This is the first of what I hope will be a number of articles aimed at the beginner which will be informed by medical research and dealing with fundamental aspects of taijiquan training.
I will begin with the breath, because, although you will not be focusing a great deal upon it right at the beginning of your taijiquan practice, it is a topic of considerable importance, not least because it has an impact upon your health to a bigger extent than many people realise. I say that you will not necessarily spend a lot of effort on focusing on the breath to begin with because most people find that there are too many other aspects of physical movement to co-ordinate right at the start of their training. You will almost certainly find it easier to pick up the breathing patterns of the qigong or silk-reeling exercises than when you work on your taijiquan movements, and the advice that I generally give at that point is simply to let the breathing take care of itself. It is, after all, something that we do a lot of, entirely automatically, every day of our lives!
However, that is also the problem: precisely because our lungs are able to function without any conscious intervention, we generally do not pay our breathing patterns any attention at all. So why, when we practise our taijiquan, should it be any different?
In the first instance, it is because certain patterns of breathing are inefficient. When we are exercising, we clearly want our breathing to be as efficient as possible, and this means adopting an abdominal breathing technique: we expand the lower abdomen when we inhale, using not just the "stomach" muscles but also the sides, lower back and perineum, as well as allowing the diaphragm to move downwards in order to create as much room for the lungs in the chest cavity to expand as fully as possible without strain. For some people, this is roughly how they breathe anyway and in taijiquan or qigong training is called "natural breathing".
However, others have developed a habit of chest breathing, in which the breath is held much higher up in the body: these people use the upper chest or upper back and the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) and consequently breathe much more shallowly. This type of breathing is associated with stressed emotional and psychological states and can be very tiring. Deeper, slower, abdominal breathing on the other hand, is more calming. What, after all, are we always told to do before entering a situation, such as a job interview, which is making us anxious? Take a deep breath!
Even if you are not interested in the fighting aspects of taijiquan, it is always, in my view, important to refer back to the martial origins of the art. In a combat situation, the fighter who is in control of her breath and can use it to help her to stay calm and focused (instead of panicky) has a better chance of success. Abdominal breathing also helps to bring our attention to the core of the body, or what, in taijiquan and other traditional Chinese arts is called the "dantian". The dantian is considered to be of prime importance in taijiquan as the energetic centre of the body which controls and transmits the movement generated by the legs and feet to the upper body. It is also particularly important to be in control of the dantian region when emitting power ("fajin"), such as when, in Chen-style taijiquan, we punch. Even when moving more slowly, you will probably find yourself exhaling on the moves which envisage striking.
So far, therefore, we have three reasons for wanting to breath well in taijiquan: it is more efficient, is calming and allows us to co-ordinate the breath and our movements for martial effectiveness. However, the way in which we breath has wider implications for our health. For example, it has been estimated that up to half of modern adults breath through their mouth too much. You should generally be breathing through your nose while practising taijiquan. Mouth breathing, on the other hand, can lead, amongst other things, to upper-chest breathing as well as the drawing of less well-humidified and filtered air into the lungs. The latter effects can lead to infection, as well as the thickening of internal secretions which in turn inhibits the uptake of oxygen.
Furthermore, proper nose-breathing allows the greater uptake of nitric oxide which is produced in the nasal sinuses. Nitric oxide seems to have a range of health-promoting effects, including dilating the airways and blood vessels (again improving oxygen uptake), lowering blood pressure and resisting viral, bacterial and fungal infection. Another gas which nasal breathing helps to balance properly is carbon dioxide. While CO2 is currently a great problem for us in the earth's atmosphere, in our bodies it helps to promote the release of oxygen from our blood into our body tissues, while breathing too much through the mouth ("overbreathing") inhibits this effect. It was not for nothing, then, that one of my early tai chi teachers always used to say, "Noses are for breathing, mouths are for eating".
The apparently simple subject of breathing is more complex than it first appears, therefore, and later in your training you will be taught more advanced techniques such as "reverse breathing". Those who are interested may find more on this topic here.
If you are interested in more information about the medical effects of effective breathing, here is a good place to start.
At the beginning of your tai chi journey, however, it may be enough simply to remember what another of my teachers always used to say when asked by a beginner about what they should do about breathing when practising a particular exercise. His reply was often just, "Don't stop!"*
*PS: this is not entirely a joke. People often hold their breath when trying something new, difficult or stressful.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.