A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Christopher Dow
When I was four or five years old, I noticed something about the way I was breathing that was different from the way adults breathed. When I inhaled, my stomach expanded, and it contracted again when I exhaled. But the adults I observed breathed differently, expanding and contracting their chests.
I must be doing it wrong, I reasoned. I deliberately started breathing from my chest and continued to do so as I grew up and grew older, and eventually, the episode faded from my consciousness. Only when I took up Tai Chi at age 29 did I come to realize what a mistake I’d made. Infants and young children utilize abdominal breathing, but as individuals age, the action of breathing tends to migrate from the diaphragm to the intercostal muscles of the chest, resulting in breathing isolated from the lower lungs. This causes two major, interlinked difficulties.
One is what is referred to as “floating chi,” or chi that remains high in the chest rather than sinking into the tantien. Floating chi indicates a lack of connection between the upper and lower body, which results in uncoordinated movement and isolation of body parts during movement. It also can contribute to excitability, over-stimulated emotions, and other issues related to uncontrolled and ungrounded energy.
The second difficulty is that chest breathing does not produce the kind of mechanical stimulation of the tantien required to generate large flows and pulses of chi. This kind of mechanical stimulation is provided only by abdominal breathing in which the diaphragm rhythmically presses downward on the viscera. (See my book, The Wellspring: An Inquiry into the Nature of Chi, for a full explanation.)
It took me a number of years to relax again into abdominal breathing, and as I did, I came to understand how vital this form of breathing is the the generation and mobilization of chi. And it also settles the emotions and spirit. Now I sometimes think that the practice of abdominal breathing should be added to the Pre-K and kindergarten curriculums so that young children do not lose this gift. If everybody had greater control of their breathing—and their minds and emotions—we might have a better world.