Today, I did breath work as a fundamental practice. Well, don’t we always? One of my graduate school teachers was (reluctantly) persuaded in the mid-1980s to rebuild the foundation of his family’s house in California. He told this story as a way of poking fun at himself, but also to illustrate the importance of foundations. Foundations are ugly. They are usually concrete or stone or brick, reinforced with ugly metal rebar, and they’re invisible. You pour hundreds or thousands of pounds of concrete into a hole in the ground, and none of it is ever seen again.
Then the rains come, and suddenly your house is the only one standing on a slope of otherwise-alluvial soil. Having ‘wasted’ all that money on foundations, my professor found his house standing alone in a neighborhood where everyone had lavished their funds on furnishings and landscaping. The ugliest house in the neighborhood, saved by very expensive foundations.
Today I focused on breathing. It’s fundamental to a practice like tai chi. It has to be. But it’s also an easy thing to forget. How often, when I’m doing tai chi, do I forget that I’m trying to breathe in when doing an expansive movement, and breathe out when I’m doing a contractive movement? All the time. All the time.
What does it mean to focus on breathing? Well, for me, it meant setting up a long, slow, easy breath pattern before I began moving through the qi gong forms. Is the left hand rising and the right hand falling? Expansive movement, breathe in. Are the two hands coming together in front of the tan tien, to hold a ball of energy? Contractive movement, breathe out. Are the hands holding a ball of energy? Breathe in and out, so that you’re ready to breathe in on the next expansive movement.
It was all very slow, and very deliberate.
I have no idea if it was right or not.
What I notice is that when I take this kind of deliberate care with my breathing patterns, it’s not at all difficult to expand and slow down the tai chi experience — both qi gong warm-ups, and tai chi short-form — out to their supposed lengths. When I don’t breathe deliberately, getting the whole experience to last 30+ minutes for the three forms is a chore, and a tremendously difficult one. When I breathe correctly, each of the three movements of my tai chi sonata takes about the same amount of time. The RIGHT amount of time: about seven minutes for the Five Golden Coins, another nine minutes for the Eight Pieces of Silk, and about 16 minutes for the tai chi short form. Thirty-five minutes, start to close, when I allow a little bit of breathing room between each set of movements. Perfect, or so it seems.
The astonishing thing is the way in which it hurts to breathe correctly, at first. I haven’t been breathing correctly for a while, because it hurt today. I’ll remember for the next few days to breathe correctly, and it will gradually get easier, and then I’ll forget for a while to breath correctly, and I’ll never quite get over the “wow, I remembered I’m supposed to breathe correctly — I’d better do that today. Wow, this hurts!”
Here’s how it hurts. It’s always the same extraordinary sensation. By the end of the second qi gong form, Eight Pieces of Silk, the very slow and deliberate breathwork feels like I’m taking in air through the small pockets at the corners of my eyes. My sinuses start to experience a burning sensation, as I draw air down into my lungs by drawing it up through my nose. The tip of my tongue, resting behind my teeth on the hard palate, starts to tingle. My muscles, particularly in my shoulders, start to relax, but unevenly, and muscles come into unexpected tension. My ears usually pop, and whatever blockage that’s in them starts to drain away. My throat occasionally spasms as it tries to close off this flow of exceptional breath. Any fluid in my sinuses, particularly blockages, usually break free with suddenness and go rushing out of my sinuses down to my stomach. My jaw pops, and it feels like pins and needles fill my chest. And, if I keep on breathing consciously and deliberately, I will experience a sensation rather like an ice-cream headache in my brain.
And these sensations register as pain. Ow!
But the insight that I had this morning was that these pains were the break-up of unhealthy patterns. We tend to refer to ‘patterns of behavior’ or ‘patterns of action’ or ‘bad habits’, but the body is just as capable of developing bad habits — of not breathing deeply enough, of eating more food than it needs, of not regulating its immune system properly. A good many of these things may not be under our conscious control. But medical science indicates that many of these functions are unconsciously regulated by the body’s endocrine systems — and the endocrine system is regulated in part by the adequate presence of oxygen. And the presence of oxygen is governed by our breathing.
Which is under our conscious control.
And so, while I experience this sensation of pain while breathing deliberately during a trio of chi exercises, I can also consciously note that the ‘pains’ which I’m experiencing are all things having to do with the restoration of overall health and well-being. That, if I breathe this way more frequently, it will become second nature. That the result of this will be that I will feel more alive, that I will be more alive, by treating breathing as fundamental to my tai chi practice, and indeed to my very existence.