Taijiquan Tempo and Breath

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The practice of Taijiquan is regulated by the breath, but every single deep and full breath has two distinct aspects that cannot be separated:

a) Microcosmic orbit

b) Macrocosmic orbit

The microcosmic orbit is the cycle of breath that travels upwards from the tip of the coccyx, through the spine, up and over the top of skull, and down into the palate of the upper jaw (also known as the Governing Vessel). The downward direction of this microcosmic orbit (also known as the Conception Vessel), travels from the tip of the tongue, down the centre-line of the front of the body, through the lower energy cultivation energy centre, around through genitalia and back to the coccyx. This single cycle of breath is restricted to the torso (hence its description of ‘microcosmic’, or ‘small circle’), and involves two main qi energy channels of circulation (as well as subsidiary channels). The cultivation of this type of ‘small circle’ breath involves (within seated Daoist meditation), a continuous circulation of at least 300 or 360 rounds of breath. There is a point in development within this seated practice where the restricted qi circulation becomes so strong that it breaks out of this limited ‘torso’ circulation, and quite naturally permeates the rest of the body.  This means that ‘macrocosmic’ (or ‘large circle’) circulation is achieved, which involves a cultivated qi energy travelling through the arms and legs without any undue effort whilst sat in the meditation posture.  The point of this awareness training is to remove all blockages that restrict qi flow in the numerous energy channels throughout the body, and attain a robust health (through strengthening and integration of qi energy, essential nature [jing], and empty spirit [shen]).

The movements of Taijiquan are performed standing-up, and by moving the body into and out of various martial postures involving the torso, arms and legs.  A deep and full breath is retained throughout (which fills and empties the lower ‘dan tian’, or ‘energy centre’) as the ‘microcosmic’ aspect, whilst qi energy simultaneously flows through the arms and legs – or the ‘macrocosmic’ aspect.  Within Taijiquan practice, the rule is that the centre (i.e. ‘microcosmic’ qi flow around the torso), always controls the periphery (i.e. ‘macrocosmic’ qi flow through the arms and legs).  This is because the macrocosmic breath emerges from the microcosmic breath, and not vice versa. Within modern Western logic, this is correct as the lungs (and heart organ) reside in the torso, and not in the arms and legs (despite the fact that qi energy [like blood], does flow back into the torso from the periphery).  Furthermore, severe damage to arms and legs can in theory be survived, whilst generally speaking, severe damage to heart and lungs is usually terminal.  This means that rather like a vinyl disc spinning on a record player, the periphery of the disc must travel faster to keep-up with the centre of the disc.  Therefore, the tempo of the Taijiquan movements can be either fast or slow, but the arms and legs must always move slightly faster than the torso (even if moved in a seemingly ‘integrated’ manner).  The speed of the microcosmic breath must be at a pace that matches the intended tempo of movement.  Obviously the breath can be slow, and if so, then the movements must also be slow and prolonged (meaning that such movements as ‘snake creeps down’ becomes elongated and slow so that the energy channels are fully stretched and unblocked in the legs).  If the microcosmic breath is quicker (as in the advanced state of the self-winding water wheel), then the tempo of the Taijiquan movements will be faster, but never rushed.  In this case, when ‘snake creeps down’ is performed, the onus is on swiftly moving down and then upward in one graceful and complete movement, so that the qi energy channels of the legs are invigorated and the practitioner spends the minimum amount of time low to the ground (and over-taxing the knee-joints). An important point to remember is that despite whatever tempo of movement or speed of breath is chosen, the torso and arms and legs must always operate in a fully united and integrated manner, and that this unity must never be compromised or broken – if qi energy is to flow efficiently from the centre to the periphery, (and back again) without a break. This is why the martial art of Taijiquan represents the perfected integration of ‘microcosmic’ and ‘macrocosmic’ breathing.

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