Breath and Internal Strength

by Mike Sigman

This article forms part 3 of a 3 part series of interlinked writings on the baseline skills of tai-chi and the internal martial arts. They are best read sequentially. This article originally appeared in the Mike Sigman blogspot in October, 2012. The enclosed videos were not part of the original content.

Note: this is a basic discussion of mechanics and is not a recommendation. Breathing exercises, when done gently and over a long period of time are toning, but like most other things these exercises can be done improperly with adverse effects on health. Consult your doctor if you have questions.

The “baseline” articles on Silk-reeling and Jin need to be rounded out with a “here are the basic points on Breath” article. All three of the topics are intertwined immutably. Jin relates to the powers from the earth that are controlled in a person; breath matters relate to the powers we borrow from air/heaven and use in our training; silk-reeling/six-harmonies (and related) skills are how we train the body to handle and interact with the powers from the earth and heaven. Since the basics of reeling silk body movements are the first thing that the Chen Village people teach, I tried to mesh into their pedagogy with the silk-reeling article and then move to other topics.

Traditional martial-arts are going to stress the basic forms and will tend to broach the subject of “qi” (in terms of “suit”, jin, etc.) through comments about relaxation and postures. “Jin” is probably the most interesting first topic dealing with “qi” for many people, but it has to be understood that “jin” is a function of intent, suit, and breath, so the silk-reeling article was necessarily the first article and the jin article logically follows as the second article. Breath is an obvious third discussion. None of the major topics is a stand-alone topic, so it’s easy to see why “qi” seems to be talking first about one thing and then later about something else, among the three major topics. Everything is interrelated in the over discussion of the qi skills and developments of the human body.

breath training

Breath training should be used in conjunction with movement, jin, power, dantien, and so on, but it is a very deep topic in itself. The “suit” approach and the discussion of jin can be logically examined because the relationship to gravity (ground-support and down-weight) can be analyzed and demonstrated from basic physics. Breath, breathing exercises, pressure, and so on are not so clear-cut though. The general principles can be discussed, but when it comes to which approaches are best/better, it becomes a moot topic.

Breathing methods have fixed principles, but the spectrum of methodologies have a wide variation across Chinese, Japanese, etc., martial arts. Most breath-training (qigongs, kiko, neigongs, etc.) methods are usually closely held within individual arts. For example there’s a fairly common southern Shaolin qigong from Taiwan, Fujian, and points west which is widely distributed (you can see a version in some of Mantak Chia’s books), but it’s difficult to get access to many other qigongs. That being said, if you understand the basic principles and a few of the more general variations, most qigongs and neigongs (“internal exercises”) aren’t that difficult to analyze.

Because it’s difficult to get complete information on breath-training methods (I’ve only had access to three and I know there are some nuances I missed, even then), you’ll see a lot of purported “internal” arts in southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and so on, that actually utilize a lot of Shaolin training methodology. As noted in the other two articles, mixing a whole-body methodology with a body-training system that is not whole-body doesn’t work very well. However, it should be fairly easy to spot an “external style” (waijia) qigong being passed off as an “internal style” (neijia) qigong.

If I recall correctly, I believe Kumar Frantzis noted that when he moved to Beijing he realized that a lot of the internal-arts he’d studied on Taiwan actually were hybridized with southern Shaolin methodologies. In the US and UK, because of our early influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. (remember, mainland China was closed until about 1980), and because so many people studied on Taiwan and Hong Kong, a lot of the “internal arts” we see (or saw) were actually hybridized with southern Shaolin practices, to some degree. Since the original teachers of the northern “internal arts” who visited southern China were sparing in showing all the training methodology, some importation of training gongs and practices from Shaolin was inevitable in order to fill in gaps. Hence some of the situations we see nowadays.

The point through all this is that while the basics of qigongs are reasonably clear, the optimal methods can’t be clearly extrapolated from a bedrock analysis in a logical way like the other two main articles… and therefore they represent more of opinion, experience, and observation.

training basics

If there is any single starting-point in qigong studies, it is that the connective tissues can be worked through stretching and contraction of various sorts, often involving breathing, stretching, holding postural stretches and pressure aspects.

I usually suggest that people stand up straight (slightly stretched) with their arms and hands stretched out fully to the sides. Sometimes, as an aid, the hand can be slightly bent back to enhance the “stretch” feeling in the hand. Then inhale through the nose while slightly pulling the stomach/abdomen in and keep the perineum area pulled up, in order to help contain pressure. Generally, most people will feel a slight increase in pressure in their body and there will be a slight pulling toward the torso centre of what I call the “suit”. Try it and see if you can at least feel the pulling sensation around the fingers and hand, perhaps even to the forearm, etc. As one’s training continues, the slight pulling sensation will gradually spread over the whole body, but at first a good idea is to pre-stretch any part of the body that you are trying to access with this method.

