The title of this post might sound a bit like a Zen koan, but it’s something one of my teachers asked me if I could do. In typically traditional and mystical fashion, he left me to figure out what it meant.
I spent quite a bit of time contemplating the question, pondering the nature of the breath, looking at different breathing techniques, observing the breath to see if I could shed light on the rather cryptic lesson. At the time I was at the height of my Taiji nerdity, and I systematically went through all the principles to see if they would shed any light on how to breathe without breathing. Reaching the answer took a few years.
In that typically clichéd Golden Harvest Kung Fu movie fashion, the answer came to me whilst I was reminiscing about my childhood in Malaysia. It’s one of my earliest memories, and I think I was about five. One day I became acutely aware that I was breathing. My chest was moving and air was entering my lungs before I emptied my lungs. I was concentrating on breathing in, filling my lungs, and breathing out, emptying them. It occurred to me that I was controlling my breath and then it all came crashing into my fragile 5-year old mind.
What happens if I stop trying to breathe?
Naturally, this really scared me. What would happen? Would I stop breathing and asphyxiate? Was it possible for me to survive without breathing? What’s Mum going to say when she realises I’m not breathing? Ahmagawd! I’ve not even done my chores! I couldn’t contemplate the consequences to the last question, but I knew they’d be worse than when I shaved my eyebrows off for a laugh.
You might be thinking that it’s all kinda obvious, that I’d have to have been breathing, but to my little 5-year old brain predisposed to missing the obvious, it posed a rather interesting and frightening problem.
This was the point when I realised that I’d got so caught up in the retribution I’d get for not doing my chores. I’d stopped trying to breathe, but a funny thing was happening. I was still breathing! I was not consciously trying to control my breath, and I was just letting my body breathe by itself as it wanted to. I was breathing, without breathing
Naturally I was relieved that this was the case. I’d be able to get my chores done, and all those images in my mind of being a zombie child vanished (The music video of Thriller was fresh in my mind). No life of being undead for me, I’d still be alive and breathing although I’d probably not stay that way for much longer if I didn’t get my chores done.
Now having worked it out, and put it into my practise, I have come to understand the wisdom of my teacher. Here are three ways breathing without breathing can help your Taijiquan:
- You won’t hold your breath – Your body is doing the breathing so it’ll always keep itself breathing, only pausing naturally between each breath. As you’re not holding your breath, you won’t hold tension, which leads me on to..
- You can explore deeper levels of relaxation: Now that you’re not unconsciously tensing yourself up by holding your breath, your body is free to relax even further, for free! You won’t have to concentrate on relaxing as your body will start to do it for you.
- You let your body do what it needs to: Your body will take in as much air as it needs at any given time, and the best thing to do is to just let it do this. You can trust it, it knows how hard, how fast and how deep it needs to breathe.
The last point is by far the most powerful one. We sigh to release tension, we breathe quicker and more deeply to feed our muscles oxygen, our body regulates our breathing for us to do whatever we need at the time, and we don’t even have to think about it.
It’s amazing if you think about it.
One of the fundamental steps in healing is to stop doing anything that’s going to make the situation worse, and letting the body breathe and regulate itself is one way of doing this.
Even if we have bad breathing habits, our body will, if we just let it, start to breathe appropriately for our state at the time. All we have to do is get out of the way.
So how do you learn to breathe without breathing?
The principle is easy to explain and is an extension of the technique explained in the post about breathing and form.
All you have to do is to become more aware of your breathing, observe and understand it, watch how it changes and what happens to it when you do various activities.
When you become aware of your breathing, you will then know when you are messing with it, i.e. deliberately breathing like I did when I was 5, or when you are letting your body breathe.
Deliberate breathing has a different feel altogether, like when you breathe in just before a sigh.
Natural breathing just happens. Stop your breath for an instant, and then just watch what happens next. Your body will just start breathing again, all by itself, and that feeling of your body just doing it, is what you need to get to.
This can be a bit scary, the conscious mind starts to think like me when I was 5. It’ll probably say
“WHAT!!! NOT BREATHING???!? ARE YOU NUTS!!?”
Yeah, big scary caps like that. Ignore your conscious mind. If my little story from when I was 5 proves, your body will simply start to breathe as nature intended it to.