By: Nancy Zi
The Art of Breathing
Thirty Simple Exercises for Improving Your Performance and Well-being
by Nancy Zi
(Bantam Books, 1986, 160 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
As experienced Tai Chi players know, Tai Chi isn’t just waving your arms around in the air, even if it seems like that to onlookers not versed in the art. Rather, we are trying to fill our bodies and limbs with chi and learning how to manipulate that energy within us—and sometimes outside of us. But even if all living things embody chi, awareness of this energy and the means to amplify and manipulate it don’t just happen automatically.
The word chi has alternate meanings in Chinese, but it is generally linked both to internal energy and to air and respiration. There’s a good reason for that. Respiration is the engine that creates chi and propels it through the body. (I discuss the mechanisms of that in my own book, The Wellspring: An Inquiry into the Nature of Chi, for those who are curious.) Proper breathing technique is as essential to the correct performance of Tai Chi as are correct body alignments, relaxation, and a flexible waist. Unfortunately, most books on Tai Chi do not adequately discuss breathing, concentrating instead on the physical movements and implying that the chi flows naturally from the postures.
Not so. Correct postures will facilitate and direct chi flow, but they are more akin to clearing a water pipe of blockages to allow water to flow freely through it. Postures, in and of themselves, do not generate chi or cause it to flow. Chi is created in the tantien, often described as a point a couple of inches below and behind the navel, but this is misleading, too. Chi is created in the mass of intestines housed in the belly, and this mass is the real tantien. This mass produces chi as a direct result of mechanical stimulation, which is dramatically heightened by abdominal breathing.
Tai Chi books that do talk about breathing all say the same thing: Breathe abdominally. This means using a downward expansion and upward contraction of the diaphragm to pull air into the lungs and expel it again, rather than an outward and inward movement of the muscles of the chest wall. The downward expansion is what causes the mechanical stimulation of the intestines and the resulting amplification of chi. Some of these books also discuss the differences between what is called “natural abdominal breathing” and its alternative, “reverse abdominal breathing.” I don’t want to go into that here, because that’s a whole other discussion not specifically related to the content of Nancy Zi’s The Art of Breathing.
The key is that the techniques of abdominal breathing are critical to the generation of chi. Breathing abdominally is the only way to amplify and more strongly propel chi through the body. Zi is a classical singer, and as many readers know, good singing comes from the belly, not the chest, and thus employs abdominal breathing. Zi’s other interest is chi kung, though her book is addressed primarily to the singer. But while the book does not discuss Tai Chi, per se, the information is highly relevant to that art. In the book, Zi combines her knowledge of the two disciplines of singing and chi kung to deliver not just a deep understanding of the physiology of breathing, but some of the most sound information and advice available on this critical aspect of Tai Chi. This advice includes not just the concept and methodology of abdominal breathing, but also practical exercises to enhance its application and effects. Many of these are chi kung exercises designed to amplfy the chi and open up the body to allow the chi to flow more fully.
It would be pointless here to try to go into the specific content of the book. I’ll let Zi do that for herself. But I will say that this is a well-written and engaging textbook on abdominal breathing and its techniques. It is adequately illustrated in terms of quantity, very well in terms of quality. If you haven’t learned abdominal breathing and applied it to your Tai Chi, you’re missing out. Zi’s book can help you overcome this deficit and make your Tai Chi more empowering, no matter what your purpose in practicing. A Category III book, The Art of Breathing just might be essential to your Tai Chi training.