Tai Chi and breathing

I’ve been sharing “meditations” from Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” in the past few weeks. I’m down to my last two passages. Today’s note is about Tai Chi and breathing.


In William Chen’s Tai Chi form, expansive (outward or upward) movements occur with an in-breath, so the body and mind wake up, energize into a shape. He gives the example of reaching out to shake the hand of someone you are fond of, waking up after a restful sleep, or agreeing with someone’s idea. Usually, such positive movements are associated with an in-breath – in the Tai Chi form, we “breathe into the fingertips.” Then, with the out-breath, the body releases, de-energizes, like the last exhalation before falling asleep.


It is Chen’s opinion that a large obstacle to a calm, healthy, present existence is the constant interruption of our natural breathing patterns. A thought or ringing phone or honking car interrupts an out-breath and so we stop and begin to inhale. Then we have another thought and stop before exhaling. The result is shallow breathing and deficient flushing of carbon dioxide from our systems, so our cells never have as much pure oxygen as they could. Tai Chi meditation is, among other things, a haven of unimpaired oxygenation.


This is such a practical and, yet, fascinating thought. I plan to think about it further and see how I can integrate this idea into my day. More when that happens.

Thanks again, Josh, for a fascinating insight.

Presence must be like breathing

I’ve been mulling a passage from Josh Waitzkin’s Art of Learning and thought I’d share it in full.


In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is clearly being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill.

While more subtle, this issue is perhaps even more critical in solitary pursuits like writing, painting, scholarly thinking or learning. In the absence of continual external reinforcement, we must be our own monitor, and quality of presence is often the best gauge. We cannot expect to touch excellence if “going through the motions” is the norm of our lives. On the other hand, if deep, fluid presence becomes second nature, then, life, art and learning take on a richness that will continually surprise and delight. Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential – for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to the purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments where everything is on the line.

The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing.


“The secret is that everything is always on the line” resonates deeply.

I thought this passage was both true and profound. Thanks Josh.