The Tidal Breath in Taijiquan

by Robert Amacker

For the benefit of my school and students, I should make some definite statements on the subject of breathing, about which a great variety of opinions may be found, both within the Taijiquan world and without. Please take note that almost every reference to breath, in both the general literature of Taijiquan and the Classics, is a translation of the word qi, and one should carefully distinguish between this and the external or tidal breath, which is the subject of this article. Before getting into any explanations relating to proper behavior in that regard, let me cut to the chase and offer some simple rules. Some of these rules might apply to anyone, while others apply only to students of Taijiquan. 1) Never hold your breath while moving, and since there are no static exercises in Taijiquan, never hold your breath during either form or two-person practice; 2) when holding the breath, as might be practiced in association with completely static yoga exercises, control the internal musculature so that an x-ray would not reveal that you are doing so (if you can’t, you have no business holding your breath); 3) never inhale while in the midst of exerting so-called “long force,” referring in general to ordinary muscular effort, and specifically to that effort normally associated with striking an opponent; 4) associate exhaling with expansion and inhaling with contraction; 5) only breathe by mouth when forced to, foregoing especially such inhalation as much as possible; 6) do not allow habituation of any association of the tidal breath with any external movements, specifically, referring to and during the execution of the Taijiquan solo form. 

This last rule is the main focus of this article, and the one about which I need to be the most clear, because argument exists even among very respected exponents of the art. The other rules are there because, frankly, if I am going to talk about breathing at all, I should probably write down all the rules I can think of. But it is rule number six that is of urgent concern because, as is the case with many possible blind alleys in Taijiquan, the fault of reasoning connected with its acceptance is rather subtle in nature, and yet will easily corrupt the entire practice. 

First let me mention that the faulty reasoning attending the mistaken connection of movement and breath is only so because of a mistaken original presumption, without which the reasoning would be totally correct. This is complicated by the fact that this original presumption is, in the case of virtually every other martial art, actually a correct one. The mistaken presumption is simply that one which other martial arts are founded on, and the logic of their whole construction and methodology is beholding to, so-called long force. It is only mistaken when allowed to be at the basis of ideas concerning Taijiquan, which is founded completely on the presumption of jing, or so-called “internal” force. I do not mean to say that no other martial artists can develop jing, not at all, but that only in Taijiquan does the rationale behind every single exercise assume that the student will eventually develop it. This is not to say that every student will, or that his time has been wasted if he does not. But if he wants the exercises to make sense, he must understand that the utilization of these two means of producing force are totally incompatible, if not in an absolute sense, at least certainly under the stress of combat, at which time it is vitally important that whatever it is you know how to do, you’d better be able to do it without thinking about it. This is what is responsible for the time-honored tradition of Taiji masters telling their prospective students that they must give up all other forms of training. Quite simply, the reflexes and entire somatic condition associated with Taijiquan and that of other martial arts are completely impracticable to practice either at the same time or in alternation, but must be exclusive.

When I caution against associating breath and any particular movement, I refer not only to the common practice of associating the exertion of force with exhalation, but to association that may become habitual for any reason. The reason for this is that, while the movements of Taijiquan mimic those of more traditional martial arts, this mimicry exists for two reasons, neither of which supersede our central focus. These two reasons are 1) as a simple historical accident; and 2) because the techniques of Taijiquan, in order to even obtain, must either elicit a reaction from the opponent, or originate in his aggression, and for the former to occur, the opponent must recognize a perceived threat of a more conventional nature. Support for this point may be found in the Classic that reads: “Treat the child like a grown man, and the grown man like a child.” 

However, it is vital that the student realize that superseding all of this is the obligation to maintain at all times behavior consistent with the mobilization of jing, which involves quite a few things, but for our purposes here may be boiled down to two: relaxation of the body, and maintenance of the correct touch. Relaxation of the body, in our case, refers specifically to the elimination of li. The relevant Classic in this case is: “Where there is qi, there is no li; where there is no qi, there is pure steel.” In other words, proper relaxation is synonymous with the proper circulation of qi. Regardless of one’s definition of the word qi, its circulation is associated in Chinese medicine with health and long life, and this reasoning further justifies my assertion that the martial goals and the health considerations of Taijiquan are one and the same. The correct touch may be inferred from the tradition of tolerating no pressure greater than about four ounces (100 grams), and the Classic reading: “A feather cannot be placed; a fly cannot alight.” (Without creating movement.) The relationship of this practice to jing could not be stated more clearly: “From familiarity with the correct touch, one gradually comprehends jing.” – Classics. 

