by Greg Brodsky
An earlier version of this article first appeared in T’ai Chi Magazine in August 2004.
Everything about t’ai chi ch’uan is paradoxical. This enigmatic art teaches that relaxation cultivates power, slow practice enables speed, and a few ounces can deflect great force. We yield to attacks instead of resisting and push our opponents without pushing. We try hard to sense and differentiate energies that can only be sensed when we stop trying. If we are to meet the endless challenges that t’ai chi presents to our minds and bodies, we who choose this path must become comfortable dealing with paradox.
Breathing presents us with an especially rich paradox. All t’ai chi practitioners use breathing techniques to cultivate energy, power, skill, health, well being, and even personal transformation. We all believe our breathing methods to be effective. Many of these methods are based on principles that have been passed down through generations and represent hundreds of thousands of hours spent in trial and error. They all deserve respect, and the greatest respect for any principle is to use, test, and refine it over time.
In this article, I invite you to explore breathing from a mechanical perspective. Rather than focusing on traditional ch’i or jin (internal power) development, I address a model that generates power in the body through compression. My intent is to present the breathing paradox in a way that respectfully challenges conventional wisdom regarding breathing in t’ai chi forms, with proofs that can be tested on the training floor and in every aspect of daily life. My hope is that experimentation with these proofs will open new, useful pathways to t’ai chi practitioners, for cultivating both health and martial arts effectiveness. While gaining considerable benefit from this model myself, specifically following a car accident that severely injured my spine, I make no claims about having developed superior abilities. My only claim is that if you objectively experiment with the concepts presented here, you will discover ways in which breathing can transform your practice.
Assertions that Shape the Paradox
- During slow movement such as form practice, the practitioner can root, relax, and cultivate power more easily by reversing the typical breathing model. According to that model, one inhales in order to “load up” and exhales as you “apply” each movement in the form. When playing form, I propose releasing air in between moves, and inhaling gently as each move arises.
- At speed, the release of air that occurs when pushing or striking is not a true exhalation; it is a by-product of compression. If you relax and don’t hold your breath, there is no need to think about exhaling.
- When moving slowly, the prevailing breathing model might actually inhibit the level of relaxation you can achieve by causing you to breathe against your natural body mechanics. We will explore those mechanics below.
- While breathing plays a significant role in generating power, the more significant role belongs to your ability to accelerate along a single line from root to target. Alignment with gravity, relaxation, compression, and congruent movement provide the foundations of this acceleration. Whether a movement is large, as in a kick, or indiscernible, as in an internally generated repulsion, acceleration is the key.
A Few Definitions
Acceleration refers to the rate of change in speed with respect to time. Where moving the body is concerned, this means going from near zero (virtually no tension or movement) to 100% (absolute hardness along a single) in the shortest possible time.
Congruent movement means everything in your body is moving together to produce a single force vector (the sum of physical forces moving through the body) combined with a minimum of contradictory or unnecessary body tension. This is a cornerstone of all martial arts. We practice the same moves thousands of times to hard-wire pure movement into the body/mind: focused, aligned to one purpose, without mental or physical “static” that contradicts our actions.
Compression, which we shall explore here in detail, is absolute hardness along that same force vector, the “needle wrapped in cotton” that occurs while everything inessential stays relaxed. Although muscles must contract to move our bones into place, the compression we seek is passive, as if it were a response to incoming pressure rather than an active or aggressive action. Whether we are aware of it or not, we compress the body whenever we issue power.
The breathing paradox begins with the realization that we don’t have to inhale when “loading up” and exhale when discharging energy. As long as we don’t hold the breath we can compress from root through dantian to target while we are anywhere in the breathing cycle.
In this article, I hope to prove these assertions. I also advocate testing them in a variety of environments. Let’s begin, paradoxically, by delving into one of the most common errors for beginners: the tendency to hold the breath when trying to be strong. Our starting point is seemingly the farthest point on Earth from t’ai chi practice: the typical weight room in a gym.
What Makes Johnny Hold His Breath?
