Breathing and Chi

"Without breath, there can be no life."   Most who hear the words dismiss them as trite, comical, a simple statement of the obvious.  However, when spoken by a Master, the meaning is profoundly more complex.

We become transfixed when discussing "Ki" or "Chi".  Those who have it, or who know it, are expected to perform supra natural feats.  Those who don't, should watch.  We've all seen demonstrations of breaking, unbendable arms, bending re-bar or swords with one's neck, crushing blocks set on bodies lying on beds of nails, etc.  But is that "Chi", or simply a good performance?  When David Copperfield does the impossible, does he use "Chi"?  Is what you see what is really happening?

It's always interesting to visit the Chinese language and  gain insight into what is being communicated with a word.  "Chi", the word you associate with "Ki", is the same character for breath (as in normal breathing).  In Chinese to breathe is to "he chi", to drink or consume breath or air.  A car is a "chi che" or steam cart...note how the meaning is changed slightly by the context of usage.  A train would be a "huo chi che" or fire steam cart...and so forth.  Generally the word shows up everywhere, like a thread connecting the concept of breath, with the application of energy.  Something which utilizes "Chi" is enlivened by it, without "Chi" all that remains is the inanimate object, waiting for external impulse.  With "Chi", the entity becomes self actualizing, alive, capable of performance.

I learned a long time ago that when  sitting in a bar and someone enters betting  $1000.00 they can pull a talking rabbit out of their hat,  it would be foolish to take the bet.  That is, unless you want to see a talking rabbit get pulled out a hat.  Once, during a business trip to New Orleans, I visited the French Quarter and was confronted by some street youth who offered a $2.00 bet they could tell me where I got my shoes at.  Though I knew better, I was interested in how it would play out, so I agreed.  They told me  "Where you got your shoes at" was "On your feets."

A word of advice...don't look to "Chi" if you want to levitate, become invisible, jump through space and time, astral project, visit alien worlds, stop bullets, arrows, etc., etc., etc.  Unfortunately, there are some who will try to convince you to do just that...just before they try to sign you up for their program.

Remember that "Chi", if anything, is ordinary, and universal, just like the Chinese character.  Masters of  martial arts quickly lose tolerance for students who are no sooner through the door than they demand to learn the secrets of "Chi".  Yes, we all want to hit the lottery, and we all crave the emperor's jewels.  But to ask for or expect it on day one is insufferably arrogant.  Acquiring understanding of "Chi" means mastering the ordinary.  Translating...mastering the ordinary is something 99% of incoming martial artists will never accomplish.  However, those who try, most likely will, but it will take years.  Go check out your average martial artist with 25 or more years experience.  You'll be amazed at what he or she can do, and how the ordinary, through them, has become something mysterious and magical.

By now, you're probably getting the idea that "Chi" is not something easily defined.  True!  But in the alternative, allow me to share some of the characteristics common to  persons I've known to have developed their "Chi" to high level:

1.  They are in wide awake.  Ever come across a situation where, afterwards, you ask yourself why you never saw it coming?  If you were aware and awake, you would have!  Persons with high "Chi" have a radar for danger or intrigue.  They know when the fight has started, often before the attacker does.  Their lives are characterized by a sense of balance and harmony, as though trouble and ill will avoid them entirely.  Of course, nothing avoids them...they are always navigating in "Chi" flowing between the trees and the rocks.

2.  They can project incredible power, upon command.  This might be in the form of certain types of breaking, or in the ability to move attackers about at will.  I know of a 69 year old lady  (Mrs. Fujiko Gardner, Master of Ai Ki Do) who can physically resolve any attack, and then return to her business unaffected.  The diminutive Mrs. Gardner can take you down with finesse or with  "Chi", whatever your preference.  You might find one moment she is a waif, the next, she is a mountain.  Or suddenly she seizes you in her vice like grip, and you're down, confused, unable to continue the attack (your confusion would also be an intended consequence of her response).

