Vajrapani, in a 9th century representation from Dunhuang, is the guardian deity whose symbol inspired the Chen Taijiquan posture of "Buddha's Warrior Pounds Mortar" 金刚捣碓, thus linking taiji symbolism to ancient breathing methods.
The two vajra temple spirits you can often see guarding the entrance of temples stand for the heng and ha sounds which are contained within a lot of gongfu practice, and thus also in Chen Taijiquan. They are called General 哈 ha and General 哼 heng in Chinese and have an open and closed mouth, respectively. The sounds heng and ha are the Chinese versions of "om" and embody the beginning and the end of the Sanskrit alphabet and, figuratively, the beginning and end of life.
In the Chen Taijiquan of our line there is a specific internal method neigong, which could be translated as "internal work" or "internal exercise". This describes a certain work with our consciousness 意识 yishi, the development of the expansive force 掤 peng as well as the coordination of intention and breathing and the execution of internal movements. It should be viewed as a method to delve deeper into the body method. However, some simple contents from neigong can already be introduced at an early stage of training.
Abdominal, following and contrary (reverse) breathing
Generally speaking we want to have abdominal breathing so the body can relax and form a stable structure with a firm body centre. There are two different types of deep abdominal breathing. One is called "following" 顺式 shunshi, the other is called "contrary" 逆式 nishi. What you use is dependent on the level of your training as well as the effects you want to achieve, which is why the "right breathing" can be wrong if the body method (shenfa) has not been developed accordingly. As a consequence this topic can become quite complex if seen in relation to other methods which all form a part of the overall Taijiquan practice.
Rules of thumb
Regardless of the particular type of breathing, we breathe in through the nose and the breath should be slow, fine, constant, deep, long and throaty. What this means one has to show. Since the breath has such great metabolic effects and is closely linked to the body structure and the activity performed, I am not a big fan of going too deep into this in a blog article and I will not give any further specific instructions here as they might confuse rather than illuminate.
There are also different stylistic manifestations in Taijiquan, so I do not recommend transferring all types of breathing into any form without consulting someone who has got some experience in the respective discipline. For example, in a very basic version of Chen Taijiquan, with predominantly horizontal circles, it makes no sense and even be detrimental to use nishi abdominal breathing. One would have to progress and reach a certain execution of the forms to make use of it in a sensible way. It is all about coordinating attention, breath, and strength. The other components in this “equation” and not only the breathing should be observed as well.
Types of breathing Chen Taijiquan
When learning to breathe correctly, different learning phases can be separated from one another:
1. Absolute beginners up to basic frame practioners: breathe naturally 自然呼吸 ziran huxi
2. Basic to advanced frame: shunshi abdominal breathing 顺腹式呼吸 shun fushi huxi
3. Advanced to gongfu frame: nishi abdominal breathing 逆腹式呼吸 ni fushi huxi
Plus we could put a 4th phase on top, with a "new natural phase" 自然 呼吸 ziran huxi.
A lot of top notch sportsmen have come to realize how important breathing methods are and how they are connected to neurological training using eye focus and more. Some of these methods have been extracted by a variety of coaches and are now being taught to a wider audience - to be honest some of these seem quite shallow, at least from our perspective of practice.
In internal gongfu methods these methods are ingrained in a holistic and integrated art. Though you can extract these techniques usually you only reach a higher level not by separating them from the rest but by connecting them to other methods of practice. Otherwise they often lose their meaning. Of course, it is much easier just to separate and then pass it on to many people 😉 but I don't actually know how healthy is to teach this stuff to people you cannot personally coach. Well practiced these methods are very powerful tools in a holistic art.
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(The original image above is an excerpt from Vajrapani, ink and colours on silk; by courtesy of the British Museum, ©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.)