If you walk into any gym in the world, you’ll see the same sweaty scene: Here’s young Johnny, struggling to lift a heavy barbell, red-faced, veins popping, holding his breath. Along comes an experienced trainer who instructs him to exhale on the exertion. This way, he won’t break blood vessels or otherwise hurt himself by excessive straining. So goes conventional bodybuilding wisdom.
It’s good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough. Taken at face value, it implies that the young lifter can hold his breath at the “bottom” of his exercise. If, for example, he’s on his back doing a bench-press, he will inhale as he lowers the bar to his chest, then hold his breath while he works to get it moving upward, and exhale explosively as he pushes the bar toward the top of his movement. This is better than holding his breath the entire time, but still dangerous in the aneurysm department and an inefficient use of Johnny’s potential power.
If he wants to develop maximum power and optimal health, he should never hold his breath during weight training. Instead, if he coordinates his breathing and movement in a fluid, non-stop pattern, he can quickly raise his level of performance. This is because integrated movement leads to optimal power; when he holds his breath, he locks up much of his body, restricting his fluidity. Also, when he holds his breath, he limits critical biological processes like oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, making his workout less aerobic, and even dangerous.
But there is an important reason why Johnny holds his breath in the first place. The most direct way to understand this mechanism, one that you and I share with Johnny, is to try a simple experiment. Before you read into the next paragraph, just stand up and sit back down. Do it twice and pay attention to everything you do. Don’t just read on; please try it. You might be surprised by what you discover.
Compression: The Pneumatic Backstop
Did you, at any time during this action of standing and sitting, hold your breath? If so, why? I’ve asked dozens of people to try this experiment and found that 90% of them hold their breath somewhere in the process. What do they gain from it? Where does this habit come from? Similarly, why do people hold their breath when opening a tightly capped jar of peanut butter? Or lifting a heavy object? Or bending over?
Consider the idea that people hold their breath at moments like these to create a brace: a pneumatic backstop for the torso. By holding our breath and simultaneously tensing our muscles we change a loose torso into a single, solid unit against which we can apply leverage. Whether opening the jar, lifting the heavy object, or standing up, this backstop for the torso provides a foundation from which we can push.
The pneumatic backstop works on compression. Compressed air in our lungs presses against the abdomen, internal organs, and spine. When getting up, the tensed-torso unit acts like an automobile air bag, helping it to hold its natural position against the powerful forward pull acting on our lower or lumbar spine. We contract and compress while holding the breath, then exhale once we no longer need the support. And voila! We are standing. It’s not elegant, but good enough for average humans who are still learning to stand erect. By studying this primitive instinct to inhale and hold for leveraged force against the spine we can learn how pneumatic/muscular compression works in our bodies.
Lifting a 22-pound weight with knees flexed and torso upright produces about 300 lbs. of force on S1. Lifting with straight knees and trunk flexed forward takes it into the 700-pound range. The force required to smash this disk is somewhere between 1,000-1,800 lbs., but it is believed that the disc can take loads up to 2,600 pounds.
The disk can do this for two reasons. First, the force is distributed through the disk itself. Then, the trunk as a whole acts to relieve the pressure on the disk. This most common relieving action is called Valsalva’s Maneuver: holding the breath and blocking the orifices of the body. This raises thoracic cavity pressure, causing the torso to act as a rigid beam, reducing stress on the 5th lumbar disk by about 30% and stress on the 12th thoracic disk by up to 50%.
But Valsalva’s Maneuver is a primitive instinct with a huge downside: It creates cerebral venous hypertension, decreases venous return and pulmonary blood flow, raises pulmonary vascular resistance, and increases cerebral-spinal fluid pressure. Held over several heartbeats, its counter-pressure also inhibits the heart’s ability to expand and refill with blood. (Imagine packing your heart in bubble-wrap, then expecting it to expand easily in between beats.)
Where ongoing stress is concerned, habitual breath holding also conditions the body to sustain a baseline of unnecessary, chronic tension. Where t’ai chi is concerned, habitual and unconscious breath holding can severely limit your development by keeping you from experiencing meaningful relaxation. For these reasons, it is very valuable to replace Valsalva’s maneuver at virtually all times with a conscious and appropriately timed breath cycle.