There are a number of variations to this type of pulling sensation induced by inhale. Often you can see the idea of initiating a pull described as “breathing in the qi” at a certain point. It’s not hard to apply the same pulling to the pores of the skin and to feel a subsequent tightening and pulling inward of the skin. This is “skin breathing”. Or, similarly, one can initiate the tensions at the protruding points of bones (like the knees, elbows, toes, fingertips). Sometimes this is referred to as “bone breathing”.

The overarching point, though, is that an inhale of breath can be used to assist a tensioning of the fascial tissues in the body and the fascial tissues need to be connected to the dantien so that the dantien can control the body. Breath, Silk-Reeling, and Jin all work together.

A lot of seated and standing meditations, in addition to martial-arts, utilize these techniques of tensioning with the breath, and some movement training is done by initiating the tension inward while opening the limbs outward. Conversely, sometimes closing movements are aided in their “store” by these types of breath-initiated tensions.

natural and reverse breathing

There are two main types of breathing: natural-breathing and “reverse”-breathing. Natural breathing is the type of breathing where the inhale expands the abdomen, hopefully somewhat not only in the front, but in the kidney areas, also. “Reverse”-breathing refers to the idea that on the inhale the lower abdomen comes somewhat in and then goes somewhat out on the exhale. Because the lower-abdomen isn’t allowed to expand on a reverse breath, there is a slight pressure build-up in the abdominal area.

“Natural Breathing” is often confused with directions from a qualified teacher saying to “breathe naturally”. In fact, because of limited English skills in some experts, it can be difficult to understand whether by “Natural Breathing” they mean abdominal-breathing or whether they’re simply saying something like “don’t worry about the breath stuff, just breathe naturally”.

When learning a form or qigong, etc., usually the choreography comes first and correct breathing and/or trained breathing is too much to try and add into the potion, so most students are simply encouraged to breathe naturally, although of course you don’t want to breathe in such a way that needless chest expansion occurs. You want to breathe into the dantian area, but not fixate on it so much that it interferes with learning other beginning moves and exercises at the beginning.

Reverse Breathing is the type of breathing practiced in the internal-arts proper, after real development and training begins. Reverse breathing does a number of things, but it does two things that are particularly important for someone who is learning to move the whole body as a connected unit, as described in the Reeling Silk article:

Note again that a person who functionally uses normal “external” strength is not going to be doing the same things that are involved in a cultivated “whole body” controlled by the dantian, so reverse breathing in essentially external-movement arts is a different situation from in a real internal-art. Some element of pressure and controls, though, is still used in the so-called “external” martial-arts; the comment was simply to note that there are inherent differences in what the different types of breathing exercises do because of the different body development strategies.

In reverse-breathing and in natural-breathing there is an increase in the connecting tension of the whole body and there is an increase in pressure, particularly in the abdominal and kidney areas. However, reverse-breathing is able to focus the tension and pressures better and is pretty much the standard in all of the internal martial-arts that I’m aware of.

From a side view, here’s an illustration of roughly what the dantian area does through an inhale-to-exhale cycle. Pressure goes firstly up the back and then is pulled down the front as the dantian goes out; this matches precisely with the movements described in the Silk-Reeling article:

dantien control during reverse breathing

pressure basics

Within the body cavities, breath initiated tensions are used in conjunction with the increase in pressure to train and develop the connective tissues.

As a person inhales while either slightly pulling in the abdomen or at least holding it in stasis so that it isn’t allowed to bulge outward, the diaphragm comes down. It must come downward or air can’t be pulled into the lungs. As the diaphragm comes downward and the front of the abdomen is kept from expanding outward, pressure increases in the abdominal cavity and kidney areas. There is a training advantage to this type of pressure (in and around the internal organs), but it can also obviously cause some problems until the body develops correctly to accommodate the pressure. That is, this type of training must be approached slowly and cautiously.

Chen Zhaosen describes reverse breathing

subtitles by John Prince.

I’ve seen some people practice these types of exercises with their arms and legs somewhat tense. If you think about it, that can be a pretty dangerous tactic. With the lungs full of air and the limbs tensed the increased pressure in the abdominal cavity has another outlet: the cranium. That’s dangerous: pressure should be kept out of the cranium.

In the olden days of India and China, breath-pressure training was accompanied by the same three “locks” (“bandhas” in yogic practices). The anus/perineum area is pulled up to help restrain the pressure on the lower side. The abdomen is pulled in to restrain pressure in that area. The chin is tucked slightly to help prevent the pressure from going into the head. Qigong, Neigongs, and martial-arts trainings use the same locks in both India and China, for the most part.

Most of western yogic practices, just like most western versions of Asian martial-arts, seem to be bereft of understanding about the relationships of fascia, dantien, pressure and the two “energies” of gravity… even though the presence of these locks, discussions of the “centre”, and so on should be a giveaway.

what breathing exercises do

As you can guess, the pressure aspect of breathing exercises can get more complicated (very much more so), but ideas of “suit” tensioning and pressure manipulation should clarify why the term of “Balloon Man” is actually fairly appropriate.

