Stand still, breathe better

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Have you noticed that some people always seem a little bit out of breath? Especially when they talk. I think it’s a problem of posture. Not a huge posture discrepancy, like bending over or tilting to the side, perhaps not even anything visible, but just a slight incline here or slump there that has become ingrained, causing the body to work harder than it needs to draw in oxygen.

I just read a great article that talks about the correct mechanics of breathing, which I’ll quote:

Here’s how breathing is supposed to work, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
  • The abdominal muscles relax while your diaphragm contracts downward, pushing all your guts out of the way.
  • Your intercostal muscles contract to expand your rib cage, lowering the air pressure in your lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest cavity.
  • Air flows through your nose and mouth in response to the vacuum.
  • The intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax while the abdominal muscles contract, pushing air out of the lungs.

 

Breathing is an automatic process that should be happening effortlessly, yet we mess about with it far too much.

So what does this have to do with Tai Chi you might be asking? Well the posture requirements needed to achieve the optimum style of breathing are provided by correct application of Tai Chi principles. I find standing upright with the head ‘as if suspended from above’, as it says in the Tai Chi classics and a relaxed upper body is the key. When we slump in even a minor way we impinge the correct functioning of the breathing process.

One of the best ways to train this is in Zhan Zhuang, “stake standing” postures, because it takes the complexity of movement out of the equation. With regular practice your general sense of being upright tends to improve.

One of the best free sources of information on Zhan Zhuang is the Channel 4 TV series Stand Still, Be Fit! that breaks it down into easy 10 minute lessons.

Notice that there’s no specific advice on breathing, but a lot of attention is paid on alignment and posture. The idea is that with correct posture, the breathing becomes natural again and follows what the Taoists called ‘the way’.

Clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”

Tao Te Ching – chapter 15

 

Tucking the tailbone in Tai Chi Chuan

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There’s a lot of debate about “tucking the tailbone” in Tai Chi. Some people are big exponents of ‘tucking’ or centring the pelvis, which removes the curve of the lumbar spine. Other people prefer a more ‘natural’ lower back which has more of an inward arc.

For me, it’s not that either of these positions are wrong in Tai Chi, it’s that the idea of holding your spine in a fixed position that is wrong.

If I see anybody practising Tai Chi with a fixed, ‘held’, lower back shape I think it’s just time to sigh and move on.

The lower back is part of the dantien area. This area must be relaxed and free to move.

By far the most common way people hold the spine in this position with tension is with an inward curve. If you see a curved-in back then this area is not relaxed. It might be more aesthetically pleasing but there is no way to connect the power of the ground and legs through the dantien area like this – it’s essentially cut off from that power.

Sure, you can generate power in other ways, but unless you relax the lower back power can’t be transferred from the ground.

Xing Yi is the oldest of the ‘internal’ martial arts. If you look at videos of a precursor art to Xing Yi, called Dai family Xin Yi Lie He, you can see their art has an exercise called squatting monkey as its foundation practice. Look at how it bows and unbows the spine. There’s a lot of flexibility being trained here.

These exercises are like basic, large frame, training exercises for conditioning the muscles and tendons of that area, and the movement can become a lot smaller in usage.

If you’re a Tai Chi practitioner you don’t need to start doing Squatting Monkey practice. I’m not saying that, but you do need to start paying attention to your lower back as you do whatever exercises you are doing – form, Pa Tuan Chin, Silk Reeling, Chi Kung, etc…

Ask yourself what your lower back is doing. Am I holding tension in it? (Here’s a big clue – you are!) and how should I release it? How about when walking around town, or pushing a trolley in Sainsbury’s? You’ll be surprised by how often we hold tension in this area.

Next think about the role of breathing and how it relates to the lower back. If we are doing deep diaphragmatic breathing (which makes the abdomen swell) then it should also be expanding at the back of the abdomen too.  Ask yourself, do you have any flexibility here when you breathe in?

If not, then you know what to do.

 

Zhan Zhuang tips – standing like a tree

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In the internal arts, Zhan Zhuang is one of the practices that gives you the most immediate benefits. It’s a practice that (initially) involves nothing more than standing and relaxing, yet this simple practice can produce a feeling of deep calm in the body and mind, and even give you the feeling of having more energy throughout the day.

How is this achieved? I’d warrant that it’s something to do with the effect of the calming action on your nervous system, plus standing for prolonged periods with your arms held away from the body is actually pretty physically challenging, so there are a lot of the benefits you experience from cardio-vascular exercise, but without you getting out of breath.

At more advanced levels of pratice, Zhan Zhuang a great way to practice Jin in different directions.

I came across a very good article recently written by Tony Dove full of good tips for starting a standing practice. Here it is.

Some good quotes:

“Use the breath as your focal point. Whenever your mind begins to wander, gently ask yourself, “Am I breathing? How am I breathing?” Bring your attention back to your breathing. Physiological awareness brings self-awareness. The mind becomes silently attentive to the subtleties of what is happening in the here and now, rather than thinking about the past, the future, or abstractions disconnected with the present.”

and

“Discomfort reveals places of dysfunction and should be welcomed as an opportunity for improvement.”

and

“Build gradually to a minimum of twenty minutes daily Standing, and a maximum of forty minutes. This is a small investment of time considering that you will probably have more energy during the day and need less sleep at night.”

Master Lam Kam Chuen’s TV series of how to begin your own standing practice is on YouTube, and a great way to get started:

Week 4 – breathing. Half way through my 8-week Tai Chi course.

Here’s part 4 of the course. This week we focus on breathing. I cover the topics of normal and reverse breathing, then show a couple of different exercises that will get you on the right track for applying the breathing methods to the movement we are working on. Finally, we integrate the breathing into the movement, preserving all the progress we have made so far. Once you get the hang of it those breathing exercises I show are not required anymore, as you should be integrating it into your main exercise.

This week is more subtle than work showed previously. An inner focus will be required. Good luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you have.