Principle: Never hold your breath to brace your torso. You can develop even more support by exhaling naturally whenever flexing at the hip joint (bending over) and inhale abdominally whenever extending the hip joint (straightening up). This practice can enable you to support your spine with a dynamic “air bag,” rather than the static, and stress-building practice of holding the breath. This provides a way to attain spinal support, flexibility, and increased power in all movement.
Try a Different Pattern
Let’s take our experiment further. I’ll ask you to stand up again, but this time:
- Tilt forward, as if you were going to fall onto your face on the floor. This will cause you to flex the kua (hip joint). Gently exhale without blowing out forcefully; just release the air and “fall” forward to shift your weight from seat to feet.
- Don’t try to stand right away. Continue “falling” forward until your weight sinks into your feet and you are bent forward, spine long, looking at the floor.
- After completing this transfer from seat to feet, inhale and push your feet into the floor and extend (straighten) your kua to stand erect.
- Let yourself exhale again after you are standing.
- Reverse the process to sit down. Exhale to flex and inhale after you are seated.
Virtually everyone with whom I have tested this has found it to be a more natural breath pattern. By exhaling as you flex (bend) and inhaling as you extend (straighten) the kua, you support your spine and replace Valsalva’s unnecessary, static tension with a more dynamic and timed compression. This is compression breathing.
Consider compression breathing from the standpoint of a small child. A toddler, when losing balance, falls by sitting; air is naturally released from the child’s body, because the mechanics of sitting include flexing the kua and a bump on the bottom. Similarly, if you suddenly passed out from a standing position, as you slumped to the ground, what would happen to the air in your lungs? You would release air. If you regained consciousness half way down, you would inhale to help yourself stand again. If you carefully study your movements during the day, you will find that as long as you are relaxed, your body naturally wants to inhale every time you initiate an expansive (extending) action and to exhale every time you fold your frame. By recognizing and refining this natural instinct, and by carefully eliminating breath holding from your behavioral pattern, you are practicing compression breathing. This is useful day to day, especially if you have chronic back pain or high blood pressure. And by applying compression breathing to your t’ai chi practice, you can revolutionize your experience.
I have tested compression breathing in my own body, with bodybuilders pushing considerable weight, with my t’ai chi students and colleagues, and with people who are well past their physical prime (ages 80-100). The results are consistent: exhaling upon flexing the kua and inhaling upon extending the kua adds more fluid power with less chronic tension than breath holding. Incidentally, if you pay attention to your breathing during the day, you might be surprised to find how many times you hold your breath. Eliminating this habit can be worth several blood pressure points as well as some interesting training discoveries.
With that introduction into compression breathing, let’s look at compression itself.
To summarize my first points:
• Breath-holding, as an adjunct to movement, is a primitive habit that is meant to support the spine. It works, but is dangerous and self limiting.
• This habit can be replaced by a well-timed breathing cycle: exhaling when flexing the kua (bending) and inhaling when extending the kua (straightening).
• These are more natural actions than the ones to which we might be habituated.
• Changing these habits can enable the healthy use of compression and decompression in t’ai chi, which we will now address.
Unhealthy and Healthy Compression
Compression is critical for any physical movement, and especially meaningful in t’ai chi practice. In t’ai chi, we need to resolve anything that unnecessarily slows us when we need speed, tightens us when we need to relax, drains us, limits our range of movement, dulls our ability to sense and respond, or keeps us from cultivating inner well-being. Misuse of compression has all these negative effects.
Right now, for example, with a quick scan you can find some muscles that you are tensing that you don’t need to tense in order to maintain your position. These are results of chronic holding patterns that you, along with the rest of us, unconsciously maintain. Such patterns could be anywhere in your body. As you take a breath and let a few muscle fibers relax, you decrease the unhealthy, habitual compression that you unknowingly impose on yourself. It’s a low-cost solution to a high-cost and stress-promoting pattern, and probably part of why you started t’ai chi practice in the first place. You might also notice that you actually relax when you exhale, not when you inhale. This signals a clue about how to bring your relaxation baseline down a little more. We all tend to breathe within a range that maintains a familiar baseline of tension in our bodies, and without realizing it, habitually restrict part of our breathing. A gentle sigh shows you how easy it is to interrupt this pattern and release that unconscious yet confining habit. As we let go of our breathing and relax, we feel less pressure within. This is decompression.
