Internal Breathing


So much for fast action. What about breathing and compression in the form? When playing the form, you have luxurious time to breathe. In fact, as you coordinate your breath and movements in the elegant play of “drawing silk” you can slow down as much as you want.


Here, you can take enough time to study the subtleties of tension and relaxation, compression and decompression, substantial and insubstantial in your body and in your moves. While it is generally understood that ch’i follows the mind, the form enables you to explore how compression helps activate ch’i.Working with Howard’s idea of connection and intention, you can breathe to develop connection and relax in ways that cultivate and optimize your flow

of qi.


In the opening breath of the Yang Style short form, for example, you inhale as your hands move upward and away from the body and exhale as your hands move downward and close to the body. This is consistent with Grandmaster Chen’s description of pressure activating movement. Because the breath generates ch’i, and ch’i moves your hands and feet in the actions of the form, it is easy to realize that the breath helps generate your moves via compression.


From this starting point, the breathing process can remain consistent throughout the entire form. If qi mobilizes all our movements, an inhalation will accompany every active or rising movement and an exhalation will accompany every fall of the hands as the body moves into a more passive or deactivated position.


This raises the question of the generally accepted t’ai chi practice of exhaling upon delivery. While I am carefully avoiding a serious discussion of qi in this article, I’ll venture lightly into that can of worms by suggesting that there are two models for issuing qi that can be useful here.


In both models, ch’i is like electricity and the human body can be thought of as a battery of sorts. In one model, a person carries an explosive charge within, like a powerful bomb, and releases that discharge at will. Following this model, the practitioner typically inhales to load up and exhales to discharge qi.


In the other model, a person remains in a quiet resting

state until deciding to activate a rapid tension-release response. Following this model, one relaxes to prepare a move and tenses explosively along the vector from foot to hand when delivering the move. Where breathing is incidental in fast action, it is as described above when playing the form: inhale to activate and exhale to deactivate.


While both models can generate devastating power, my personal interest is in the latter, because it has proven itself to me in self-healing, moving meditation, and free-form boxing. It embodies the path to a deeply relaxed state of being that I am committed to cultivating within myself. This model is based, among other things, on breath-activated compression in the lower abdomen.


While I don’t claim to represent Grandmaster Chen’s theories in the same way that he would, my own experience with his teachings regarding 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 a more subtle and sophisticated version of the same pneumatic backstop I use in gardening, working out in a gym (resistance training and aerobics), and leading a physically active life at the age of 60. Because I have many training injuries from over 40 years of passion for martial arts, and sustained serious back damage in a car accident 17 years ago, this use of compression to protect my back throughout a wide variety of activities has been a lifesaver.


As I play the form, the breathing and tension/relaxation patterns associated with compression and release have also generated extraordinary states of consciousness. By coordinating every movement with every breath, the congruity of body/mind I experience approaches the ecstatic. Every inhalation signals an expansive rising of qi 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 root and t’an t’ien keep me stable, but the sine wave of energy passing through my body feels like freedom beyond reasonable expectations.


Breathing in the Form

Consider the opening movement: Raise Hands. The first inhalation gently compresses your t’an t’ien, as you sink into your root and let your mind’s eye envision where you want your hands and fingers to go. This is connection and intention. If you relax enough, you can literally throw your hands and fingers into place as you inhale, releasing them to move slowly in precisely the same way they would if you were moving very quickly. As they reach shoulder level, your fingers extend in front of you and your action is complete. You then exhale, decompressing and letting gravity help you draw your hands into position near your shoulders as if they were gently falling into place. Inhalation-driven compression then activates the fingers to move upward again and decompression allows them 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 compress a little to throw both hands into place. The three possibilities are:

Deflect a push or strike from the front by drawing the right hand upward under 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.


The fact that both hands are now in position for the Ward Off left that follows is part of the elegance of this wonderful form. At this point, I have completed an active application. If I had been moving at full speed, there would have been compression but neither conscious inhalation nor an exhalation. While I would surely release a little air, breathing would be instinctive and unconscious.


In the form, though, the next action is to exhale as I sit into the right foot, let the empty left foot fall into place for the bow stance to come, shift the left knee over the foot and let the exhalation complete itself. As Ward Off left arises I gently inhale, compressing the t’an t’ien, and further sinking the root. I must pay attention to the line from root to fingertips, inhaling downward into the t’an t’ien and slightly back toward the 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. The following action is to exhale as I prepare Ward Off right.


One determines how to play the rest of the form by your interpretation of the form. 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. Any action you consider being intermediary or preparatory, deserves decompression and complete relaxation as gravity sinks you into place to set up the next active move.


Playing the form this way, I energize each applied move via inhalation and compression, and set up every move through exhalation and decompression. As my mind becomes quiet and my breathing cycle softens, I relax through both inhalation and exhalation and tune my sensitivity to the internal dimension characterized by ch’i. Here, everything feels connected and in transformation. The spirit rises up the spine, making the meditative transition from thought to qi to spirit to emptiness a sweet journey.


My back injury has forced me to look at things in new ways. In recent years, my exploration has turned away from boxing and even push-hands. For my body, I play the form with a focus on fluid movement, valid technique, and health, especially spinal health. For my inner life, I consider the form to be a moving meditation, and my purpose is to cultivate internal states characterized by peace of mind and the ongoing refinement of internal energies at multiple levels. While the path deeper into this art is without end, the use of breathing and compression described in this article gives me satisfaction in both inner and outer realms.

I hope that you find it useful in your practice.


A Closing Comment to Johnny

What is a better way 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 in either direction. This is where you need it. You can then naturally release your air as you move toward the bottom and the top of your moves. Exhalation during the lowering process 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. You can gain 10-30% more power this way.

And, never, never hold your breath, Dude.


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