“Stop doing the wrong thing and the right thing does itself.”
– F. Mathias Alexander.
Breathing has become a hot topic these days. There’s Wimm Hoff with his patented breathing methods for overcoming extreme cold all over TV and YouTube, breathing classes have sprung up in every town where you can go to where you spend an hour focusing on your breath (just type in the town you live in an ‘breathing classes’ into Google and I bet you find something), and of course, there still are all sorts breathing methods you can find out there in yoga, tai chi and qigong classes.
Often in Tai Chi we’re told that we should be performing abdominal breathing, or ‘Taoist breathing‘ – so, as you breathe-in the abdomen should expand and as you breathe out, the abdomen should contract*. We equate this abdominal breathing with deep breathing – almost as if the more we can ‘fill’ our abdomen with air, the deeper and better the breathing will be – and think that it therefore must be healthy. (* there is also reverse breathing, but that’s another topic).
How to breathe
I recently started reading the excellent book ‘How to breathe’ by Richard Bennan, which has made me reconsider the way I’ve been approaching breathing in Tai Chi.
Firstly, let’s start with the basics. It’s worth remembering where your lungs are. They are behind the ribs and reach up higher than the collar bones on each side. Look at the picture below and you’ll be surprised by how far up the lungs go. So, when you expand your belly on an in-breath the air isn’t going down into your belly – it all stays in your upper torso. Of course, that might already be obvious to you, but you’d be surprised how many people think their belly is filling with air when they breathe in! It’s not.
When you practice ‘belly breathing’ what you should be doing is expanding the whole torso on an in-breath, and it’s this expansion of the lungs and the dropping of the diaphragm that pushes the abdomen down and outwards (on all sides, not just the front). If you start to try to use your abdomen muscles to lead the process, or force-ably expand or contract the belly as you breathe in and out then you are just adding tension to the whole process, which is the exact opposite of what you want. There should be as little tension as possible for efficient breathing. Trust the process – it will work on its own.
So, with me now, try an in-breath and focus on the lungs themselves filling up and expanding and this wave of expansion being the motivating force for expanding the belly. It doesn’t really happen in a step by step way either – everything expands at once. So, don’t try to fill one section of the torso, then another, that is also just adding tension. Equally, don’t try and keep the ribs still. They are designed to expand and contract with the lungs. If you try and keep them still, then, you guessed it… You’re just adding more tension.
Once you can visualise where your lungs are, (and how far up they go above the collar bones), then just focus on letting them expand freely, and stop interfering with the breathing process. Less is often more.
You might also like to think about the posture requirements of Tai Chi and what effect these might be having on your breathing. We often hear words like “round the shoulders”, “lift the back” and “hollow the chest” in Tai Chi. Think for a minute about what effect those directions, if followed literally, might be having on your breathing. Do you think they are beneficial or harmful? It’s something to consider anyway.
Breathing should feel amazing. It should feel smooth, natural and healing. And it will, if you stop interfering with it.
* I think reverse breathing is a deliberate hack to the body’s natural way of breathing, but I don’t think people should be attempting it before they’ve got better at breathing in a natural way first. If you are already breathing in an unnatural way, and then you try and add on something else, well, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that you’re headed for long term problems.