Tension and Gravity
T’ai chi principles teach you to consciously relax and loosen our joints (sung). Sung occurs as you become increasingly sensitive and responsive to gravity, a powerful but often ignored force that never stops acting on us. Aging and gravity produce an earthbound sort of compression that bends our spines, shrinks our vertebral disks, and accentuates the effects of our chronic holding patterns in ways that distort our bones and cause us stiffness and pain. Conscious sung, on the other hand, enables us to root our feet to the earth as we raise the tops of our heads skyward and gently liberate our spines. We learn to align with gravity and use it to enable more graceful and economical movement. As our muscular strength declines with age, our actions become more efficient and effective. This occurs because we improve our relationship with gravity. As t’ai chi practitioners, we slowly replace chronic tension throughout the body with the conscious and purposeful use of tension (compression, activation, energizing) and relaxation (decompression, release, loosening). As we replace raw strength with thought-driven movement, we also distinguish static compression (being generally tense) from dynamic compression (conscious contraction of appropriate muscles), which accompanies subtle pressure changes in the dantian.
Pressure and Release
The world’s leading proponent of compression in t’ai chi ch’uan is Grandmaster William C. C. Chen. He describes compression this way:
“All the movements of Tai Chi Chuan are activated by pressure changes in the lower abdomen. As the pressure increases, the arms flow outward or upward. When it decreases, the arms move inward or downward. The arms never move by themselves.”
This is consistent with the T’ai Chi Classics, but the classics don’t address compression. To understand compression, let’s compare throwing a punch to opening our previously mentioned jar of peanut butter. With the jar, you need appropriate compression in your torso as you apply torque to the lid with your hands. When you punch, you need optimal compression in the dantian as your fist reaches its target. While the punch is still accelerating toward the target, your foot, knee, pelvis, torso, arm, and hand must align so that your energy moves in a congruent direction. This line from foot to hand—the force vector—must embody absolute hardness as the fist arrives or the punch will have little power.
At the moment of contact and in response to the contact, your compression will be at its relative maximum. Just as it would make no sense to tense your fist when preparing to punch, then going limp as you arrive at the target, it would make no sense to decompress at the moment you need your backstop the most: at the instant of contact. Decompression occurs afterward as you complete the follow through and prepare for your next action.
With this moment of contact in mind, decompression characterizes your resting state. In motion, you relax and tense as needed and where needed. In your daily life, you are relaxed most of the time and able to generate explosive hardness in an instant and along a specific force vector. You don’t practice for 70-80 years so you can live your life primed like a bomb, compressed and ready to explode. You just want power, and therefore that hardness, to be available when you need it, and to be in a state of relative relaxation the rest of the time. This applies equally to martial arts, daily living.
Your breathing pattern supports your ability to find this balance. In our experiment, you found the usefulness of inhaling to compress upon standing and exhaling to decompress as you sit. This supports the conclusion that in practicing your form, you can inhale every time you want more compression in the dantian and exhale when you want to decompress with similar results.
Here, we arrive at the central breathing paradox: When practicing your slow form, you gain optimal compression by gently inhaling into the dantian with every activated move (moves that you could apply—the actual punch, push, ward-off, etc.) and optimal decompression by exhaling with every deactivated move (the “negative” aspect, transition, or in-between state). This is exactly the opposite of what most people practice, unless they are doing some interpretation of prenatal breathing which they do more for esoteric reasons, and not for mechanical ones as described here.
So, how should one breathe in the practice of t’ai chi ch’uan? Your answer is best found through your own straightforward experimentation. If you test the patterns described here—flex-relax-exhale, extend-compress-inhale—in consciously observed, day-to-day movements outside of your orthodox training context, you will be increasingly convinced that this is a natural, healthy, and productive pattern. (While she was living, it enabled my 93 year-old mother to get into and out of a car, for example.) If you then test the applicability of this pattern when playing t’ai chi form, you will find yourself more able to relax in the transition between moves (gently exhaling during the relative yin phase, as you step into place or set up each move), and more able to feel compression and the hard vector line as you apply your moves (gently inhaling during the yang, energizing phase).
