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.
In this sense of the word sink, it means to relax the hips and waist, lower the pelvis bones, and allow your body to settle. Let your shoulders relax away from your neck. Allow your skeleton to support your body. If your shoulders are lifted up, the tight joints block the flow of energy. Use your intention to lower your elbows. Avoid overextending your arms while practicing tai chi. Keep them slightly bent and hold them in a curve, with your armpits slightly open. This type of sinking is soft on the outside and hard on the inside. This is the origin of the term “strength like a metal rod wrapped in cotton”.
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.
Every form in tai chi has an associated inhale and exhale. The whole process of breathing and sinking your weight is called “sinking the qi”.
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 opening 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 movement 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.
As you exhale, allow your body to sink. As you step, allow your weight to settle down onto your substantial leg. Visualize that your spine is stretching and the qi is flowing through your leg down into the earth. This helps improve your balance and strengthen your legs. Stronger muscles strengthen the joints and tendons and improve your joint health.
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.
My next article will continue this topic and focus more on breathing to help you learn to focus your attention.
© 2011 Eric Borreson