Breathing Lessons

                  by Li Yaxuan

Correct breathing is the foundation of all Tai Chi practice.  Why is this so?  Nearly every meditative tradition in the world has identified an intimate connection between the mind and the breath. Changes in the mind and the breath reflect each other like mirrors.  If someone is emotionally upset, one of the first things that happens is that their breathing becomes shallow and uneven. Conversely, if the breath is calm, deep and even, the mind reflects these qualities as well.  If you want to get hold of the mind, where do you begin?  Where is the mind?  The mind is nowhere.  It is immaterial and elusive.  However, the breath gives a tangible, readily-available handle for beginning to train the mind.

In Tai Chi we use abdominal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing.  The diaphragm is the large dome-shaped muscle at the base of the rib-cage whose rising and falling is the major pump for the activity of breathing.  “Abdominal breathing” means that the abdomen is completely relaxed during breathing so that the diaphragm can freely descend.  This slightly increases the pressure in the abdomen during inhalation, causing it to bulge out slightly.  During exhalation, the abdomen sinks back down.

The movement of the diaphragm accounts for 75 percent of the force involved in breathing.  The other 25 percent is provided by the intercostal muscles (small muscles between the ribs which move the rib cage like a bellows) and the neck muscles (which help to lift the ribcage).  If one uses shallow, chest breathing, the body is only breathing at ¼ of its capacity.  This affects the amount of energy that the body is receiving.  Studies have found that hypertensive patients, as well as people with phobias and depression tend to be chest breathers.  Simply learning to habitually breath with the abdomen can help to alleviate these problems.

The Chinese also refer to the abdomen as the “second heart.” This is because two of the largest blood vessels in the body (the aorta and the vena cava) pass through the diaphragm into the abdomen.  During deep abdominal breathing, the pressure inside the abdomen rhythmically increases and decreases.  This creates a pumping action that can assist the heart, reducing its workload. The Chinese also describe abdominal breathing as “bottle breathing.”  When a liquid pours into a bottle, it fills the bottle from the bottom up.  In the same way, we should feel the breath pouring in through the nose and filling the body form the bottom (the lower abdomen) up.

There are several simple exercises that can help you learn abdominal breathing.  Once this breathing becomes habitual, you will use it in your Tai Chi practice (and your everyday) naturally and without any conscious effort. Ultimately, the breathing in Tai Chi should be natural and unforced.  Besides occasionally checking to make sure that the abdomen is relaxed and gently rising and falling with the breath, one should not focus too much on the breath during Tai Chi practice.  Trying to control the breath usually only results in increased tension and stress.

Exercise One:  Pure Awareness of Breath

•    Lie on your back.  This position allows all of the postural muscles of the body to release so that there is less tension on the breathing mechanism.

•    Close your eyes, take a deep breath, exhale and relax.

•    Feel your forehead relax.  Feel your eyes and all the muscles of your eyes relax.  As your eyes relax, feel your gaze become gentler and more receptive, less intense, grasping, hard, judgmental.

•    Now with this non-judgmental awareness, become aware of your breath.  As you are breathing, what parts of your body can you feel moving?  What is happening with your chest and ribs?  Belly? Shoulders?

•    Place one hand on your chest and another on your belly.  Feel how the hands rise and fall with your breath.

Exercise Two:  Abdominal Breathing

•    Lie on your back and draw up the knees so that the feet are resting flat on the floor.

•    Place one hand on the lower abdomen (below the navel) and another on the chest.  Breath in such a way that the hand on the chest does not rise, but the one on the belly does.

•    You can also practice this by placing heavy book on the lower abdomen and leaving the arms extended by the sides.  Watch the book rise and fall as you breathe.

Exercise Three:  Bottle Breathing

•    Continuing from the previous exercise, now breathe as low in the belly as possible.

•    On inhalation, feel the breath filling the bottom of the abdomen first, causing the perineum to bulge out first, then the lower belly, then the navel. (NOTE: the perineum is the area between the anus and the genitals.  It is the lowest point of the abdomen).

Exercise Four:  Contracting at the End of the Exhalation

•    During abdominal/bottle breathing, the muscles of the abdomen should be completely relaxed.  It is important not to use force to “push out” or “suck in” the belly.  The gentle rising and falling of the abdomen comes from softening the muscles, not pumping them.  This allows the diaphragm to descend and naturally expand the relaxed abdomen.  The following exercise can help to create a feeling of relaxed, effortless expansion of the abdomen during breathing.  They are based on the principle of “post-isometric relaxation,” which says that a muscle relaxes more easily if it is tightened first for a few seconds and then released.

•    Begin bottle breathing as described in the previous exercise.

•    At the end of the next exhalation, gently contract the abdomen, pulling the belly closer to the spine, and pull up on the perineum.  Feel yourself squeezing the last bit of air out of the abdomen.

•    Release the contraction and completely relax the abdomen. Allow the breath to just flood in.

•    At the end of the inhalation, allow the belly to naturally deflate without any effort. Then, at the very end of the exhalation, once again pull in the abdomen and perineum.

•    Imagine the upper body like an eyedropper.  The bulb of the eyedropper is the abdomen and the glass tube extends up the throat to the nose.  At the end of the exhalation, gently squeeze the bulb, then release it as you inhale and allow the breath to fill the vacuum with no effort on your part.

•    Rest and breathe normally.










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