Pressure and Release at Speed
This doesn’t mean that you should inhale as you fajin (issue energy) or when you throw a fast punch. Paradoxically, when you punch at speed, air must leave your body. But, this doesn’t have to be because you are trying to exhale; it is because you are compressing to energize the punch while letting the air within you move naturally, according to the physics of the movement. You are: 1. Contracting the muscles that move your hand and body along the vector line 2. Compressing the dantian 3. Neither holding nor controlling your breath 4. Arriving or visualizing arriving at a target that has mass; the amount of mass will determine how much compression you actually need.
In a fast punch, the rapid vector/abdomen contraction will push out some air. You do not, however, have to exhale in the same way as you would if consciously attempting to blow out air. This is what a kiai (percussive shout) accomplishes. If you practice kiai as part of your art, you know that, mechanically speaking, your shout derives its power from abdominal pressure. The kiai releases air under pressure. As your punch arrives at its target, and you achieve relative maximum compression, the tension in your abdomen connects and energizes the line from foot to hand and back to foot while the degree of compression is dictated by the mass of the surface you are striking. If you try to blow out your air at this moment, you actually diminish the amount of compression you can achieve, like deflating an automobile air-bag at the moment of impact. In this example, your release of air is a by-product of the rest of your actions, which are in turn energized and substantiated by compression. Deliver a strike, and your vector line compresses into absolute hardness. Immediately after the move lands, everything relaxes as you sink into preparedness for the moves to come, with air entering or leaving your body as your body mechanics dictate. Flex at the kua, and air leaves the body; extend the kua, and air enters. Compress, and pressurized air escapes. As long as you aren’t holding your breath, conscious breathing at speed is neither necessary nor productive.
A Convincing Demonstration
I first saw these mechanics in action when meeting Grandmaster Chen in New York City in 1964. I was a young student of Professor Cheng M’an-Ching. Because I was about to move to Europe I sought extra help to complete the form ahead of schedule. Professor Cheng handed me over to the recently arrived William Chen who gave me three private lessons per week for several months. I remember his gentleness and politeness being so remarkable that I naively worried about his welfare in the Big Apple. I also witnessed some demonstrations. On one occasion, I was in his apartment on Manhattan’s West Side when he demonstrated his art to a group of visitors. While explaining his theories, in a single movement he dropped into a crouch and threw three straight rights to the abdomen of three different observers. I heard three distinct sounds as his fist arrived at each man’s belly, but I could only see one punch. Although I was standing no more than five feet from these men, I couldn’t see the three contacts that I heard arrive, each with a resounding pop. There is no time for inhaling and exhaling in movement like this. Nor is it possible to move this fast while hold one’s breath. Grandmaster Chen demonstrated release, then contraction then release in a lightning sequence that was driven by compression. As he explains it, “The force of a technique depends on the speed and magnitude of the pressure change,” which here I have called acceleration. As the quintessential body mechanic who lights up when talking about boxing, he doesn’t elaborate on the ch’i aspect. “Just get there”, he declares.
Since you are not holding your breath, we can say that you are always either inhaling or exhaling. It is useful, however, to make a distinction between inhaling (taking in air), exhaling (expelling air), passively releasing (air is free to leave but you aren’t trying to exhale) and compressing (tensing the dantian while air either enters or leaves your lungs according to your speed and mechanics). These distinctions help bridge the breathing paradox. “The steam whistling out of a teakettle is not the same as an exhale.” Grandmaster Chen states. “The exhale occurs when you open the lid and the pressure escapes.” Air leaving your body under compression is analogous to steam escaping the teakettle under pressure. This is what happens at speed. In resistance training (with weights or having someone resist your moves) you need compression. If you are standing up or lifting a 2-pound weight, you can easily inhale to achieve compression. If you are lifting 100 pounds, you might exhale right away, but you will have more full-body power if you initiate a tiny inhalation first to compress the torso, then exhale through the lifting cycle. This takes practice and I address it at the end of this article.
When playing slow form, you can energize each move by inhaling to compress. Releasing and exhaling in between energized moves enables you to relax. At speed, there is no time for conscious breathing, and you must relax; if you are relaxed enough, you can let your movements “breathe you.”
