If you are overwhelmed with the intricacies of tai chi then this topic is going to be refreshing for you. For the ultra-beginners, tai chi breathing is one area that you don’t need to focus too much on. Your job is to learn the movements of the form. Breathing will improve just from learning the form and practicing.
Once you complete the form and have been practicing for a while, questions always arise as to how you should breathe, when you should breathe, if you should breathe…
Why should tai chi breathing take a back seat?
The movements of tai chi are so scripted that corrections are continual. It is natural to think that there is corresponding breath work that exactly maps over each movement. However, too much focus on the breath takes us away from the main reason we are doing the form; which is to relax and return the body to a sense of equilibrium.
Secondly, tai chi breathing is hard to define because throughout the form different breathing patterns are acceptable. Typically we want long continuous breaths but short quick breaths are also employed during longer movements and for quick transitions.
Thirdly, trying to standardize instructions for movements and breathing completely ignores what state you are in when you begin the form. For example, on any given day I can arrive at class: hyper from too much coffee, exhausted from a long day at work, happy, under the weather, chilled, or sweating from the heat. How I begin and how I am breathing at the beginning of the form is very different from how I end it.
Fourthly, each of us has different lung capacities, coordination, and speed of movements. If you are trying to match a classmate or teacher, it will not be right for you.
In this essay I am talking about breathing that takes place during the tai chi forms. There are various exercises called “tai chi breathing” which isolates breath-work in standing postures or with minimal movements. This is fine. Qi gong breathing is also incredibly specific and many qi gong sets purposefully manipulate breath.
9 Guidelines to get the most benefit out of tai chi breathing.
Not having a breathing prescription per se does not mean that we breathe willy-nilly. Instead, we can adhere to a certain set of guidelines throughout the form.
1. Breathe out long enough so that you feel like you need to take a deep breath.
2. Your exhale should be slightly longer than your inhale.
3. Keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Say “la” and notice where the tongue goes. Place the tip of the tongue here when practicing tai chi.
4. Primarily inhale and exhale through your nose. Use mouth breathing only if you’re suffering from allergies, colds, or other types of nasal congestion.
5. Aim for a long, continuous breath without a pause between the inhale and exhale. Breathing should not stop.
6. Breathe into the belly. The changing pressure on your organs while your breathe gives them a massage.
7. When you’re inhaling (storing energy), think of taking in the life energy-oxygen- into your body. When you deliver energy or force, you exhale.
8. When your hands move apart breathe in, you are storing energy. When your hands come together you are delivering energy so breathe out.
9. When your hands move up, breathe in, you are storing energy. When your hands move down, breathe out, you are delivering energy again.
Reasons why NOT to over-concentrate on your tai chi breathing
Over-concentrating on breathing can have some undesirable consequences.
- Holding of the breath causes an anxiety response and can stress us out.
- Relaxation causes energy to sink to the dantien or to the feet. Too much pressure (like what is used purposefully in qi gong breathing) can push the chi in the wrong direction.
- Becoming sensitive enough to feel energy moving in your body is dependent on the free movement of breath. You have to learn how to feel and sense your breath before you can manipulate it.
- Worst case scenario, tooooo much pressure can lead to intestinal problems or hemorrhoids can flare up.
Our main goal in tai chi is to bring ourselves back to center, to balance, and tai chi breathing can get us there. We begin the form in a certain state such as tired, agitated, or anxious and change our state to something more pleasant simply by doing the form. Pretty powerful stuff.