Prebreathing – 2


Change the Pattern

Let’s take our experiment further. If you stand up again, but this time, inhale as you push your feet into the floor and let yourself exhale once you are standing, you will add a little air power to your action without the unnecessary tension that breath-holding creates. Try this slowly 5-10 times, inhaling as you stand and exhaling as you sit, and you will discover how much easier and more natural the entire movement becomes. Practiced over a few weeks, your breath-holding pattern will change into an inhale-upon-standing pattern, giving you a turbo-boost every time.


If you pay attention to your breathing whenever you get up, you will be surprised by how breathing can assist your actions. You will also be surprised to realize how many times you hold your breath unnecessarily, overcompressing your torso by tensing muscles that would feel better if integrated into a fluid process of breathing and moving together. Through this awareness, you can learn how to use pneumatic compression as your body most benefits from it.


Healthy and Unhealthy Compression

Understanding compression is critical for any physical movement, and especially meaningful to practitioners of martial arts. Anything that unnecessarily slows us when we need speed, or that tightens us when we need to relax, that fatigues us, limits our range of movement, dulls our ability to sense and respond, or keeps us from cultivating inner well-being is something we need to resolve through our practice. Misuse of compression has all these negative effects.


Right now, for example, somewhere in your body you are probably holding some small muscles in tension that you don’t need to hold in order to maintain your position. These are chronic holding patterns that could be in your neck, abdomen, shoulders or elsewhere. As you take a breath and let them relax, you decrease the chronic compression that you impose on your body. It’s a low-cost solution to a high-cost and stress-promoting holding pattern. You might also notice that you actually relaxed when you exhaled, not when you inhaled. This signals a clue about how to relax a little more. Without realizing it, you might be habitually restricting a small part of your breathing. I find that people tend to breathe within a fixed range that maintains unnecessary tension in them. A gentle sigh shows you how easy it is to release that unconscious yet confining habit. As you let go of your breathing and relax, you feel less pressure within.


Practitioners of t’ai chi learn to decrease chronic patterns like these throughout their bodies. If you play t’ai chi you have surely found that you can relax more than you previously thought possible. Through long and principled practice, your standing breathing patterns, muscular holding patterns, and mental busyness slowly calm down, decompressing you physically and emotionally.


The Gravity of the Matter

T’ai chi also teaches you to consciously sink, which occurs as you become increasingly sensitive to gravity. This powerful but often ignored force acts on us throughout our lifetimes. Aging brings 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 sinking enables us to root in our feet to the earth as we raise the tops of our heads skyward and gently lengthen 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.


Practitioners of t’ai chi ch’uan accomplish results like these by replacing chronic tension throughout the body with the conscious use of tension and relaxation, and by replacing raw strength with thought-driven movement. As we do, we also distinguish the static compression that comes with being generally tense from the dynamic compression that comes with conscious tension and relaxation as well as our use of subtle pressure changes in the lower belly, which we might call “activating compression.”


The use of compression and the function of breathing to facilitate compression are important tools in the practiceof t’ai chi ch’uan. By understanding compression and decompression and the allied tension and release available to us, practitioners can free our bodies and minds from a number of unproductive habits and take our art to higher levels.


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.”


To understand compression in this context, let’s compare throwing a punch to opening of a jar of peanut butter. With the jar, you need maximum compression in the torso as you apply muscular torque to the lid. With the punch, you want optimal compression in the t’an t’ien (lower abdomen) as your fist arrives at its target. By optimal, I mean not too much, not too little.


As the punch arrives, your foot, knee, torso, arm, and hand must be aligned so that your energy moves in a congruent direction. This line from foot to hand must embody absolute hardness 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. It would make no sense to decompress at the moment you need your backstop the most. Decompression occurs afterward as you complete the follow through and drop your body into place for your next move.


As an internal martial artist, decompression also characterizes your resting state. You are very relaxed 99% of the time, and are able to generate explosive tension in an instant and along a specific line. You don’t live your life primed like a bomb, compressed and ready to explode.


You inhaled to compress upon standing up, but this doesn’t mean that you should inhale as you throw a punch. And you definitely should not hold your breath. It means that you compress by sinking and tensing slightly in the lower abdomen to energize the punch and are at relative maximum compression as the punch arrives. If you are at perfect compression, the tension in your abdomen will connect and energize the line of power going from your foot to your hand and the degree of compression will be dictated by the mass of the surface you are striking. You will be completely relaxed everywhere else in your body.


When using these mechanics to deliver the strike at speed, you will neither inhale nor exhale, at least not consciously. Nor, once again, will you hold your breath or block your breathing. Your breaths will naturally occur in harmony with your actions, which are energized and substantiated by compression in your belly. Immediately after each move arrives, everything will relax as you sink into preparedness for the moves to come, with breath entering or leaving your body as your movements dictate.



A Convincing Demonstration

I first saw these mechanics in action when I met Grandmaster Chen in New York City. It was 1964. I was a young student of Professor Cheng M’an-Ching and needed extra help to complete the form because I was about to move to Europe. Professor Cheng handed me over to the newly arrived William Chen who gave me three private lessons per week until I completed the form. 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 the West Side of Manhattan 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 right-handed punches at 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 two feet from these men, I couldn’t see the three punches 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 holding 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 (and tension) change.” 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.


What is the right amount of compression? Grandmaster Chen teaches students to trust their bodies’ natural wisdom for gauging compression by asking them to take a little hop or jumping down from a chair to the floor. “You don’t have to decide how much to tense your legs when you land,” he explains. “Your body does it naturally.”



Howard Puts Down the Phone

One sunny morning while researching this subject, I spoke with 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 is excited to talk about it.


“Do you experience compression the way I’m describing it?” I ask.


“Let me see, it’s kind of like you describe, 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. It sounds as if both the birds and we are looking for the words to capture our thoughts.


“Wait a minute,” Howard suddenly says, as he shuffles the phone about. “Can you 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. He repeats it several times, exaggerating his breathing so I can hear him.


Howard describes his internal experience. He maintains abdominal pressure throughout the combination, but releases his hip joint (kua) and arms completely in between punches. We conclude that at speed one will compress the belly while the upper chest will release a little air. The slight exhalation is like steam escaping from a teapot.


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