Compression Breathing in Hawaii
One sunny morning while researching this topic, I called my friend, Howard James, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Howard is a seasoned t’ai chi instructor and first-class boxer. I had emailed him this article a few days before, and he was excited to talk about it.
“Do you experience compression the way I’m describing it?” I asked.
“Let me see, it’s kind of like your description, but I feel that my breathing connects the whole body. To me, compression feels like connection and intention, not tension.”
“How can I communicate that to a reader, especially the breathing part?”
We stumble over words for a while as the morning chatter of Hawaiian birds provides a nice background.
“Wait a minute,” Howard says, shuffling the phone about. “Can you still hear me?
“Yes. Loud and clear.”
Then, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop! The phone conveys the report of an impressively fast five-punch combination as Howard pummels the heavy bag hanging on his back porch. He repeats it several times, trying to exaggerate his breathing so I can hear it. But, the action comes too fast.
Howard describes his internal experience. He maintains abdominal pressure throughout the combination, but releases his kua and arms completely between punches. During this release, he lets air naturally leave his body, not by consciously exhaling, but through the natural flexing of his kua. He doesn’t “blow out” the air. We conclude that, at speed, one will compress the belly on impact and the lungs will release a little pressurized air. This release is like steam escaping from a teapot. It’s the loose-to-compressed-to-loose pattern that creates acceleration and therefore gives power to the combination; and it’s the natural release of air as his body flexes at the kua and the intake of air as he extends it that keep Howard oxygenated. As long as Valsalva never rears his breath-holding head, no conscious exhale is required. One never needs to blow out the air, and one never needs to think about inhaling, just compressing and decompressing and letting the air move in and out naturally.
Breathing in the Form—Tangible Examples
The same principles apply while one is playing slow form. Instead of organizing your breathing around the acts of inhaling and exhaling, you can organize it around compressing and decompressing. In time, your breathing will naturally adapt. Let’s consider some tangible examples.
In the opening move of virtually all t’ai chi styles, you inhale as your hands first rise. That initial inhalation gently compresses your dantian, as you sink your root and let your mind’s eye envision where you want your hands and fingers to go. This is intention, connection, and compression together.
In Yang Style, that first active move is Raise Hands: wrists up first, elbows relaxed, filling the dantian. As your wrists reach shoulder level, your fingers extend in front of you and you reach fullness. You then exhale, decompressing and letting gravity help you draw your hands into position near your shoulders. Inhalation-driven compression then activates the fingers to move upward again. (This sub-move can serve as a block against Strike Ears with Fists. Professor Cheng eliminated it from his form. William C. C. Chen includes it.) Decompression allows your hands to slowly fall to your sides. Raise Hands is now complete.
You now turn to the right as your right hand rises to your shoulder and your left sweeps past your groin to “hold the ball.” Is this an active application or simply a preparatory move for the upcoming Ward Off left? Since I personally consider it a three-possibility application, I inhale, sit into the left foot, and gently compress to throw both hands into place. The three possibilities are:
• Deflect a push or strike from the front by drawing the right hand upward to stick to the attacking wrist.
• Deflect a kick to the groin by turning and sweeping the left hand across the body.
• Strike to the rear with the right elbow.
At this point, I have completed an active application. The fact that both hands are now in position for the Ward Off left that follows is part of t’ai chi’s elegance. If I had been moving at full speed, there would have been compression but neither conscious inhalation nor exhalation. While I would surely release a little air, breathing would be instinctive and unconscious. Steam from a teakettle…
The next action is to soften and decompress as I sit into the right foot, letting the empty left foot fall into place for the bow stance to come, sinking the left knee over the foot and letting air escape naturally. As Ward Off left arises, I gently inhale, compressing the dantian, and further sinking the substantial root of the left foot. I must pay attention to the line from root to hands, inhaling downward into the dantian and slightly back toward the kidneys and spine, while tracking both hands as they fulfill the picture in my mind of the completed move. As they do, the insubstantial rear foot adjusts.
