Over the centuries, much has been said and written about the correct methods of breathing during tai chi practice. It can get very complicated. There are many specific breathing methods, both basic and advanced, for different places in the form, and for different periods in the student’s development. The different types of breathing sometimes have names like natural breathing, buddhist breathing, daoist breathing, pre-natal breathing, post-natal breathing, tortoise breathing, fire breathing, localised breathing, and-so-on. Sometimes a breathing method is not even about air or the lungs, but about the movement of subtle energy through the whole body.
All of this has led to some counter-productive angst amongst tai chi students who are serious about mastering the art.
Allow me to attempt the impossible, to clarify the breathing issue so that it all makes sense.
First: The most important thing is that you breathe.
Essentially, the instructions for breathing should be no more complicated than teh instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle.
Step one: Breathe in.
Step two: Breathe out.
Step three: Repeat as often necessary.
Never stop breathing. Inhaling and exhaling should join together, with no stopping between in and out.
Second: Don’t try to control the breath or make it follow the movement.
If the breath wants to follow the movement, let it. But don’t try to enforce it as a rule.
There is a tradition of teaching students to co-ordinate the breath with the movement. I do not wish to contradict this ancient knowledge. But I suspect something was misconstrued in the translation somewhere. Some clarifications and caveats are in order.
It is commonly stated that tai chi players should inhale during contracting or coiling movements, and that they should exhale during unwinding or expanding movements. There are many books that teach specific points when students should inhale, and points when they should exhale. But problems occur when students, especially those who have not yet become comfortable with the gross mechanics of the choreography, try to make the breath follow the movement.
Breathing is an involuntary function. Of course, like the breath, all of the so-called involuntary functions can be regulated to a degree, and even consciously interfered with. Some involuntary functions are easier to regulate than others. For instance, it is easier for most people to restrain their bowel movements that it is for them to slow their heart rate. Yet both can be affected by the conscious mind. The breathing is somewhere in the middle as far as controllability is concerned. But interfering with any involuntary function, while occasionally useful, can have negative side effects.
If students try to control their breath so that it follows the movement, they will invariably end up creating physical tension, emotional tension, and mental disorder.
Students should be taught to avoid trying to control the breath. Instead, they should let the breathing be natural, deep, smooth, and continuous. This is enough of a challenge. They should not try to time the breath, or even to be consistent with the length and pace of the breath.
Three: “Breath” does not always mean air.
The word for breath (“qi”), in the context of internal martial arts, also refer to the experience of subtle internal energies in the body. This can include everything from blood and lymph to bioelectric currents. The definition of qi is so complex and elusive that, for practical purposes, it is often identified with simple subjective experiences, rather than a clear objective reality. The physical breathing is often experienced as being one with the movement of subtle energy, and the two are difficult to distinguish
So, when we talk of coordinating the qi with the movement, we are not necessarily even referring to the breath.
Four: Nothing really follows anything.
When tai chi is practised correctly, the mind will co-ordinate with the body to form efficient, well aligned, and effortless movement. As students grow more comfortable with the gross mechanics of the choreography, they will start to notice what can be described as a smooth flow of subtle energy. The fascia, muscles, and bones will move together as a continuous system. Soon the students will reach a point where the movements naturally follow the pace of the breath.
So, it may seem that the movement follows the breath, not the converse. The confusion may arise due to the fact that when one reaches this level of skill the breath, movement, mind, and qi are so much in harmony that the tai chi player does not make a distinction between one or another. The body, mind, spirit and breath are one.
There are four basic stages in the co-ordination of the mind, body, and breath (qi).
In the beginning, the mind moves the body, and the qi is ignored.
Later, the mind moves the body, and the qi follows along.
Then the mind seems to move the qi, and the body follows.
Finally, the qi moves the body, and the mind follows along.
The different stages of leading and following are all merely a matter of perception. Each level is an expression of the level of relaxation and awareness.