Tai Chi Breathing

By Dr. Paul Lam

"What about the breathing?" Numerous students have asked me this question. Some teachers believe that breathing patterns should be very specific. For example, in each and every part of a movement, they recommend a specific breathing pattern—in and out, slowly or quickly. These teachers feel that the breathing has to be just so for each movement. I find this method difficult and think it can impede improvement for some students. It often leads to too much focus on the breathing and distraction from focusing on the essential principles. No two people are the same. They have different lung capacities and different speeds in their movements so to coordinate in the same specific pattern with others would be difficult for many. In addition, this can lead to forced or contrived breathing which can be harmful.

Correct breathing is an important part of tai chi. Here’s a simple guide based on essential tai chi principals. The key is the storing and delivering of energy because tai chi is a martial art with emphasis on internal energy. Every tai chi movement alternates between gathering, storing and then delivering energy. Often the classics describe it as opening and closing. When you open, it is storing energy like someone drawing an arrow in a bow; in closing, the energy is delivering so it’s like shooting the arrow. Keep this image in your mind and the rest will be easy to follow.

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. This can be applied to almost all tai chi movements since they are, in essence, alternating opening and closing movements.

When your hands pull apart or when you’re stepping forward, that’s an opening movement. For example, in the Sun style opening and closing movement, when your hands are in front of your chest, opening up, you breathe in to store energy. When your hands come together, you breathe out, delivering energy. Another example is Single Whip in Yang style. At the end of Single Whip, even though your hands are opened out, it’s actually a closing movement because that’s where you deliver the force, so you breathe out. 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

And then there’s up and down movements. When you move your hands up, you’re storing your energy, and therefore you breathe in. When you bring your hands down, you’re delivering energy—shooting the arrow—so you breathe out. Likewise, when you stand up and bend down.

Use this guide throughout your tai chi forms. Whenever you’re in doubt, focus on practising the form correctly: Relax, loosen your joints and you’ll find your breathing will be correct. Don’t force or hold your breath. When in doubt allow your body to breathe naturally.


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