Chen means to sink. Chen refers to using your breathing to sink your qi to your dan tien. The dan tien is important to everything we do in tai chi. Chen enhances song and jing. During exhalation, your qi naturally sinks to the dan tien when the principles of tai chi are followed. When song and jing are achieved, the qi flows naturally.
Breathing is generally not taught to beginning tai chi students because they have a tendency to let the breathing become more important than the movement. Specifying breathing patterns during a form can impede your progress by creating tension. It can lead to an emphasis on the breathing at the expense of the essential principles of tai chi. It should be the opposite. Allow your body to breathe naturally. Use these guidelines to give some direction. There may be exceptions.
In general, inhale during movements that are up and in (opening movements) and movements that store energy. Inhale during movements when expanding your chest, such as with the open hands movement in Sun style. Also, inhale during movements creating an insubstantial movement, such as when doing a roll back.
Exhale during movements that are down and out (closing movements) and movements that deliver energy. Exhale during movements when compressing your chest, such as with the closing hands movement in Sun style. Also exhale during movements creating a substantial movement, such as when doing a push or press.
Tai chi movements generally alternate between gathering (storing) energy and delivering that energy. Inhaling during opening stores the energy, like drawing a bow, and brings in the qi. Exhaling during closing delivers the energy and sends the qi. Raising your hands in commencement stores the energy. Lowering your hands delivers energy and sends the qi. This means to inhale or exhale sometime during the movement, not necessarily during the entire movement. Your body will develop the ability to breathe properly as you practice tai chi.
Abdominal breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, helps you to sense qi. As you exhale, you should try to sense a warm, tingly, or heavy feeling in your dan tien. Don’t worry if you don’t feel this at first. That’s normal. Continue practicing to develop your ability to sense your qi.
For abdominal breathing, take several long slow deep breaths. Allow your mind to relax so you can begin to focus on your mind-body connection. Concentrate on the abdomen area belinow the diaphragm. When you exhale, gently contract the muscles in your pelvis and lower abdomen. Keep the chest still. When you inhale, expand your abdomen. Keep your chest still. In other words, exhale by contracting your abdomen. Inhale by expanding your abdomen.
Continue to practice abdominal breathing during meditation or while practicing tai chi. With enough practice, it will become natural and comfortable. I should point out that abdominal breathing is also practiced in yoga.
Reverse Abdominal Breathing
When inhaling with reverse abdominal breathing, your upper abdomen expands and your lower abdomen contracts. When exhaling, the upper abdomen contracts and the lower abdomen expands. The exhale is usually faster than the inhale. This is how you deliver force. As you breathe out, try to song (loosen) your body. Focus on the feeling of qi sinking to your dan tien.
Dan Tien Breathing
The muscles closest to the spine work different than other muscles in terms of function and neuromuscular properties. Their function is to protect and strengthen the spine. In Western medicine and anatomy, these muscles are called the deep stabilizers. A way to strengthen these muscles is to use dan tien breathing, as well as proper posture and alignment.
To learn how to breathe with this method, place one hand over your upper abdomen, above your belly button. Place your other hand over your lower abdomen, below your belly button. When you inhale, imagine that the air fills your lungs, bypasses your upper abdomen, and fills your lower abdomen and gently expands it like a balloon.
When you exhale, gently contract your lower abdomen as if the air is leaving the balloon. During both inhales and exhales, try to keep your top hand from moving. When you are comfortable with dan tien breathing, remove your hands and stand in dan tien. In addition, the dan tien breathing method can be practiced while doing the Open and Close Hands form of Sun style tai chi. Dr. Paul Lam describes it like this:
“The dan tien breathing method is especially effective for relaxation and for healing. Whenever you feel stressed or nervous, take a gentle breath. Start doing open and close. Breathe in and out and you most likely will find your mind clears up and the stress eases off.”
This type of breathing uses your diaphragm to expand your lungs. As we get older, we tend to breathe shallower. This change is primarily due to sitting and hunching over. This exercise greatly expands your lung capacity and counteracts the bad influence of hunching over. This is very relaxing and improves your qi.
Another way to think about this is to gently contract the muscles of the pelvic floor located at the midpoint of the perineum. Visualize that you are contracting those muscles toward your belly button as you inhale. Allow those muscles to relax as you exhale. If you get tired, just relax and go back to breathing naturally.
© 2010 Eric Borreson