Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Breathing For Tai Chi Chuan

First a sad note:
Robert W. Smith passed away the evening of July 1st. He was a noted martial art researcher, writer, teacher, and practitioner. He was the author and co-author of 16 books and numerous articles dealing with the fighting arts. His work no doubt touched many martial artists regardless of style.   ---Michael DeMarco


Breathe-- we all do it, but probably not to the full advance of our health and well-being. We generally breathe short, shallow, quiet little breaths and when we exercise, we pant and gasp down great gulps. Once you begin to practice Tai chi and/or Qigong, you discover breathing as if you never really knew about it before!  In his Body Mechanics of Tai Chi Chuan, William C. C. Chen says of breathing:

Tai Chi Chuan is based on the natural way of breathing: it is slow, gentle and deep.…Initiate the breath with the diaphragm, not the nose…. When the breath is initiated with the nose, only the upper part of the lungs are filled with air; the chest will become tense, causing the body to lose its center of gravity.

He emphasizes that pressure in the lower abdomen causes energy to flow. This is like the saying, “to sink the chi to the ten tien,” although chi is not breath per se. It is only associated with (proper) breathing which in turn, facilitates the flow of chi. But when does this slow, gentle breathing take place during the form? I remember an early Tai Chi class at which one of the students asked, “Do I breathe here?” The instructor answered, “Yes.” He didn’t wish his students to focus so much on the ins and outs, so to speak, of breathing and lose sight of the form. Other teachers I have had have used breathing as a kind of metronome to the rhythm of the form, stressing when to breathe in (such and such direction of movement) or out (such and such other direction of movement).

William C. C. Chen again:

At this time [inhalation] the arms are moving outward or upward. During exhalation, the diaphragm is released, abdominal pressure is decreased and the flow of energy subsides. Now the arms are moving inward or downward.

He distinguishes between the natural breathing of the practice of Tai Chi and the breathing done in fighting or sparing. There is a third state of breathing called “compression.” He says:

That is holding the diaphragm downward while the thigh muscles exert force upward. This pressurization of the abdomen (Ten Tien) supports the spine and serves as a connecting link between the root and the fist. This all happens at a brief moment of impact; there is no time for breathing in or out.

Of course, Tai Chi is practiced for its health benefits, but its origins are as a martial art, with applications for each of the “movements.” So shouldn’t we be concerned with coordinating the direction of our breath (in/out) with the purpose of each posture (strike, parry, redirect, push, etc.)? In a paper entitled, “Tai Chi Breathing,”, Dr. Paul Lam expounds upon this concern. His explanations seem very logical to me. He says,

The key is the storing and delivering of energy because tai chi emphasizes on internal energy. Every tai chi movement alternates between gathering, storing and then delivering energy….When you open, it's storing energy like someone drawing an arrow in a bow; in closing, the energy is delivering so it's like shooting the arrow….When you're inhaling (storing energy), think of taking in the life energy-oxygen- into your body. When you deliver energy or force, you exhale….Using this logic, you can see in Chen style's punching movements, when you're bringing your hands closer to store up energy, that's an in breath and when you punch out, that's the out breath.

Natural Breathing = Abdominal Breathing = Buddhist Breathing = Post-natal Breathing. This means to breath by pushing out the stomach to make more room in the bottom of the lungs. It is the type of breathing recommended to most for Tai Chi Chuan. Another type of breathing is Reverse Breathing = Taoist Breathing = Pre-birth Breathing. Dai Lu in his book, T’ai Chi Ch’uan & Meditation, explains:

Before birth, the embryo does not need to inhale and exhale, for the breath is circulated through its body from the mother. The oxygen-rich blood comes to it through the umbilical cord and enters its abdomen at the navel….Most people only breath with the throat and lungs, so the prenatal breath hides in the abdomen, never joining the postnatal breath again….[M]editation and T’ai Chi Ch’uan may be said to bring about a union of prenatal and postnatal breathing.

He goes on to say that fetal-breathing, the so-called “breathing without breathing” technique, is an advanced goal of meditation. During a state called the Great Quiescence, there seems to be an absence even of pulse. The mind is used to bring oxygen in through the naval and to send the chi down to the tan tien. In Taoist Yoga a technique called Quick Breathing consists of rapid, short breaths designed to cleanse the body of germs. Short sequences of Quick Breathing can be alternated with longer sessions of slow, deep breathing to bring about a balance.

Robert W. Smith, who, we noted, recently passed away, translated and wrote about the works of Chen Man Ching and others. Doug Chen compiled exerts from these and other sources in an article on Breathing --- The Tai Chi Way ( Here is Robert W. Smith writing about his experience with Professor Cheng Man-ching's breathing:

After practicing and being minutely corrected on my form and push-hands, I asked him about breathing. Professor Cheng Man-ching said: "It should be natural and must not be forced." Then, he placed my right hand on his abdomen (he had a small "pot" there that he continually tried to erode with circular massage), and I felt it expand as he slowly inhaled. Next, he took the index finger of my other hand and placed it under his nose and exhaled. But, try as I might, I felt no exhalation from his nose, though I did feel his belly empty under my right hand. As it struck me that this was utterly impossible, and then I began to think that I felt an extremely light and wire-fine beam of air coming from his nose. I don't know which was the most astounding: the fineness of his exhalation or my utter inability to feel it. Either way, it was a most impressive performance.

Sometimes when I’m practicing the Long Form I concentrate on breathing, coordinating inhaling and exhaling with inward and outward movements. Other times I pay attention to my feet and stance, my “single-weightedness.” Or I may think about my chi and moving it up through the soles of my feet, into my upper thighs and waist. But when I empty my mind of all thought, breathe naturally (without thinking), and move almost trance-like with a softness which conceals hardness, then, and only then, do I begin to get close to the Tai Chi Chuan of my goals.


  1. When I did Sanchin Kata in the various styles that I trained in and before getting smart and switching to in the Internal martial arts, the middle Hara (or Tan Tien) would expand on inhalation, and on the forced exhalation the breath would settle into the lower Hara (lower Tan Tien) giving the appearance of the abdomen going in waves, not demonstrated in this video. I have construed this as Taoist breathing in the Internal Martial Arts. One advantage is, amongst others, is that it maintains the lower center of gravity and thusly one's root and balance throughout, lowering the center of gravity even further during exhalation. This is as compared to Zen breathing whereupon the breath during inhalation goes to the lower hara on inhalation. Any comments? e-mail