Master Isidro Archibeque is a legend in the Pacific Northwest, not only for his staggering record of breaking accomplishments, but also for his ability to transform from a freely moving martial artist into an outer worldly opponent, who can't be physically moved, or penetrated.  If he chooses, your punches and kicks suddenly bounce from his body, your arm bars and joint locks can no longer be applied, or have no effect.  There are countless stories and anecdotes regarding his abilities.  There was, for example, the nurse who broke several needles trying to draw blood for a physical exam (Sifu doesn't like needles!).

In a different vein, Judo Master Jerry Dalien frequently demonstrated his ability to extend "Chi" out and away from his body, causing a person standing in its path to drop backwards.  He points his fingers, the balance slowly erodes.

3.  They sometimes possess a  "soft" or "embracing energy", which when meeting with the incoming attack, completely dissolves the threat and allows for it to be redirected.  Picture Tai Chi, and its pushing hands drill, then transpose that into everything you do.  While living in California, I was acquainted with a very old Tai Chi Master (he would not approve my naming him here) who was once attacked by some street thugs in Monterey.  I stood across the street and was preparing to rush and assist when I saw the body of one attacker sailing over the hood of a car, and the body of a second bouncing off an adjoining wall.  He had done nothing but change the position of his body, adjusting for their incoming energy, embraced it, then returned it.

4.  Their balance is impeccable.  Though appearing quite ordinary, scrutiny of their balance and posture will reveal volumes on how mind, body and spirit should be aligned.  It doesn't matter if they use a cane, or lie in a sick bed.  You can still see it (if you look very close).  Consequently, their leverage is superior in every situation.  Come at them as they sit, and sailing you go.  Attack while they are lying down, and suddenly they loom above you like an animal about to feast.

5.  They move with nature.  This is not easily explained, or appreciated, since so many of us work out in health clubs or the like.  Historically, martial artists intentionally exposed themselves to the environment, and its changing conditions.  My teacher was adamant about "steeling" the body.  We worked in snow drifts, ocean waves, during rain squalls, in the wind, on desert sands, the more challenging, the better.  In time,  wind seemed to move within our blood vessels, imbuing our spirits with the same unseen driving energy, and again, in time, we could summon this energy when needed, and command it at will.

6.  When caught off guard, they survive.  I remember the story of one Master who was struck in the head with a baseball bat.  The bat literally broke in two.  The master turned to face the attacker, and the shocked assailant ran.  There was no injury, no mark, no loss.

7.  They control the confrontation.  Master Russ Kauffroath of Sam Pai Kenpo epitomizes this characteristic.  Have you ever played cups and ball, where you had to pick the cup with the ball under it.  Not only can you not pick the right cup, but before long, there are balls showing up everywhere, just not where you are saying they should.  Finally, you point to a cup, lift it, and an orange drops out.  Technically, this is the least mysterious of the characteristics, because it's associated with awareness, but then again, it could be a trick.  When a master of "Chi" does it, there is no trick, and its happening all the time.  If you don't believe me, go spar with Master Russ.  Staring across at him (remember the story of Matsumura?) you already begin to feel hollowness in your stomach...there is the sense  he knows what you are about to do...even worse, that he's making you do what you are about to do.  Very disconcerting indeed!

8.  They are committed.  When they say something, consider it a promise.  You might recall Miyagi's words from the movie (Karate Kid) to the effect that Karate is either "Yes or No...never in between."  Inherent in any understanding of "Chi" or its application, is commitment.  You are either going to do it, or you are not.  You choose.  If you elect to go for it, have no doubts.  If you elect not to, have no regrets.  Every Master understands this.  "Chi" Masters, to the person, are serious as heart attacks, even when they appear to be joking.  That's because they are no longer hampered by barriers.  It's as though we spend a lifetime learning the limitations of our abilities.  Suddenly, we find a path where the possibility arises for us to move beyond those barriers.  However, we've spent our lifetimes training (actually training by not training....not training being equivalent to training to do nothing)  to accept the barriers and to integrate them completely into our performance.  For many, this lifetime of conditioning is an insurmountable barrier.  On its other side lies "Chi."  The hammer which brings down the wall is "commitment."  In our own style (Gun Fu), we are reminded of this in the name itself.  The word "Gun" in Gun Fu tells us our knowledge is like a gun.  It must be respected, treated with the greatest care, and because of the commitment behind it, never used unless there is no alternative.

