When I first started to learn Tai Chi I used to read every book and article on the subject I could find. At the time I had no idea of the diversity of Tai Chi and expected everything to be consistent and uniform. I thought that when people learnt Tai Chi they were all learning the same thing. But even after I realised the great variety of things going on out there I still found that my reading was often leaving me confused and that a lot of the advice seemed to be contradictory. I’d like to discuss here the breathing in Tai Chi because it exemplifies this contradiction probably more than any other topic.

Almost every book you turn to has advice on the correct way to breathe. Our own Beginners Handbook, in a discussion about the seven single movements, talks about how to co-ordinate the breathing with movements, (though interestingly we don't seem to teach it that way). Also, in the back of the book, talking about the benefits of Tai Chi, it says under the heading of "Respiratory System" - "Correct co-ordination of the body movement with breathing is very important". I am reminded of one of my Tai Chi teachers, a 75 year old Chinese man who looked fitter than many 40 year olds. Although his command of English was really poor he always managed to say that "the breathing was very important".

Some other examples of this same attitude are:

1. In a book called Tai Chi by a Sue Mackie there is a whole chapter devoted to the correct coordination of the breathing in the form. She says: "an integral part of the practice of Tai Chi is regulating breathing and body movements in such a way that the two flow together easily, rhythmically and harmoniously. The general principle can be summarised as : rise on inhalation and fall on exhalation; close on inhalation and open on exhalation. Inhalation takes place on the defensive moves, while exhalation on the attacking moves."

2. Tai Chi - The Supreme Ultimate by Lawrence Galante - "From ancient times it was agreed that proper breathing was absolutely essential for the correct performance of Tai Chi Chuan". He also talks about the correct sequence-breathing in when arms are contracted, or pulled backward, and exhaling whenever they are stretched, raised, or pushed forward. He goes on to say: " Unfortunately, today many Tai Chi students are not taught how to breathe properly when they practice their form. This absence of correct breathing is a severe hindrance to the serious student."

3.And even more to the point:

In "Complete Tai Chi" by Master Alfred Huang.- "when we practice Tai Chi, movements should be intentionally coordinated with breathing. Otherwise it is merely an exercise, not Tai Chi. (italics mine).

Strong words indeed !!

We have all heard about the Tai Chi classics. It is said that these writings are the foundation, and contain all the essential principles of, the art of Tai Chi. We often say when talking about different styles and forms that as long they conform to these principles then they are correct. Let’s have a look at what the classics say about breathing. There are a number of them and also a number of interpretations and commentaries.

Probably one of the most famous is:

  1. Tai Chi Chuan Treatise by Wang Tsung-Yu. It includes some of the most memorable lines such as "your body is so pliable that a fly cannot alight without affecting balance"; or " four ounces deflect a thousand pounds". It talks about sinking chi or raising the spirit, as all the classics do, but there is no mention of coordinating the breathing with movement, nor in fact is there much said in all the others:
  2. The Thirteen Positions (Long Chuan) by Wang Tsung-Yu
  3. Chant of Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands-by an unknown master but revised by Wang Tsung-Yu
  4. Chant of the Thirteen Positions
  5. Essentials of Joint Hands - Wu Yu-Hsiang
  6. Six Key Elements of Practicing Tai Chi Chuan - Lu Chien-chuan
  7. Summary Ballad of the First Clasic - Chen Wang-Ting (the originator of Tai Chi)
  8. Finally a mention of breathing in:

  9. A Discourse on How to Practice Tai Chi Chuan - Yang Cheng-Fu

- "exhale with the mouth, inhale with the nose, and follow the natural rhythm". (-"follow the natural rhythm"-what happened to deliberate and conscious coordination)?

If all the classics make such scarce mention of it, where does this insistence on correct breathing come from?

But now for the really confusing part.

I have to quote fairly heavily from two books I have which take a completely contradictory viewpoint. The first is "The Tai Chi Workbook" by an English teacher called Paul Crompton: He says: "The point of view I am putting here comes from an informed source, other than myself. I recommend you to take note of it, I will enlarge on it in this chapter but it can be put briefly: avoid artificial breathing exercises.

International Tai Chi groups and contacts have debated this question for some time but the majority favours the approach of letting the breathing follow the movement. If you attempt to match your breath with your movements you can do yourself harm." He goes on to quote another source in saying: " by artificially changing our breathing, we change first of all the tempo of the functioning of our lungs, and, as the activity of the lungs is connected, among other things, with the activity of the stomach, the tempo of the functioning of the stomach is also changed, at first slightly and then more and more" He gives another example of views on breathing-that of instructor Douglas Lee - "do not force the breathing to fit into form and movement….. the human body is so synchronised that the need for oxygen in the body cells and rate of delivery by the respiratory and cardiovascular system to these cells is automatically regulated….. Some of the upsets of forced breathing include shortages of oxygen in the blood and acid/base unbalance in the body's biochemistry."

In a book called "Tai Chi Ch'uan - the Chinese Way", by Foen Tjoeng Lie, the author says the following about breathing:

"Tai Chi Chuan requires deep and calm breathing out of and into the center of the abdomen , the Dan-Tian. This is what tai chi means by "guiding the Qi into the Dan-Tian". Breathing is innately coordinated with the movements of the body. For example, you exhale when you get up and inhale when you sit down; you exhale when you stretch your arms and inhale when you fold them. Make sure that breathing remains calm and natural, never forced or slowed down. Breathe as you have always done, the body is capable, intuitively, of regulating the breathing process according to a given situation. The coordination of movements and breathing should never be forced or mechanical. Rather the amount of breathing is determined by the physiological needs of each individual as well as abilities and conditioning.

There may be a need to adjust your breathing when doing an individual movement. This is a physical need, and if not met can cause disharmony, shortness of breath, pain, or rapid pulse. At the very least it will create disharmony in the movement itself".

Remember in the beginning I said something about confusion?

Perhaps the debates over breathing, and so many of the other issues about Tai Chi, have come about because, in the digression from pure martial art to popular exercise, we have lost our foundation. Now we mystify tai chi, we look for deep and hidden meanings, simply because in forgetting the origin of the art, we no longer have the same basis for understanding it.

It would be interesting, and perhaps illuminating, to hear the view of other exponents on this subject.

Jim Leonard.


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