Tai Chi Y3D322: Breath first, or movement?

Today I caught myself on that first Ward off left, putting my foot in the wrong place. “This isn’t right,” I thought, and I started again.  I set up that breath of geometric breathing in my chest, and tried again. The form flowed fluidly, but too fast.  “I want to be thixotropic,” I thought, remembering an Encyclopedia Brown word from long ago — sometimes solid, sometimes fluid.  I made a different effort, to slow down rather than to slow down the breath alone.

Something curious happened.  While I felt weird, because I was moving in what we might call slo-mo, or “bullet time”, rather than in worldly motion, I was also moving at turtle speed. And, at the same time, my breath became detached from the movement.  I was moving slowly, yes. That part is very clear to me.  I was moving at tortoise speed. BUT (and this is important) I was breathing deeply and carefully, but not at slo-mo/”bullet time” speed.  The two flows were separate from one another— the movement of my body through the positions of the tai chi form was happening on a different time scale or at a different rate of speed than the in-and-out of my breathwork.  They became two connected but asynchronous flows.

Even as I wrote that paragraph above, it didn’t make sense.  So let me try again.  I was moving at a different speed than I was breathing.  The movements were happening at tortoise speed — it took me twenty-five minutes exactly to do the form from beginning to end.  But I was breathing as if I were standing around breathing deeply; the actions I was performing had very little to do with how breath came in and out of my mouth. On some movements, I had four breaths to the posture; on others I had ten or eleven.

All of this is to say that I’d been making rigid breath-counts before: breathe in and breathe out four times during this posture. Ok here’s the next posture, breathe in and breathe out four times. And, here’s the next posture, breathe in and breathe out four times. And here we go again: here’s the very next posture, breathe in and breathe out four times. That’s very rigid, even though it doesn’t feel rigid to write.

And yet this was not that.  This was the movements themselves being authentically slow on their own, unrelated to how fast or slow I was breathing, or how many times I breathed on each movement.  It feels like a door being opened.  It feels like a step up into a search for a new sort of experience in tai chi; it feels like a new stage.

Time will tell if that’s true; sometimes I write about these experiences and they never return again.  Sometimes it is a step up or an open door: but it takes months to manifest the results and walk through into the next room.  This didn’t feel that way. This felt like I’d already walked through the door, and my body was letting me know: We’re in a new room, dummy.  Figure out the new routine here. We’re already ahead of you.

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  1. I’ve never gotten as deeply into Tai Chi as you; it’s mostly been a type of cross training for my aikido. So the only breath pattern I’ve ever done with it is inhaling on upward or inward movements and exhaling on outward (especially strikes) or downward movements. In aikido the pattern is to exhale when you need to relax (falling, rolling, striking, getting struck) and inhaling on rising or “gathering” motions (that was an oversimplification, but generally true). In systema you learn various breathing patterns. Cool stuff, the relationship between motion and breath.

    • There’s definitely a benefit to being able to control the breath to relax on falling or expansive movements, and inhaling on the gather. But my tai chi teacher DID talk about reversing these themes from time to time as a matter of using the breath as part of the counterstrike.

  2. Interesting, on the breathing. We had a guest teacher lead our class several weeks ago, and he said, just breathe naturally. Don’t try to align it with the form. For beginners, I think it DOES help to remind them to breathe in and out at certain times, so they don’t end up holding their breath. But, once you have the choreography down (does that ever really happen?!), and start to play with varying your practice in certain ways (faster vs slower, changing directions), I can see where letting go of rigid breathing practices could be very liberating. Thanks for this.

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