Now...with all of the above in mind, where does one start on this path in pursuit of "Chi"?

The universal answer is breath...learning to breathe so that "Chi" can flow unimpeded.

I'm going to take this opportunity to share a few breathing exercises with you.  First, I need to caution.  If you undertake these, or any other breathing exercises, be mindful of unusual sensations.  If you feel faint, stop!  The same...if you see black or red or white, stop!  Working on breathing exercises can sometimes leave you feeling like you've been blowing up numbers of balloons.  You can become faint, especially at first, when your abilities and capacities are undeveloped.

These are the Tan Jun breathing exercises of Hap Ki Do.  There are several layers of exercises, first the basic, then the intermediate.  We have found that all of the basic exercises are incorporated into the intermediate set, so we prefer to teach the intermediate set from the start.  That way, you don't have to learn a basic set, then replace them later with a new set.

These breathing exercises are ancient.  Go to the library and check out some texts on Chinese History, especially as it pertains to Bodhiharma.  You may stumble upon some drawings portraying his teaching of technique to disciples.  Some of those drawings will be representations of these very same exercises.  Needless to say, if it was good enough for Bodhiharma, it's good enough for us.

In all of the exercises which follow, keep the following guidelines in mind:

1.  Breathe in through the nose, and move the incoming breath into your abdomen.  It should feel like you are placing it into your stomach, and your abdominal wall should bulge, and become firm.  An advanced student might describe the sensation as feeling like there was a basketball in the stomach.  Don't overfill with air, usually 75% of capacity is enough.

2.  Grab the ground with you feet.  For some, this requires they twist their feet toes inward.  As you do this, there should be moderate tension in your legs, extending to your buttocks.

3.  The "live hand" figures prominently in virtually all of the exercises.  This hand configuration can be visualized as your hand being spread wide open, with slight tension on your fingers.  In other words, if someone grabbed your fingers, they would be springy.  Put your hands in front of your body, then imagine they are holding a basketball.  Now...tense the hands...that's the "live hand".

4.  In all but exercise #4, you begin the exercise with a controlled exhalation of breath, maintaining the elements described above.  This usually starts with the utterance of a strong "utz", which then trails off into an "sssssss...." sound as the breath releases.  When your air is almost completely discharged, you transition from the "sssssss...." sound to a "saaaaah..." as your whole body relaxes.

5.  Each of the exercises should be repeated three times, with the exception of #4, which is executed as two sets of 60 repetitions.

6.  Never do more than the described number of repetitions in a single session.  You'll progress better by doing a single session every day, or by doing the exercises as part of your warm-up before working out.

Ok...keeping those guidelines in mind, let's move on with our study.

I have set up video clips for each of the breathing exercises.  The clips are for you to view, and to use as a reference.  Before trying anything, listen carefully to the pattern of breathing.  Make sure you understand the breathing sequence before trying the exercise.  All of the clips are set up with the recommended number of repetitions. 

Exercise #1 (energy forward and up):

Tan Jun #1


Exercise #2 (energy to the side and above):

Tan Jun #2


Exercise #3 (energy from the rear, to the front):

Tan Jun #3


Exercise #4 (shooting energy to the front):

Tan Jun #4


Exercise #5 (lifting energy from the ground to form a wall):

Tan Jun #5


If you practice these diligently, within several months you will notice changes in your awareness.  You will be more alert in unfamiliar situations, and will sense when danger lurks.  When being struck or impacted, you will sense the energy  moving through you, rather than into you.  When setting a stance, you will feel more grounded, when evading, more light.

There will be more, but as for that, I will trust your sense of discovery.

Addendum of February 1, 2009:

Responding to questions regarding the relationship of “mind” and “consciousness” to the movement of energy, we have added this supplemental video detailing one of our own techniques for anchoring the full power potential of your movement to your mind and willful control.

Moving Mind:

Moving Mind


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