And so it goes. One determines how to play the form by your interpretation of the moves. Any move that you consider being an active application or imagined point of contact deserves compression and a clean, rooted line from foot to hand or shoulder/elbow or kicking foot. Any action you consider being intermediary or preparatory, calls for decompression and complete relaxation as gravity sinks you into place to set up the next active move. Playing the form this way, one energizes each applied move via inhalation and compression, and sets up every move through exhalation and decompression. As the mind becomes quiet and the breathing cycle softens, one can relax through both inhalation and exhalation and tune one’s sensitivity to internal power. Here, everything feels connected and in transformation. The spirit rises up the spine, making the meditative transition from thought to ch’i to spirit to emptiness a sweet journey.
My Personal Experience with this Approach
I’ve been a martial artist since 1960, and trained several hours a day for many years. A car accident in 1984 changed all my priorities. As a pedestrian, I was hit between two cars and sustained a serious back injury that forced me to stop many aspects of my practice and look at life in new ways. My t’ai chi practice turned away from application, and I just played the form as a moving meditation, with my purpose simply to cultivate spinal health, peace of mind, and the ongoing refinement of my spirit. But, my spine had been compromised, and many acute episodes kept me marginally disabled. Since the numbers surrounding “inevitable” fusion surgery were not promising, I kept searching and experimenting. After 18 years of chronic instability and pain, my efforts came together. I had ventured into a combination of back stabilization training, regular gym workouts, Rolfing, Pilates, Feldenkrais, and Alexander lessons to learn how to stabilize my spine. I experimented with the breathing and compression methods described in this article, both with my own body and with others: senior citizens, people with chronic back pain, and unsuspecting bystanders. I interrupted serious bodybuilders in the gym and asked them to try compression breathing, then got reports from them about what results they experienced. I helped a surprising number of people and learned from them all. The results have been meaningful. The breathing and tension/relaxation patterns described here have enabled me to do things with my body that several physicians told me I would never be able to do.
By coordinating breath and compression in the form, the congruity of body/mind I experience sometimes approaches the ecstatic. Every inhalation signals an expansive rising of ch’i from foot to hand and through the top of the head. Every exhalation accompanies a relaxation that feels like slow, conscious falling in harmony with gravity’s gentle pull. The sine wave of energy passing through my body sometimes feels like freedom beyond reasonable expectations. The use of compression to protect my spine throughout a wide variety of activities has been a lifesaver. While I don’t claim to represent Grandmaster Chen’s theories in the same way that he would, my own experience with his teachings of compression show this model to be supremely useful for activating all the movements of the body. To me, the gentle compression of t’ai chi is simply a more subtle and sophisticated version of the same pneumatic backstop I use in planting and pruning in the garden, resistance training and aerobic conditioning, and leading a physically active life in my mid 60s. I hope that you find these ideas useful in your practice.
• The prevailing t’ai chi breathing model, which is based on inhalation and exhalation to store and discharge energy, can be challenged by a compression and decompression model and its empirical results. This model reverses the breathing pattern in slow form practice and reframes the breathing model during fast application.
• The compression/decompression model focuses on mechanical effectiveness and spinal support going from relaxed to tensed along a force vector rather than the buildup and discharge of ch’i.
• Testing the mechanics of exhaling to flex the kua and inhaling to extend the kua during daily activities will prove the usefulness of the compression model.
A Closing Comment to Johnny
What is a better way for you to breathe in the gym? Try this: Instead of just taking a single breath for each repetition, try exhaling at both the bottom and the top of each rep. That way, you get to inhale, and therefore have the turbo-boost of compression when you start moving the weight either up or down. This is when you need it. You can then naturally release your air as you move toward the bottom and the top of your moves. This will give you greater control and smoother movements. For a while, you can concentrate on the double exhalations and let your inhalations come by themselves. When you feel ready to focus on the inhalations, direct them down to your abdomen in the initial moment of each move. Start adding weight when you are comfortable with the coordination.
You can gain at least 30% more power this way. If you try the standing-up experiment, make sure you root your feet before trying to stand. If your toes peel up from the floor, you are too far back in your heels. If you want to teach Grandma how to get out of her chair, read The Mechanics of the Three Nails on my Web site first (http://www.santacruztaichi.com) and teach her to sink her root. It makes a big difference. And, never, never hold your breath for power.