There are a a few different meanings on, and things written about, breathing in Tai Chi Chuan. Especially if you have two different teachers who teaches different things, it can be hard to understand what is correct and what is wrong. In my own opinion, there are certainly things that many people say about breathing that are wrong, but for me personally, it took some time to reach to the point where I could be confident enough to express a strict view on how it should be done.
Breathing should be deep and full. Yet, it should be natural and be left alone. You need to teach your body to do what it should do. And then you need to learn how to trust your body that it understand what to do and when. I will tell you this: Your body is always smarter than you, so you just need to learn how to let go of the control and let the body work by itself.
There are some important things to understand about breathing in Tai Chi. First, there are two different opinions about how to coordinate, or not coordinate, breathing with movements. And then, people usually distinguish two different types of breathing.
Coordinating breathing or not in Tai Chi practice
There are two different main opinions on how to breath in Tai Chi:
- Breath should be consciously coordinated together with the movements of the form
- Breath should not be controlled, but follow the movements naturally.
So, some people say that you should coordinate your breath together with the movements. And others say that you should let the breath be and let it naturally follow the movements. To not linger and make this unnecessarily complicated, I will just say that the first is wrong. To actively trying to coordinate breath and movement is a mistake that might have become common by Tai Chi being influenced by modern Qigong. Tai Chi is something else.
Instead, you should forget about the breathing and let it the movements and the body, what you do, let decide how you breath. Yes, you should breath deep and full. But this does not come from trying to force the breath. Correct fullness and depth of the breath comes by you learning to relax and calm your mind and body.
And to be frank, I don’t think I have seen anyone, not even those who preach active coordination, that actually coordinates movement and breath will practicing form. Trying to do this will just make both your breath and movements uncomfortable and unnatural. But remember that one of the keywords in Tai Chi practice is always Ziran, or keeping things “natural”.
Most of the people who believe that you should coordinate breath and movement say that when you start the form and lift the arms, you should breath in. When you sink the arms, you should breath out. Also, when the arms move out from the body, you should breath out and when you move the arms back, towards the body, you should breath in.
The funny thing with some of the people who preaches about this type of coordinating the breath consciously, is that they believe that it should take one hour to do the long Yang style Tai Chi form. Think about this for a minute. If one single movement, as in when you open up your arms in “Split the wild horses mane”, “Single Whip” or “Crane shows its Wings”, takes 20 or 30 seconds to do, you would need to breath, very, very slow, and it would surely often become tense and unnatural. If you do like this, you will have broken one of the most important rules – Ziran, or moving in a “natural” manner.
So obviously, it is impossible to coordinate the breath in an exact pattern while practicing a form or drills, and at the same time keep the breath natural and unrestrained. The correct way is to let the breath be left alone and learn how to trust your breath to let it regulate itself.
Understanding deep, natural breathing through the trinity of mind-breath-body
The easiest way to learn how mind, breath and body is integrated as a whole is to just stand in a natural form starting position, or wuji stance, with the feet parallell and shoulder width apart. Now, stand comfortably and just relax your body, put your awareness to different parts of your body as jaws, neck, chest, shoulders, lower back, knees.
Take your time and feel the tension in these areas and release the tension. Get rid of unnecessary tension by relaxing. When you have gone through the body with your awareness a few times, you will soon understand that the relaxation and calmness of mind, breath and body are completely connected with each other. If you relax either mind, body or breath, the other two will follow. Relaxing the body relaxes and deepen the breath as well as it calms down the mind.
Therefore, Tai Chi practice focuses mainly on relaxation of the body while in movement. As relaxation demands attention of the mind, the breath and mind will automatically calm down and breath will automatically follow the movements when you are relaxed. The only thing that might prevent you from deepening this process is if you are a beginner and need to think too much about how movements should look like or about what movement follow next.
So if you are a beginner, it’s better to not force yourself with daily practicing a long sequence of a form until you really remember the whole form without the need to think about the sequence of the individual movements. Do the form as much you remember occasionally until you know it well. But for your daily practice, it’s better to practice individual movements or to break out a short sequence and practice those.
If you practice like this and always train to calm your mind and relax your body, the breath will learn by itself how to regulate itself, how to stay deep and it will shift naturally between inhaling and exhaling according to your movements.
Two types of breathing
Teachers usually speak about two different types of breathing in Tai Chi:
- Natural breathing
- Reverse breathing
Natural breathing in Tai Chi Chuan
Natural breathing in Tai Chi is usually understood as the common way people breath in daily life. When you breath in, the belly goes out. And when you breath out, the belly goes in. But exactly how, or how much, depends on how deep or shallow your natural breathing is.
Reverse breathing in Tai Chi Chuan
Reverse breathing, also called Taoist breathing, is, in contrast to natural breathing, usually explained as a learned way of breathing where the belly expands as you breath out, and contracts inwards as you breath in. This is often regarded as an advanced type of breathing that should not be tried until at least two years of practice.
Reverse breathing in Tai chi explained
So, there you have the two types of breathing as how different teachers usually explain them. Now you might see a problem here. Or maybe not, but I will explain: If you believe that breath should always be consciously controlled in a certain pattern, then you will not have any contradiction between the common explanations between natural and reverse breathing.
But I have already said that this is a mistake, you should not control and try to coordinate the breath. So how will you learn reverse breathing if you should not coordinate your breath? My personal answer is that I believe that most things about reverse breathing, how it is understood and explained, are wrong and based on mistakes. Many teachers just keep on repeating what they have read, or have heard their teachers say, without doing much thinking by themselves.
Reverse breathing is not an advanced type of breathing. It’s not some kind of special Taoist breathing method that will make your Qi stronger or enhance your martial arts skills. It’s not even something that should be taught at a certain stage. All of this would be wrong.
Instead, reverse breathing is nothing else than a natural functional breathing pattern. The breathing is functional as it means that you have understood the functions of the movements of the form and perform them in the same way as you used them as applications against a partner.
Think and imagine how you breath and how the body naturally coordinates itself when you push something heavy, as a car. Or what happens to the belly when you blow up an inflatable beach ball or a balloon. When you breath out, your chest will flatten and your belly will move out, expand. This is not something you ever need to think about, but something which occurs automatically without even needing to think about how you breath.
In the same way, when you practice your form, as you move your arms forward to push, you should breath out and the belly should expand. The diaphragm presses downward on the abdominal cavity, which bulges forward. So what is called reverse breathing is a “belly breathing” method, also called diaphragmatic breathing, but with the inhale and expansion of the belly reversed.
There should be nothing unnatural or tense about this type of breathing. It should come natural and regulate itself according to your own movements. But to understand how to breath this way, you need to first learn how to deepen the natural breath, from chest breathing to diaphragmatic breathing. You would probably also need to have spent some time practicing push hands and form movement applications with a partner, so to learn the proper functions of the movements of the form.
So, when you know how to naturally breath deeply, and have had sufficient partner training so that you understand how Tai Chi works in practical practice, you should be able to move and breath correctly throughout the whole form. And this is also a reason why practicing Tai Chi as a martial art is essential for an overall correct understanding of Tai Chi solo practice.