper and longer, this will then affect our postures which will naturally slow down in time with our breathing. In this way our movements and breathing will always correlate to each other and at no time will the movements become so slow that our breathing and movements become separate.
With this as a basis we can start to observe how our tai chi itself is constantly changing, as you practice at different times of the day, dependant on your stress and emotional levels, your forms will directly reflect this. Sometimes they will be faster, other times slower, this doesn’t matter because your timing will be correct so you will get the benefits.
The changes in speed in your forms throughout the day then can be used as a way of observing yourself, your relationship to the world and your desire to control. It can be used as a way of observing and coming to understand the interplay between yin and yang. All we have to do is let go of control and let the breathing be. The only interaction we have with the breathing is our observation of it and whether it is normal breathing or reverse breathing. As we become sensitive to the two we can learn to switch between them depending on our energy levels and whether we need to pump up more energy or need to let our mind settle down.
Importance to Tai Chi
Correct breathing is one of the main supports for our tai chi practice, its function is to pump up and circulate energy, and without it our forms will stay an external exercise and never go internal. We need to learn to combine our breathing, physical movement and mind as one, they become “one timing.” All start and finish together. In this way we will get proper movement of chi, develop understanding and get the maximum health benefits.
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This article was written by Stephen Procter, instructor from Tai Chi Health for Life, Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong and Meditation Instructor from Meditation in the Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you