Your balloon needs to be slightly inflated and the skin of the balloon needs to be conditioned, connected and cover the entire surface in order for a person to move well in the silk-reeling/six-harmonies sense. The pressure and the skeletal structure aid in the propagation of Jin.

Breath practice and exercises aid movement of the body and dantian and can condition the body in unusual ways. Breathing and stretching the connective-tissue and “packing” (pressurizing) the breath will develop the body’s conditioning, affecting mainly the connective tissues, tendons, etc. The constant tension and release of properly done breathing will also gradually increase bone density. Breath controls call tensions to different areas of the body through the use of the mind, another part of the “intent” of willing things to happen, in addition to aspects of movement and the direction of forces.

Another point, if you think about it, is that breath involvement with the body-wide “suit” tensions is going to affect movement (and therefore power) in a radically different way in a body that uses isolated, normal strength (even if rudimentary muscle-jin is present) than in a body that is essentially a single unit controlled by the dantian. This is why I mentioned in the silk-reeling article that while knowing how to pack the body and use some variant of pressure-pulsing (to hit, etc.) is nice, there is going to be a big difference in methodology and results in the internal-styles’ unit-body than in the body using normal strength.

Breathing exercises (along with jin controls) also develop the intrinsic elastic strength of the body, and last, but not least, the breath exercises are a major contributor to the unusual power referred to as “qi”. However, those discussions are beyond the scope of this baseline-oriented article. The one comment along those lines that I’ll offer is that a lot of the mechanical analyses of “how to do punch X” are somewhat missing the point because the “qi” forces should be paramount.

breath’s place in movement

In most movements using reverse-breathing, there is a sequence of “tension” (not a good word for what is happening, but close enough for foot-in-the-door discussion) that goes up the back of the “suit” as the dantien turns on the inhale; then, on the exhale, the dantien pulls the area of tension down the front. This is the basically the breathing side of the “microcosmic orbit” discussion in the Silk-Reeling article. The breathing aids the movement.

Lifting the arms up in the opening movement to Taiji forms involves not only the jin from the ground and the upward turn of the suit by the dantian, it also involves a slight “tensioning” (at first learned by breath) up the back and over the tops of the arms (to be cautious, let’s note again that the whole ‘suit’ is involved, not just isolated parts). As the arms go downward, not only does the dantian turn and the weight of gravity shift to the undersides of the body surfaces, the tensioning connection to the dantian on the under surfaces increases. Movement is assisted not only with selective tensioning of the “suit” along the appropriate channels, but also by selective manipulation of pressures within the body.

In the arm-wave example in the Silk-Reeling article, the inhale assists the tensioning of the “suit” on the back in raising and outward-swing of the arm: the appropriate channels or segments of the “suit” that are needed to assist a movement are brought into play. This movement is called “Heng” in Chinese and “Un” in Japanese. The exhale assists with suit relaxation and contraction to bring the arm down and inward: this is “Ha” or “A”. Naturally, the complete body is affected in the breathing so all the body tensions/connections are involved, down to the feet.

For someone just learning the basic movements of the body, the inhale and ground-support is used to assist the general Open and the exhale and gravity is used power closing. This is a common learning sequence of movements within the internal martial-arts: first use the inhale to assist Opening and then use the exhale as an assist to a natural closing. As a person begins to practice beyond the stage of just learning the general movements, more often there is a focus on inhales as the body Closes and tensions and pressure “store” in the cycle of movement. Then the exhale is used along with other factors to affect the power-release.

That second general mechanic is not just something in the internal arts: it’s very common for all the Chinese martial-arts to refer to the use the breath effects in conjunction with some basic jin in conjunction with the body for “swallow and spit”, “absorb and project”, Heng - Ha, and so on. Anyone with general familiarity with Chinese martial-arts will recognize those types of terms and will hopefully understand the common relationships.

Using pichuan as an example for breath and power relationships, the cycle of movement is famously “Rise, Drill, Fall, Overturn”, but if you look at it more simply, as you’re inhaling and winding inward (legs, too), power is being “stored”; as you release, adding down-weight, pressure, and so on, you are exhaling. This is the very typical “store and release”, “absorb and project”, and other similar terms that describe this basic movement in Asian martial-arts. The trick is to not get involved in just the mechanics of the punch, but in feeling the inhale/store, the winding, the whole body as a Balloon Man, the jin, and so on. It’s easy to copy appearances and to miss the real complexities of the internal-arts. And please note that there are more advanced skills that are based on the principles already discussed, but which are beyond the scope of these baseline discussions.

Breathing in conjunction with the winding and unwinding of store-and-release, while doing forms training, will work the body in such a way that an “Iron Shirt” will be developed, to some degree. Similarly, proper use of breath, jin, and body-connection channels during a martial-arts form will strengthen the internal organs, the bones, etc. In that manner, many/most Chinese martial-arts can be said to be actual moving qigongs.

1) Silk Reeling, aka Six Harmonies Movement

2) Peng Jin


Traditional tai-chi (Taijiquan) spacer