Monday Morning Tai Chi Training Tip # 442

Embryonic Breathing

Breath is life. Breath affects every aspect of our life – physical, emotional, spiritual. I think we can all agree that the more one breathes, the more alive one feels. Notice your breath when something wonderful happens, or when something makes you very sad. So different. When you see a cute little baby, or a romping puppy, one smiles and breathes deeply. When one encounters some tragic event, one frowns and takes short, little breaths. Tai Chi (martial qigong) is, at the most basic level, a breathing exercise.

There are two main breathing methods in Tai Chi practice.

First, let me say that in the ideal world, one should not have to pay attention to the breath. It would respond appropriately to the demand placed on the body whether it be heavy physical labor, or subtle, quiet, meditative movement. We practice breathing techniques so that we can arrive back to natural breath/movement coordination. Qigong, of which Tai Chi is a branch, is special meditative breathing exercise.

The two methods are “natural” or “reverse”. Natural is sometimes called Buddhist, Yogic, Belly, Diaphragmatic, while reverse is referred to as Taoist. Master Choy, the man I consider my primary Tai Chi teacher, always stressed natural breathing. It is the breathing pattern I use most of the time. I use reverse mostly for working on special martial or meditative techniques. It is rather complicated to describe so I leave it to you to research more fully through the writings of Bruce Frantzis or Jou Tsung Hwa.

Note:For a detailed discussion of Taoist Breathing Techniques I recommend going to and reading the article on Taoist Breathing by Bruce Frantzis. Mr. Frantzis is a true expert in all things martial, so take your time to nose around the site. Lots of valuable information.

You might think of natural and reverse breathing like floating on a river. Natural breathing is like putting a raft in a river and flowing downstream with the current. It won’t go upstream. If you want to go upstream, you need to attach a motor to the rear of the raft. Now you can go against the current. That is reverse breathing.

I learned this technique from Master Jou Tsung Hua, the author of my favorite Tai Chi book, The Tao of Tai Chi Chuan, (I refer to it as the Tai Chi Bible) which has an excellent explanation of reverse breathing. At the time I was working on this technique, I found it somewhat difficult until I could come up with images to get my body to do the right thing. Let me share one image with you that will help you get started on learning this technique..

A sperm fertilizes an egg. As it starts to grow and multiply, it attaches to the uterus, and a cord, called the umbilical cord forms as a way for the mother to feed the growing cells. This attaches to what will later be the belly button of the infant. The embryo takes in nutrition from the mother and gets rid of waste by sending it through the cord to the mother, who disposes of it through her lymph system. So here is the exercise.


Sitting or standing quietly, imagine you have an umbilical cord attached to your belly button. The other end is attached to your mother, the universe. As you inhale, energy is drawn in from the universe, through the cord to your belly. The inhale is like a sucking in – the belly contracts or pulls inward. As you exhale, send the waste products back out to the universe. The belly expands. That’s it.

One important point about reverse breathing. Don’t contract (pull up) the diaphragm when inhaling. That will just make reverse breathing less effective. It takes some practice to figure out how to do this. Don’t force the breath. Practice slow and steady. Also remember – you really only use the lungs to breathe, yet these accupoints – dantien and ming men- are stimulated by reverse breathing combined with the mind direction.

I like to think of the Dan Tien (more to the front of the belly) as my bank account. All the money (post birth energy) I earn by eating and breathing, gets deposited in the front of the belly. I use this for my day to day energy demands. The Ming Men, on the spine behind the Dan Tien, is where my trust fund (pre-birth chi) resides. To simplify, natural breathing increases the chi in the Dan Tien, and reverse breathing increases the chi in the Ming Men.

Take your time and really feel what you are imagining. Pull in energy through the umbilical cord as you inhale, and send out waste through the cord when you exhale. Simple, yet most people breathe naturally, which is the opposite – belly expands when inhaling and contracts when exhaling.

Yogi Bajan who set up an organization called the 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy) back in the 60’s, used this reverse breathing very vigorously and called it “The Breath of Fire”. It blew a lot of us early hippies away at the time. With this, one has to be a bit careful as it really gets the energy fired up and this fiery energy is then sent up the spine to the head top. The Yogis call this energy Kundalini. Same stuff.