When I first began to study with Master T.T. Liang, he told me I needed to "sink my ch'i to the tan-t"ien." I had come to Tai-Chi after 5 years of karate. Prior to my karate training, I had terrible health related to asthma, allergies, pneumonia, and being generally weak. Karate and weight-lifting improved my breathing immensely.
Master Liang explained that proper breathing in Tai-Chi involved using the lower abdomen and not the chest. He said the ribs could not expand as much as the belly and that belly breathing expanded the lungs downward making more space for air. He would have me put my hands on his navel as he breathed and I could feel the front expand and contract. He would then direct me to hold the sides and they would also expand and contract. The amazing one was that he would have me put my hands over his lower back, and the area near his kidneys would expand and contract like to balloons! Indeed his whole lower abdomen, not just the front, would expand during inhalation and contract during exhalation.
I was taught the proper alignments to make sure I started and ended each breath from my navel area, specifically a place a little under the navel called the tan-t'ien or "elixir field." I was to have my chest held a little bit inward, not a military or puffed out chest. My shoulders were to be down and slightly forward. Master Liang said to develop an "old man's posture."
My hips were to be tucked under and my mouth closed. I was also told to touch my tongue to the roof of my mouth as well. Breathing was to be in and out through the nose. He also taught that all of his teachers emphasized exhaling longer than you inhale.
If I followed these instructions while doing Tai-Chi, and throughout my day, my ch'i, or internal energy, would sink to my tan-t'ien, the energy center located 2-3 inches below my navel, acupuncture point CV 6, known as the "sea of ch'i," or ch'i hai.
I was able to do the alignments, and switch from chest breathing to belly breathing, and finally close my mouth and become a nose breather. My health greatly improved and I soon possessed amazing amounts of energy. My allergies completely disappeared, and my breathing became deep, slow, smooth, and calm. But I was still confused about my ch'i and my tan-t'ien.
Master Liang explained that the ch'i is a latent energy in the body that is simulated by abdominal breath, and waist rotation. He said once the energy was stimulated, it would become heat. I felt heat under my navel, and throughout my body. Sometimes the heat was in one area or moved in one direction. Other times it seemed to be everywhere!
So, I was able to breath the way he taught, and I felt internal energy, but I was still unsure if I had sunk my ch'i to the tan-t'ien. You have to know, Master Liang hated questions about ch'i. It wasn't because he didn't know or experience it. It was because the word ch'i has so many meanings and uses.
Sensing my frustrations Master Liang gave me an easy way to think about, and practice, sinking my ch'i to the tan-t'ien. I have used this in my own practice and for more than 36 years of teaching. It's simply this, substitute breath for ch'i and abdomen for tan-t'ien.
"Sink your breath to your lower abdomen," or,
"Breath with your belly."
So when I teach, I quote the Classic, but then put it into easier terms. If your shoulders are up and tense, your chest stuck out, and you breathe with your mouth, it's difficult to sink your ch'i and get all the health, relaxation, and circulation benefits from Tai-Chi. You will also run out of energy and rely on arm strength for power.
There are so many scientific results from researching chest verses belly breathing, and using the nose as opposed to using the mouth. Also the connection with chest breathing and panic attacks, stress, depression, and PTSD. Not only is it good to belly breathe using the nose whole doing your form, it is even better if it becomes your full-time habit and method.
After over 40 years of practicing, I made a discovery which changed my breathing and made my breathing and Tai-Chi even more relaxed. Master Liang told me that all his teachers of both martial arts and meditation said the same thing; you should exhale longer than you inhale. This is to " get rid of all dirty things." After studying the breath techniques of Wim Hof, Stig Severinsen, and the Oxygen Advantage, I found a new way to have my exhalation be longer than my inhalation, without any strain or focus. I am able to do fast and slow forms without panting at the end or straining in the middle. I can easily forget my breath and pay attention to my spirit and will. The meditative aspects of my solo from are deepening daily and I'm more excited to practice today than I was yesterday. What is is my discovery?
I used to breathe in my normal amount, and then try to exhale more than that, using energy to have my exhale be longer. Now, I simply breathe out my normal, relaxed, amount, and inhale a little bit LESS! It's now so easy to have my exhale be longer than my inhale! This has changed the feeling of my breath and solo form, not to mention, weapons and the other styles I practice. I can't wait for CoViD19 to be over so I can apply this breath method to pushing-hands and partner work, and fencing! And, it's so easy to sink my ch'i to the tan-t'ien...
Links for breathing: