Understanding Embryonic Breathing , Part 3 – Techniques To Experience Tai Xi
18 Mar

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Tai Xi embryonic breathing

The concept of Embryonic Breathing (Tai Xi or T’ai Hsi) is probably well-known to most practitioners of QiGong or Daoism, yet the technique is widely misunderstood and mistaken for many things related or even unrelated. This three-part article is meant to clear up some of the confusion through dispelling myths, and introducing solid, down-to-earth explanations and techniques to follow, in order to understand the true meaning of breath. In this last article, Part 3 – Techniques To Experience Tai Xi, you will use the techniques learned from the previous parts with the experience and knowledge you’ve gathered about your breathing, to deepen your practice sufficiently, so that you would experience Tai Xi, the breathing of the embryo, yourself.

The true breathing of the embryo

Tai Xi Jing (Respiration of the Embryo), the original document describing embryonic breathing is, by all appearances mystical and its instructions hard to understand or carry out. Apart from the obvious Daoist mysticism and symbolism the text employs, a closer look reveals that some earthly, even anatomical facts, closely related to the phenomenon known as Tai Xi are hidden between the lines.

As discussed earlier, there are two types of respiration, internal and external, both essentially meaning the exchange of gases oxygen and carbon dioxide, one with the environment through the lungs (external respiration) and the other between the cells of the body and the bloodstream (internal respiration). Both require a constant supply of oxygen.

The embryo, inside the mother’s womb, is really only partaking in internal respiration of its own, drawing the oxygen supply from the mother’s bloodstream through the umbilical cord. As we have seen in Part 1, according to Tai Xi Jing, “…the embryo being brought into existence, the breath begins to move in respiration”. Symbolism aside (that of the breath in Daoist tradition and its connection to the spirit), the question remains, what is the moment, when the embryo is brought into existence? It might be the moment of conception. Thereafter its cells could be thought of as an entity quite separate from the mother’s body, its (internal) respiration being its own. The term “brought into existence” may however quite as well mean the moment of birth, when the external respiration of the newborn begins.

The breath of the newborn is imperfect and often irregular. The anatomy is still undeveloped, breathing like a newborn would be in no way advantageous for an adult practitioner, therefore we must assume, the Embryonic Breathing described by the text must be that of the unborn embryo. Of course, depending on an external supply of oxygen and without an umbilical cord, this seems to be unattainable. Some explanations of the phenomenon would go down the mystical route and claim that the practitioner would be in such a physical and spiritual state, that they would tap right into the energy of the universe, the original “Breath” and cease breathing altogether, being nourished only by a constant flow of universal energy through their bodies. Once such “ideal circumstances” are present, one would be able to put a feather under the nose of the practitioner and the feather would not move: A proof of the cessation of all breathing altogether.

Such explanations make two mistakes. One is, interpreting symbolism quite literally (an explanation of which is no intention of this article, the other is not fully understanding human anatomy. The former is a rather common problem, especially when interpreting ancient texts, while the latter is quite understandable, given that such explanations often originate from times, the knowledge of how the human body functions were wanting. Yet, even Tai Xi Jing gives us a clue, why one should not cease breathing: “The entrance of breath into the body is life; the departure of the spirit from the external form is death”. Regardless of how we might interpret the symbols of breath and spirit (usually meant as “will” in the text), the message seems clear: One who has stopped breathing, is usually dead.

This, of course, does not mean, we should dismiss the claims of the interpretations of Tai Xi Jing. A state in which one would have ceased breathing to all appearances is certainly attainable, and anatomically possible. It does not mean of course, that the practitioner would have stopped breathing, but the external respiration becomes so shallow, that for the external observer it would definitely look as if it has ceased completely. Of course, the circumstances must be ideal for this to happen, and this corresponds to the common “knowledge” about what is, rather symbolically, called The Breathing of The Embryo.

How breathing without breathing might be possible

Tai Xi Jing makes only one statement regarding the cessation of breath: “When the Spirit moves the Breath moves; when Spirit is still the Breath is still“. The spirit is usually regarded to symbolise the will in this context. When the will is still, the breath is still. (At this point we can be sure, the Chinese sage wording this text, have not been aware of how silly “will is still” would sound in English, so many centuries later.) This, coupled with observations of practitioners capable of attaining the breathing of the embryo, the conclusions were drawn: one must cease breathing. Now we know it is not the case, but to appear so, is not only possible, but it gives us the final clue as to how to interpret the true Tai Xi.

There is another oriental, although unrelated tradition, that of yoga, which focuses on breathing in near-scientific depths. Among the numerous breathing exercises of the yogi, there is one, obtainable through long practice and only by reaching superb relaxation of the body and mind, that has a very similar effect for the outside observer: the diaphragm will move so little drawing in an amount of air so minimal, that is only just enough to maintain basic life functions. From the outside, the yogi would look as if he has ceased breathing, his breath not observable even though the movements of a feather put under his nostrils.

Both traditions make use of the same anatomical observations: The body is capable of shutting down the functions of non-vital internal organs, in order to save oxygen. The phenomenon is known to western medicine and those with an interest in sports science may have heard of it. When undertaking rigorous exercise, such as running a marathon, the body will redirect the blood-flow towards the skeletal muscles, and away from non-vital organs, such as the digestive system, that takes up a considerable amount of energy and oxygen to function. By shutting off digestion, there will be more nutrients available for the muscles, so that one may run longer.

The oriental approach is only different in the way oxygen is restricted: Not by being used up by the muscles, but by reducing respiratory rates through a conscious control over one’s breath. As the oxygen levels drop, the body reacts. The heart-rate will reach its lowest, the non-vital organs will reduce their function, and may eventually shut off, the biggest oxygen and nutrient consumer, the brain goes into a deep resting state so that it does not require much energy. When the ideal circumstances are present, the breathing reduces to a level, that resembles the lack of external respiration. The minimal movement of the diaphragm may only be monitored by medical equipment, for the casual observer the practitioner will seem to have stopped breathing!

Of course Tai Xi Jing gives us some anatomical clues, and therefore proof, that the author was better versed in human anatomy than many who came after, trying to make sense of the text: “If the heart is perfectly devoid of thoughts—neither going nor coming, issuing nor entering—it will dwell permanently within of its own accord”. This might mean the heart itself, associated with emotions and desire, and the state of “thoughtlessness”, a result of deep meditation, that is necessary for the brain to stop consuming so much energy.

Tai Xi in practice

If it seems plausible, yet near-impossible to put into practice, you are almost right. It is not something one would sit own and do right away, yet learning proper Tai Xi is possible for almost anyone. All you need is determination and lots of time and patience. As is written in the aforementioned text: “Be diligent in pursuing this course; for it is the true road to take”.

It does, of course, help to have a way to go about achieving it, an action plan perhaps, some clues as what and how to do, otherwise even the greatest diligence would only lead to disappointment. The below advice is meant to point out the direction you may take. It will be up to you to go through with it and, if you are really interested and have the patience and determination, eventually experience Tai Xi for yourself.


(If you have skipped the above text and came directly here, I must advise you, that you will never succeed in learning Tai Xi. This is simply because you are impatient. As explained above, it requires diligence and lost of practice. It will not happen immediately, probably not even this week. For some it may take months or even years of determined practice to get there, the “get everything fast, get them now” marketing (scam) scheme does not apply when it comes to breathing. If you still feel like you are up for it, the steps below will be your guide.)

You will not need any external props or equipment, but you will need a considerable experience in breathing techniques, at the absolute minimum those two taught in Parts 1 and 2. It will not be sufficient to have tried them once or twice and have a general idea of their workings. You must be well experienced if you mean to get anywhere and that will take time.

To be experienced in meditation will be of even greater advantage. While not absolutely necessary, the ability to quiet your thoughts will benefit your quest towards Tai Xi. You will be able to achieve it, without having previously learned meditation, but it would certainly take much longer. (If you are interested in learning meditation, you can find reliable resources on this website.)

As you see, it will be necessary to count your breaths for a while. Wherever you find such instructions, you should count them like this: 1 – Inhale, 2 – Exhale, 3 – Inhale, 4 – Exhale, 5 – Inhale, 6 – Exhale, 7 – Inhale, 8 – Exhale, 9 – Inhale, 10 – Exhale. then start again form 1. If you are experienced in such breath counting for example by having learned Zen meditation and you are comfortable with it, you can count this way: 1 – Inhale and Exhale, 2 – Inhale and Exhale, etc. up to 10.

  • You should wear loose-fitting clothing, with no tight parts anywhere.

  • It is important that you should not have drank or eaten anything for at least two hours before you start practising, and even then, only a light meal. You will have been in the restroom as well so that nothing will disturb you. You will also have sufficient time at hand, to truly experience Tai Xi, it could take several hours on each occasion.

  • If you know Shavasana or Corpse Pose of Yoga and are able to enter into its most advanced state, that is the way you should proceed. If you stay in Corpse Pose long enough, TaiXi breathing will eventually happen.

  • If you are not familiar with Shavasana or prefer taking a different or more targeted route, you should start by sitting comfortably. Only sit cross-legged only if you are confident that you can maintain such position for a very long time. This would require flexibility quite unusual in the west, but if you have been practising for many years, you may as well proceed. If you cannot sit cross-legged, make sure you sit with a back as straight as possible so that you would not inhibit your breathing. You can use a back-rest, as long as you can sit without compressing your chest or abdominal region.

  • Laying down is also an option and probably preferable, as the level of bodily relaxation necessary for Tai Xi will be very difficult to achieve while sitting.

  • When you have found your preferred position, and made sure there are no obstructions from your clothing and your body position that would inhibit your breathing or force you to tense your body, start practising the full inverted breathing technique you have learned in Part 2.

  • When you are fully aware of all four corners of your breath, most importantly the movements of your diaphragm, and you have done at least five times ten inhales and exhales with inverted breathing, change your breathing pattern and start breathing with full abdominal breathing, maintaining a strong focus on all four corners. You will feel a relief of removing the pressure if inhales from your DanTien.

  • Breathe like this for another five times ten inhales and exhales. After one hundred breaths, your body and mind would have been somewhat quieted down. Now, change your breathing pattern again, but instead of reverting to a simple abdominal breathing, you will direct your focus inside your body, onto the movement of your diaphragm.

  • For five-time ten inhales and exhales, just watch the movements of your diaphragm, as closely as you can. Feel every inhale, as it presses down on your internal cavity and as you exhale it relaxes.

  • Now you are halfway there. Chances are, your breath has quieted down already, quite considerably. If you are still aware of a pronounced abdominal movement, or that of breathing deeply, start altering your breathing pattern and have longer exhales than inhales (although not much longer). Practice this way, until you feel your breaths quiet down. It helps to continue counting your breaths.

  • Now turn your attention towards your thoughts. The intense focus these breathing exercises require would have had the potential to quiet down the inner noise sufficiently, but c you might still have some disturbing thoughts coming. It would be most beneficial now, if you’ve learned some meditation technique previously, and most preferably not the westernised and often over-simplified “mindfulness meditation”, a simplification of the traditional Vipassana meditation method. (If you do practice traditional Vipassana Meditation, it may be useful, although practices such as Zazen might prove a more resourceful practice for this singular purpose, having the goal of quieting down your mind now, as opposed to just being present.)

  • If you do not know a meditation technique, you should continue counting your breaths until your thoughts quiet down. You will notice, that so many disturbing mental images and thoughts occur. You should acknowledge them and not try to suppress them, but do not dwell on them either. “Letting go” of your thoughts is an abstract idea, in practice, it means coming back to your focus (in meditation), which is, for now, your breathing. Do not penalise yourself for having thoughts, this is natural. Do not try to suppress your thoughts, or willfully “not think” about anything, this is forceful and almost impossible. The goal is to have your thoughts cease naturally.

  • Make sure, you don’t just count. You must be constantly mindful of the movement of the diaphragm. Never for a moment lose its sensation. This is your key to getting to Tai Xi.

Breathing the breath of the embryo

Now, that you have sufficiently prepared, you have arrived at the hardest part: Staying here. You will continue your meditation practice, or counting your breath, until you are free of disturbing thought and/or images. It is not impossible, but of course very difficult and it will not happen for the first time, neither any time soon. Practising long enough, you will eventually arrive at a state of quietness, where your mind becomes perfectly still. By such time, you will have stopped counting, your awareness of your breath becomes effortless. You will probably feel like having no body, but being just a breath yourself.

When the Spirit moves the Breath moves; when Spirit is still the breath is still”. In other words, as soon as your will (your mind) quieted down, your breath will follow. At this stage, it will not be difficult to stay, you will find it all effortless, nothing will worry you, nothing would even occur to you, you would simply breathe, unseen, motionless, as if all was happening only inside you, nothing to do with the outside world. If you stay long enough, you will eventually experience the true breath of the embryo, or Tai Xi, as it is written about in Tai Xi Jing.

Careful now, it is thought to be the essence of immortality: “That which is metaphorically called the Respiration of the Embryo is truly called the Inner Elixir. It not only cures diseases but confers immortality. He who continuously pursues this practice will have his name inscribed upon the Register of the Immortals.

If you experience immortality, after having achieved true Tai Xi, though creating the perfect inner environment, please share your experience in the comments below. :)

If you would like others to become immortal too, or just want to share the immense health benefits of this most perfect form of relaxation of body and mind, don’t forget to share this article.

Happy practising!

Featured image credit: RelaxingMusic / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

About the author

Attila has been practising traditional meditation, QiGong and breathing techniques since early childhood. Not pretending to be a guru, or an enlightened being of any sort, his aim is to transmit what he has learned through these years, for everyone's benefit.

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