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.