What is the Right Way to Breathe When Doing Tai Chi?

Students often ask me when they should breathe while doing Tai Chi. My off-the-cuff answer is “whenever you need air.”

I’m certain other instructors get this question, and while holding your breath when doing Tai Chi is not a good idea, there is no single answer to this question, nor is there agreement as to how breathing is best integrated into form.

Some instructors believe breathing patterns should be very specific. Others prescribe breathing with intention, and go as far as to teach new students how to breathe while seated. A major problem with this approach is that breathing will vary depending on the type of form you are practicing, and for what purpose. At times, your breathing will be slow and deep. At other times, it will be fast and short. Individuals also have different lung capacities, and we all move at different speeds.

To further complicate matters, your breathing will usually change from the first form of class to your last form of the session.

Trying to breathe in a specific manner or pattern will make your breathing forced or contrived. In addition, holding your breath will likely result in anxiety and stress. The bottom line is that too much focus on the breath will take away the purpose of the form, which is to relax and return your body to harmony or equilibrium. Your breathing will improve by learning and practicing form, therefore, it is not necessary to focus too much on proper breathing.

That said, consider the dynamics of breathing and energy. When you inhale, you store energy. When you exhale, you deliver the energy or force.

Think about the Sun movement of Open and Close, or inhale and exhale.

Hands apart—inhale

Hands together—exhale

Additionally, when you move your hands up, you inhale and store energy. And when you bring them down, you deliver energy.

When in doubt over whether to inhale or exhale, focus instead on practicing the form correctly and following the essential Tai Chi principles. This will help you relax and allow your body to breathe naturally.

Using Dr. Lam’s Dan Tian Breathing Method, you expand your lower abdominal area when inhaling. And when exhaling, you contract the pelvic and lower abdominal muscles. This method facilitates sinking qi to the Dan Tian and improves internal energy by enhancing qi power. Dan Tian breathing can be incorporated into all qigong and Tai Chi.

Here are some very general breathing guidelines to keep in mind while practicing:

  • Exhale until you need to inhale.

  • Exhalation should be slightly longer than inhalation.

  • Keep your tongue in contact with the roof of your mouth by saying “la” while practicing.

  • Breathe through your nose (unless you have nasal congestion) and don’t pause between the inhalation and exhalation.

  • Inhale to store energy while moving your hands apart, and exhale to delivery energy while moving your hands together.

  • Inhale when your hands are raised, and exhale when the hands move down.

You must learn to feel and sense your breath before you can manipulate it. For now, just relax and breathe naturally. Follow the guidelines above and the essential Tai Chi principles. Happy Breathing!

Be sure the check out our new drop-in classes held in Minnetonka (near Ridgedale) on Friday afternoons in November and December. Drop-in before or after your holiday shopping to relax and renew. Learn more here.