What does all this have to do with breath? The emission of jing, referred to as fa-jing, occurs over a very short interval of space (about an inch), and a very short interval of time, like a thunderbolt. This appears as a tiny blip on the cycle of the tidal breath, a tiny wave that momentarily alters, to a very small degree, that tidal cycle, and has no advantage or disadvantage associated with whether that cycle is in the inhalation or the exhalation phase. Large exhalations, of the kind that are assured by the use of grunts or shouts, familiar to the followers of professional tennis, and known in the schools of Japanese karate as ki-ai, are only applicable to long force, and have no place in Taijiquan, especially in training, and only in actual combat when produced completely spontaneously. The depth and timing of the tidal breath is completely determined by oxygen debt, and has no relation to movements currently underway. The correct discipline of the tidal breath in Taijiquan, in particular while executing the form, is to insure that it never stops, and otherwise to not think about it at all.

Although it goes beyond the limited scope of this article to discuss matters of qi, I should probably point out that this conscious manipulation is as wrong when applied to the management of qi as it is when applied to the external breath. This is supported in the Classics thusly: “Put your mind on the movements, not on the qi,” and “The whole body relies on spirit, not on qi; if it relied on qi, it would be stagnant.”

I should point to a chain of logic found in the Classics that pinpoints jing as a premise most vital to a complete understanding of the art. I have already mentioned that from acquaintance with the correct touch, one gradually comprehends jing. The Classics go on to say: “From an understanding of jing, the steps extend to wisdom.” The wisdom to which this refers is that which illuminates all the practices of the art. In this particular case, the practice concerns the external breath, and the wisdom, all that we have just been discussing. 

All that I have just said applies most of all to the solo form, because it is done the slowest. The faster one moves, the more the spirit is engaged. The more the spirit is engaged, the more it is naturally reflected in the breath, and such natural coordination should not be consciously resisted, just as much as, in the solo form, any artificial coordination should be avoided. This reaches its clearest manifestation in the sword. In that exercise, the spirit is so stimulated that the body loses all stagnancy and manifests a natural coordination with the breath. This coordination may show such a consistency that it is tempting to encourage students to copy it, so natural that it would seem impossible that it could do other than improve their performance. But experience has shown me that the opposite is true. In undertaking this imitation, students immediately become stiff and lifeless, mechanical to an almost painful degree. It is of no use to copy the result of spirit without spirit itself being present; the tail cannot wag the dog. 

I want to make sure that the reader does not take from this article the idea that all conscious manipulation of the tidal breath, including complete breath suspension, is mistaken practice. I myself have practiced extensively the yogic exercise known as bhastrica, in which the breath is manipulated in a very forceful way (kapalabati), and then suspended with a full inhalation (this is known as the major chalice, as contrasted with the minor chalice, in which the breath is suspended after a full exhalation). This practice is only permitted because one is in a completely still condition (see rule #1 above), and because the three “locks” are in place, that is, the chin lock (preventing pressure from affecting the head and the glands in the neck), the anal lock, in which the anal sphincters are contracted (preventing distortion of the bowels and lower intestine), and the so-called “flying” contraction, which requires the extensive practice of uddiyana and nauli to be effected (see rule #2). In preparation for these breath suspension exercises, I brought my practice of uddiyana and nauli to the level of 5000 and 3000 repetitions per day, respectively. As I have said, conscious and/or habitual connections between breath and the application of external (long) force when in motion are not only permitted, but are recommended. Such manipulation is perfectly appropriate to the practice of weight lifting (and the use of weapons may be regarded as a kind of weight lifting), but the common weightlifter habit of holding one’s breath when lifting, despite the fact that it may allow one to lift more than would otherwise be possible, should be conscientiously avoided. 

In closing, I should mention that it is the external breath, not the circulation of qi, that is the doorway to the so-called unconscious (or subconscious) mind, and the bridge between the conscious mind and the internal organs. It is the only organ that will operate completely automatically, even when one is asleep or comatose, and yet is instantly obedient to both the most forceful and the most delicate conscious manipulation. Accordingly, its use and misuse demand a certain level of understanding among those who might include its conscious manipulation in their daily routine. It is not enough to say that breathing should always be “natural,” however true that statement might be. Due to its dual linkage, “natural” breathing is difficult to achieve, because sometimes it is “natural” to not interfere with the tidal breath at all (as in the solo form), while at other times it is equally “natural” to do so (as in the sword). The range of activity in Taijiquan encompasses both extremes, and the breath should be managed accordingly. Mistakes along these lines can literally drive you crazy.