Chi and Tai Chi Breathing

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The most asked question I get when I give lectures on Tai Chi, is "How do you breath doing the Tai Chi Sets?" And that reveals a major problem in how they learned Tai Chi, as none of the Tai Chi students I have met in the past ten years know how to breath. Most are told to "breath naturally." Which explains why they do not know how to breath.

I was fortunate to have been able to study under eight Tai Chi Masters, three of whom were students of Yang Jain Hao, and five of whom studied under Yang Cheng Fu. Each of these masters had a different way of breathing. Master Kang, who was a Buddhist Lama, and the other Buddhist style Tai Chi Masters, breathed through their noses, while Master Huang, who was Manchu, and the Taoist Tai Chi Masters, inhaled through their noses, and exhaled through their mouths. But other than those obvious differences, not one of the Masters circulated the air in the same way. Each had his reasoning for his system, and they all taught that breathing was a path to develop Chi.

One can never attain Chi, the internal energy that can be applied as an external force, without proper breathing. You can breath naturally, to stay alive, but that is all it will do for you. It will not help you in working the Tai Chi Sets, nor can natural breathing lead to Chi.

As I mentioned, there are many way to breath properly, and what I present below is one of those ways. I developed this method so Tai Chi students will be able to work the Sets slowly and evenly without exertion. I also had those few in mind who would desire to attain Chi.

However, there is no Chi in Tai Chi, and Yang Cheng Fu concealed the path to Chi so well that no one has developed Chi through the Sets, in over 150 years. My method, which I call the Tracy Method of Tai Chi Breathing, is therefore, not anywhere to be found in Yang Cheng Fu's system, and I have taken the liberty, here, of offering it, not as Yang Cheng Fu Style, but rather as the method of breathing which any student would have been permitted to use by Master Yang himself.

However, when it comes to Chi, when Yang Cheng Fu created his Sets as exercises, he also created a system by which a perspicacious student to whom he revealed his secrets, would be able to attain Chi.

The Yang Cheng Fu students under whom I was given instruction, did not possess Chi as Yang Cheng Fu did, and none of them transmitted any Chi knowledge to me. That was done by the Masters who had trained under Master Yang Jain Hao.

I have tried to maintain the Yang Cheng Fu Style as I had learned it, and have to the best of my ability, never changed any part of it.

Therefore, because there is no Path to Chi within the Yang Cheng Fu Sets, I will not present a Path to Chi on this site.

For those few who seek a Path to Chi, I have presented a Path to Chi on XeChi.com
I was only twelve when Master Huang (my Uncle Sammy Wong) told me how he had visited his Tai Chi Master, Yang Jain Hao, one cold winter morning, and noticed how the mist of his student's breaths streamed out of their mouths. Yet, while steam rose from the sweat of Master Yang, his breath could not be seen in the frozen air. From this, Master Huang told me, he learned how to breath. It took me three decades before I understood the significance of what Master Huang had told me. And it took me several years to develop what I believe is a similar breathing system.

My Tai Chi Breathing Method is movement, which is to say, the same principles that apply to Tai Chi movement apply to breathing, even though my Tai Chi Breathing Method is learned while seated, motionless in a chair.

TAI CHI IS CIRCULAR

Circular means all movements continue afer reaching its intended force. In contrast, a karate punch moves in a straight line, ends or locks, then returns in a straight line. When the Tai Chi punch (a sun fist) reaches it effective point, the hand (arm, shoulder, etc.) continue to move in a circular motion, to the right or left, up or down. (It is not important for this analysis of breath that the Tai Chi punch is not actually linear, as it appears to be, but only that the Tai Chi movement is "continuous without interruption".)

However, Tai Chi breathing also requires an important martial arts principle, before being continuous, and that is the principle that you exhale on exertion.

EXHALE ON EXERTION

The opening of Yang Style Tai Chi (and some other Tai Chi styles) begins with the movement of raising both arms to shoulder height and lowering them to your hips. This was not in the original Yang Style, but was introduced by Yang Cheng Fu in his Late Teaching Period. It is my belief that Yang Cheng Fu introduced the opening to distinguish beginning students from advanced students. I base this on the fact that virtually every Yang Style instructor who bothers to teach breathing, tells the student to inhale from the beginning position (with their hands slightly in front of their hips, fingers relaxed downward) as they raise their hands upward.

