As we have seen the origins of Tai Chi Chuan lie in Taoism. The Taoists themselves used a special method of breathing modelled on the respiratory system of the tortoise, whose hard shell limits the outward expansion of its lungs. Its lungs are therefore forced to expand by extending down the length of its body rather than outwards, thus making its breathing deep and harmonious. The tortoise may move slowly, but it lives a long time. This is why first the Taoists and later the founders of Tai Chi Chuan adopted and adapted this breathing method.
Our heart and lungs work incessantly to keep our body alive and in good health. To maintain this state of affairs we have a duty to protect them from too much stress and strain when we engage in exercise. Most forms of exercise require lung expansion when we inhale. This expansion forces our muscles and ribs outwards thus increasing the chest’s capacity to take in air. However, this puts a lot of pressure on our lungs and can easily tire us out. In the same way, a car which is constantly travelling uphill will sooner or later develop engine trouble.
In practising Tai Chi Chuan we do not use this common method of breathing, which is particularly unsuitable for the sick and those who have passed their prime. We concentrate instead on making our movements relaxed and harmonious and our postures natural so that our breathing will also be natural and not forced.
Constant practice of Tai Chi Chuan over a period of time will make our breathing slow and deep, while our internal organs will work in a gentle and harmonious fashion. When we inhale, our diaphragm will expand not only outwards, but also downwards in the direction of the abdomen, giving our lungs more space to expand downwards also. When we exhale, our lungs contract causing the diaphragm to contract also, both inwards and upwards. The rising and falling motions of the diaphragm help our lungs to function properly. At the same time the rhythmic nature of the diaphragm’s movements act to massage our stomach and intestines, gently increasing the circulation of blood and transportation of nutrition. This whole process of respiration in Tai Chi Chuan is called, ‘The downward extension of breath to the Tan Tin.’ (a point 1 1/2” below the navel).
This is not to say that our diaphragm can or does expand downwards to the Tan Tin, but only that the effect of the downward movement of the diaphragm is to cause the other organs of our body to expand downwards or to contract in proportion to the movements of the diaphragm. This effect is most keenly felt at the Tan Tin. What has happened is that the constant practice of Tai Chi Chuan relaxes the muscles of the diaphragm enabling it to expand downwards instead of merely outwards. There is a common misconception that the air we breathe is brought down to the Tan Tin. This is an illogical and unscientific notion.
In breathing we should at all times both inhale and exhale through the nose. Our mouth should be kept shut and our tongue should rest gently against the roof of the mouth so that we can salivate and avoid a dry throat during practice. The importance of adopting this natural method of breathing is fundamental to practicing Tai Chi Chuan and reaping the benefits of doing so.