Breathing in Tai Chi




A.B.E.  “Always Be Exhaling”


Tai Chi forms are ideally performed in one breath, as a single, measured exhale.  This is meant to hold for forms from 8 movements to 108.  I can’t do this except on short forms, and you probably can’t either.  Very few can. 


So don’t worry about the breathing at first—there’ll be plenty of time to work on that when you can do the forms without thinking. 


Most important thing starting out is to stay relaxed.  Breathe naturally.



Why Exhale?


Exhalation is optimal for striking because it causes contraction in the torso, adding tension to connective tissue throughout the entire body. Exhalation is optimal for countering because internal counters require a solid frame and, in some cases, fajing (focusing). Inhalation generally weakens the root and can also weaken the frame if done improperly.  Emptying the chest to neutralize the force of a strike is less optimal when inhaling.  Inhalation supports “emptying”, one of the three mechanical principles of Tai Chi.





Get your inhalations silently, in transition.  If you start out with full lungs, and maintain oxygen levels with small quick inhalations subsequently, you can go indefinitely without getting “gassed out”.  It’s when you forget to breathe or start panting that you get into trouble.  If you feel yourself losing control of your breathing, relax, “sink your chi”, settle your spirit, and let your breathing return to normal.  Never forget that Tai Chi is also a form of physical meditation, not just martial art.



Hiding The Breathing


At an advanced level you want to hide your breathing so that opponents can’t gauge your level of energy (or exhaustion) or take advantage of inhalations to strike.  When you reach the point when you can conceal your breathing, you should be aware of your opponent’s breathing, and exploit indications of tiring, and time strikes to inhalations.



Natural Breathing as a Martial Principle


The Zen Sword Saint says the stance and stepping should be the same as your normal way of standing and walking. This is a very good principle, but as Yang Chengfu points out in “Sizing up an Opponent” (Self-Defense Applications of T’ai-chi ch’üan, 1931) we sometimes have to adapt our stance to compensate for an opponent’s advantages, even in Tai Chi.  A simple example is the use of lower stance to compensate for an opponent’s greater mass. Another is the necessity for a shorter player to step further to effectively close distance against a taller player.  In Bagua and Hsingyi the level changes are extreme, as is the method of stepping.  Straightsword fencing requires quick, lively footwork, no domain moreso, and because the weapon is optimized for thrusting, it is very often optimal to lunge.  While we can’t always practice our art the way we normally stand and walk, our breathing can be always natural, no matter how strenuous a movement appears, nor how prolonged the training session, nor how gruelling, because the the goal is to be able to engage a stronger attacker indefinitely and always tire them out.  I can learn more about a martial artist from their breathing than just about any other factor, because styles and methods vary, but breathing is universal to all martial practice.



Most importantly:  Stay calm.  Be relaxed and natural.