Think about that. You are relaxed, you then breath in as you raise your arms.

Now consider the principle of "exhale on exertion. Raising your hands requires exertion. An advanced student, or someone who studied with an advanced student would know that raising your hands requires "exertion" and, therefore, you exhale as you raise your hands; and, that should tell you something about any Tai Chi instructor who teaches when to inhale and exhale.

The same principle of "exhale on exertion" applies to how you breath, not just when you inhale and exhale. And likewise the Tai Chi Essential of movement, "continuous without interruption" applies equally to breathing.

CONTINUOUS WITHOUT INTERRUPTION

Traditional Tai Chi instruction taught the Three Sets first, then breathing, which is taught while doing the sets. I believe that is the major reason why few in Tai Chi know how to breath. Yoga, on the other hand, teaches breathing first, then applies it to poses (asanas); and virtually every advanced Yoga student is trained in breath control (paranayama).

In my Tai Chi Breathing Method, the principles of breathing are first practiced while the student is seated. And it is best if the student is a beginner, one who has never studied Tai Chi. There are no Tai Chi postures to perform while seated, and the Essential of continuous without interruption becomes a vital principle of Tai Chi breathing. But that presents a problem, because your diaphragm, which controls breathing, tightens, when you inhale and moves down, stops then relaxes and goes up when you exhale. "Stop and start" is not continuous, or without interruption.

That, however, is the normal way of breathing, and the normal way of breathing is changed in my Tai Chi Breathing Method. And that change relies on another Tai Chi essential; Intention.

USE INTENTION NOT FORCE

The Tai Chi Principle that all movement is formed by Intention is probably the least understood and most difficult principle to understand. That is because the principle of Intention is that your intention is to have no intention. But that requires a "Perception," which itself is a difficult principle to understand, let alone learn, as it follows the circular reasoning that "one can only perceive what one can perceive," and conversely "one can not perceive what one can not perceive . Or, as I wrote of perception in 1995 :

"The beginning of this perception is found in the Tai Chi principle of practice by heart, forget self and keep silent, where silence is the mind/intention/li state of wu chi - that point of nothingness that approaches the Void....

If these principles were easy to understand, every Tai Chi student would have learned them. As I wrote in Intuitive Judgment
"...use mind (li) not force" (Yong yi bu yong li) is an essential. Yet to the beginning student, this appears to contradict "don't think". But mind (li) is not the same as the thinking brain. It is more what we in the west call heart. When the moves are committed to memory, we say we know them by heart, which would tell us to practice by heart, not force and forget self. It is at this point that the student begins to move from Tai Chi Chuan to the next step which is to be silent."
There are two elements of Intention, and fortunately, the first element, which is instigated by mind, can easily be demonstrated, and every attendee at my seminars were able to experience it within minutes.

The second element, which requires that your intention is to have no intention, is difficult to understand let alone experience without touching on the Void. However, intention transfer, which about a fourth of the attendees at my seminars were able to experience, hinted at the beginning of that understanding.

All of these are essential to Tai Chi Breathing, as is the easiest Essential "Han xiong ba bei"

SINK THE CHEST LIFT THE BACK

This is the easiest "Essential" to practice and understand, as you will see when you begin, because there is no correct way of doing this. Each student is different, and will develop what is best as they develop. However, there are some wrong ways, which include lifting your shoulders and forcing your chest in, or forcing your back up. The principle requires that you be relaxed.

A good way to practice Sink the Chest, Lift the Back is to be seated with your bent legs at shoulder width, and your feet flat on he floor.

Lean forward and place your forearms comfortably on your thighs with your hands relaxed, one palm of one hand covering the relaxed writs of the other. It does not matter which hand covers the other.

Relax your back, shoulders and neck.

It will take some practice to be able to go from this relaxed seated position to be relaxed while standing, as your back changes your frame as it straightens and your neck and head reposition. But this exercise will help with the essential of "relax the waist."
TAI CHI BREATHING ESSENTIALS

Tai Chi Breathing is done with Intention and is circular, continuous, and without interruption.

There are three (3) phases in both inhalation and exhalation. However in practice - until Tai Chi Breathing becomes natural - the first inhalation has two phases.

©2006, 2007, 2015 Law Offices of Michael Tracy. No portion may be reproduced for any purpose without written permission.