Breathing Technique

For beginning Tai Chi practitioners, integration of the breath is introduced with a fairly general set of guidelines:

• Inhale while being receptive (or rising); exhale while being expressive (or sinking).
• Breathe slowly and fully, into the abdomen.

In short, one should try to match the pace of the breath to the slow, rhythmic movements that comprise Tai Chi Chuan.

The health benefits of synchronizing the breath with our movement cannot be overstated. Breathing slowly allows the parasympathetic system to get into full swing; the heart rate slows down and the digestive system becomes activated. Filling the lungs simultaneously maximizes oxygen exchange and allows the diaphragm to help the abdominal organs massage each other. This is good stuff.

Curiously enough, while most of us learned to abdominal breathing as infants, we can find it difficult as adults to slow the breath down and maintain a regulated pace. Here are a few tips and techniques that can help you get back to those good ol’ days: 

Breathing slowly (regulation). 
• Inhale and exhale through the nose.
• Gently engage the muscles of the glottis and nasopharynx (upper throat), just enough so that a slight seashell “ocean sound” is created in the windpipe.
• Slightly pressing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth may help maintain this control. 

Breathing fully (depth). Filling the lungs with air requires that you use the diaphragm to breathe.
• As an exercise, place your left hand on your abdomen, just below the navel; place your right hand on your chest. Now, try to breathe into the space beneath your left hand. The goal is to fill the abdomen before the hand on your chest begins to rise.
• If you are having trouble pulling the breath down, try this exercise that isolates the diaphragm. Lie on your back and place a book or two on your abdomen. Breathing slowly, try to lift it with your inhalation and lower it with the exhalation.

If this appears similar to ujjayi breathing, it is. By bringing this level of attention to your practice of Tai Chi Chuan, you will gradually begin to see how the movement and breath are linked and feel support each other.

Alignment 105: The Hands

So you’ve rooted the feet, used the legs to spring, directed that power with the waist and channeled that energy up the spine and through the shoulders… now it’s time to express.

We want the forearms and hands to be awake to awake enough to be responsive, yet soft enough to listen.

Remember to keep the fingers together. This simple action calls for a little bit of effort in the hand that keeps it alert. When writing a letter or painting, notice that your hand is not gripping the pen or brush too tightly; nor is the connection too loose. It’s in a state somewhere in-between – a place that is strong to the point of being supportive, yet relaxed enough to receive direct feedback from its action. This is what the hands will do by connecting the fingers: they become an interface.

When a hand technique requires activation with a bend in the wrist (sitting hand, cut, united fingertips, knuckle punch), strike a balance between activation and alignment. The activation of the wrist allows the energy to flow down one side of the forearm to reach the hand. However, twisting the wrist or making the joint too angular will block the flow. As a general rule, do not bend the joint so far as to create major flexion folds in the wrist.

If the hand technique does not require activation in the wrist (jab, punch, back fist), keep that channel open down the forearm to the middle knuckle – straight as an arrow!

The next time you settle into the horse-riding stance at the beginning of the Tai Chi Chuan, listen as your hands and forearms activate.  Continue to carry that sensation throughout the entirety of the form.

Go play; express yourself.

Alignment 104: The Spine & Shoulders

When I started my investigation of Tai Chi Chuan, the shoulders seemed to be the most puzzling aspect of all. Even though I had “memorized” the form, I felt as though my shoulders were some sort of enigma: too tense to be sensitive, yet too loose to be structurally supportive. When my teacher demonstrated the deceptively simple action of properly aligned shoulders, I was always amazed. For years, I could not figure out how such subtle movements could deliver so much force. It took a long time to distill my experiences into a set of general concepts that I continue to apply to my practice:

• Allow the waist to move the entire trunk as one unit. The spine should remain long without twisting. Lift the crown of the head skyward, and slightly engage the core abdominal muscles to gently tuck the tail. This should keep and the shoulders should be aligned with the hips. A good analogy here is a bar stool – the waist pivots, and the trunk follows without effort. By letting your legs do the heavy lifting and allowing the spine to move with the waist, you free up your shoulders for sensitivity and the response.

• Keep your shoulder blades in the neutral position. To find this position, stand up straight with your hands directly out to the sides at should height. Try to sense the position of your shoulder blades in the back and the chest muscles just above your armpit. Next, draw your hands further back. Notice how the blades begin to feel compressed and the upper chest muscles feel stretched. Now extend the hands toward the front slowly, until you no longer feel the compression or stretch (it should be a little bit forward of your original ‘T’ position). This is your spot; here your shoulders are connected with your spine and waist! Any further expression through your hands should not move your shoulders from this alignment.

• Drop your elbows! Notice that as you lift your elbows to shoulder height, the shoulders want to rise as well. To keep your shoulders relaxed, visualize a small weight attached to your elbows, a reminder to keep that joint hanging gently between the shoulder and wrist.

• Let the hands lead. It’s good to keep this in mind when practicing the few postures that ask the hand to rise above the head (White Crane Spreads Wings, Fan Through the Back), but actually this rule can be applied to any posture. Imagine your hands being lifted and lowered by strings. Allow your elbows to follow along in a supportive manner, but notice how much easier it is to keep your shoulders in place.

Keeping the larger, outer muscles relaxed will result in improved blood flow and sensitivity. Gradually training the smaller, deeper muscles will finely tune the arms for a strong delivery.

Outside like cotton, inside like steel.