Although in introductory Taijiquan classes the instructor would often tell the students to just breathe normally, proper breathing techniques are very important as one goes beyond the introductory class. Since beginning students already are very much pre-occupied with trying to learn the various Taiji forms and also trying to relax their bodies and minds, requiring them also to learn when to breathe in and breathe out would be counter-productive. There is just too much to learn, and adding the requirement of breathing would just cause them to tense up and forget the forms they are trying to learn.
Before I continue, I want to emphasize that there is not necessarily just one way of teaching breathing in Taijiquan. As a matter of fact, different instructors may teach it differently. In the rest of this article, I just want to discuss my interpretation to the approach of integrating breathing techniques in learning and practicing Taijiquan. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on this subject, and I welcome the readers’ comments, criticisms, and suggestions on this article.
Normally when we breathe, we just breathe in and out naturally without any thought about when we should breathe in and when we should breathe out. This is because in our normal daily routine, we usually don’t have to exert ourselves. However, in the few instances that we have to exert ourselves, we would often take in a deep breath first, and then exhale when we are exerting ourselves. Taking in a deep breath brings in more oxygen into the cells in our bodies, and therefore provides more nutrients to our cells to exert ourselves both physically and mentally.
When I teach an introductory Taiji course, e.g., on the Simplified Yang Style 24 Form, during the first half of the course I would just tell the students to breathe normally. About half-way through the course, usually after they have learned roughly the first 12 forms, I start to integrate some basic breathing techniques. I would tell them that in general when they are executing a form that is like hitting someone or blocking someone’s attack, they should be breathing out, and when they are setting up to strike or block they should be breathing in. So when we practice the 24 Form Set (or just doing some of the warm up exercises), I would call out breathe in and breathe out as they move through each form. I would also emphasize to the students that they should do the forms slowly in a relaxed manner, so that they can take deep breaths, which would bring more oxygen into the body.
For the introductory course, this is as far as I go with integrating breathing with their form practice, although I may explain to them the difference between our normal practice of using our upper body’s chest muscles to breathe and using our lower abdomen to breathe. However, the actual practice of using the lower abdomen to breathe is left to a subsequent more advanced course.
As adults, normally when we breathe, we take quick, short, and shallow breaths using the chest muscles to expand and contract our lungs; this is called Natural Breathing. The breathing techniques that are used in Taiji and other Chinese martial arts, as well as yoga, use the lower abdomen and diaphragm muscles to help expand and contract our lungs; this is called Lower Abdominal Breathing. One of the advantages of Lower Abdominal Breathing is that it can expand our lung capacity and bring even more oxygen to our body. Another advantage, according to Chinese qigong theory and also as explained in yoga’s Kapalabhati breathing, is that Lower Abdominal Breathing also massages the internal organs as the lower abdominal and diaphragm muscles constantly move back and forth. It is interesting to note that young babies use Lower Abdominal Breathing. As we get older, our breathing gradually moves up from the lower abdomen to the stomach, and then to the chest. I think that may be one of the reasons why as we get older, we don’t learn as fast and our memory fades. That is why when we change from Natural Breathing technique to Lower Abdominal Breathing technique, we call it “Fan Tong” in Chinese, which means “returning to small child.”
Finally I want to mention that there are at least two different methods of Lower Abdominal Breathing. One is called Normal Abdominal Breathing, in which the lower abdomen expands on inhaling and contracts on exhaling. This is the method that is taught in most yoga classes. The other is called Reverse Abdominal Breathing, in which the lower abdomen contracts on inhaling and expands on exhaling, i.e., just the opposite of Normal Abdominal Breathing. In Chinese qigong and martial arts beyond the beginning level, very often it is the Reverse Abdominal Breathing technique that is stressed. The reason for this is that in martial arts when you strike someone (with any part of your body), you usually exhale and in order to maximize the force of your strike, you want your whole body to be moving in the direction of your strike which is usually outward. That is why when you strike and exhale, you also want your abdomen to be expanding out. The following illustration may help to explain the above. When you blow up a balloon (analogous to striking someone), if you put your hand on your abdomen, you will find when you blow out (i.e., exhale), your abdomen expands, rather than contracts.
In summary, we can classify breathing in Taijiquan into four steps:
- Natural Breathing (i.e., using chest muscles to expand and contract our lungs): Without paying any attention to when to breathe in and when to breathe out
- Advanced Natural Breathing: Similar to Natural Breathing, but paying attention to when to breathe in and when to breathe out
- Normal Abdominal Breathing (i.e., using lower abdominal muscles to help expand and contract our lungs), with abdomen expanding on inhaling and contracting on exhaling
- Reverse Abdominal Breathing (i.e., using lower abdominal muscles to help expand and contract our lungs), but with abdomen contracting on inhaling and expanding on exhaling
As previously mentioned, there is not necessarily only one correct way of integrating breathing with Taijiquan, and different people may do it or teach it differently. I would welcome others’ comments, criticisms, and insights on this important subject.