Tai Chi Chuan Breathing

by Grandmaster William CC Chen

I begin my Tai Chi Chuan form with a full, gentle and deep exhalation, which clears my mind of unwanted thoughts, expels the waste energy from my lungs, and frees the space for incoming air with oxygen.  I tilt slightly forward, sagging or flexing my hips, this is called Sung-Kwa (鬆胯), as if I were dropping off to sleep.

After a full exhalation, I inhale gently, which increases my awareness and energizes my thumbs, index and middle fingers.  As I continue to inhale, these fingers drive my palms outward and upward, and my arms follow.  My torso slowly straightens at the hip until it is vertical upright, and the first Tai Chi posture has been formed. At this point: my lungs are filled with oxygen, my mind is moderately awake.

To complete the full cycle of breathing and move to the next posture, I again exhale gently and fully, which decreases my awareness and de-energizes the fingers until they are no longer active.  My palms and arms gradually fall downward and inward. My torso tilts forward slightly, my hips sag, my mind fades and begins to “fall asleep,” and the posture is dissolved. Then I gently and fully inhale again, my mind “wakes up” and shapes the next posture.

This natural interchange of the inhalation/exhalation, awareness/unawareness, and consciousness/unconsciousness demonstrates the contrast of “Yin” 陰 and “Yang” 陽, which is the Chinese philosophy presented in the Book of Changes (I Ching 易 經).  When inhaling the mind is “Yang” active, positive and expansive.  When exhaling, mind is “Yin” inactive, negative and receptive. In the 60 movements of Tai Chi Chuan: when my mind “falls asleep”, the body is de-energized, my hips sag, my torso tilts forward lightly and the posture is dissolved. This again is “Yin” 陰.  Then my mind “wakes up”, body is energized, my torso straightens upright from the hips, and forming a new posture. This is “Yang” 陽.

In these slow movements of Tai Chi Chuan, the awareness of the mind follows the breathing.   As inhalation is taking place, awareness increases, the body is energized by the energy of Chi “氣”, which slowly stimulates the three fingers and drives the palms to form a posture.  As exhalation takes place, awareness decreases.  When the body is de-energized, the energy of Chi “氣” is declined.  As a result, a posture is gradually dissolved.

In Chinese, Chi “氣” is energy.  There are many different kinds of Chi or “energy”:

  • Original life energy – “元氣” (Yuan-Chi)
  • Oxygen –“洋氣”
  • Carbon Dioxide is polluted or Poison Energy – “毒氣”
  • Air – “空氣”
  • Electricity – “電氣”
  • Coal energy – “煤氣”
  • Steam power – “水蒸氣”
  • Gasoline – “氣油”
  • Bloom – “氣球”

The Chi that refers to the human body is:

  • A person who is angry or mad – “生氣”
  • A person who is sad and releases air from the mouth – “嘆氣”
  • An angry person whose face turns red – “火氣”
  • A person who pushes air in the abdomen – “鼓氣”
  • Physical Strength – “力氣”
  • Sexual energy – “精氣”

Chinese senior citizens know that Tai Chi Chuan helps them maintain their sexual energy “精氣”; therefore they can have children in their 80’s, and even into their 90’s.  The most important energy of Chi is “元氣” (Yuan-Chi) without which there is nothing to our life.

Chi in Tai Chi Chuan refers to internal intrinsic energy.  It is a mix of highly concentrated chemical energy that exists inside the body.  The Chinese call it (Yuan-Chi”元氣”), the original life energy, which is inherent with our birth.  It is very important to us: without it we are not able to function.  It is required for mental and physical capability, without it we cannot talk, walk or think. Life would be like a living death e.g., (a coma or vegetative state). When the body moves, a chemical reaction takes place. This energy conversion increases the compression in the body. When it is defused, compression is decreased.

This Yuan-Chi is the same as our breath or “internal gas”.  The breath gives us energy to talk, to think or perform mental and physical actions.  Breath is not breathing.  A person who runs for a couple of blocks to catch a train may not be able to talk when the cell phone rings because he is out breath, but he is still breathing.  When a fighter in the ring and is out of breath, he cannot fight back.  The ring announcer will announce that the fighter is out of gas.  Therefore, the breath is an internal gas.

This internal energy, Yuan-Chi can pressurize our body to sit or stand up, as well as generate high speed for powerful punches and kicks.  This trains the body to absorb punches and kicks and is called “iron shirt” (鐵布衫) by Chinese martial artists.  Yuan-Chi, breath or internal gas without an adequate oxygen supply and the power of mind, is useless.   For example, when we are asleep, the body has no compression, the pressure level low, and the body has no resistance; it is like a flat tire.  If we have enough energy and but the mind is too weak, asleep or unconscious, the body will not be able to function.  Mental awareness and physical fit are needed for the pressurization of energy.

This is the same as a ball, without compressed air, it will be flat.  An automobile tire is useless without air pressure. Yuan-Chi, the breath, internal gas and mind without adequate the oxygen is the same as having nice dry wood that cannot burn without it. Breathing in the oxygen is very important to our physical health, mental activities and to life itself.

With every inhalation the amount oxygen we receive into the lungs is only 21%. If we inhale a small amount of energy Air, it will have a small amount the 21% oxygen. But if we inhale a big amount of energy Air, we will obtain a bigger amount of the 21% of the Oxygen. The gentle, deep and fully inhalation in the movements of Tai Chi Chuan, will receive a greater volume of 21% oxygen in the lungs. Adequate oxygen we have in our system, the more energy we produce. That helps prevent diseases, repair tissues and remove cancerous.

When we inhale and the oxygen enters the lungs, the mind is energized and “wakes up.”  When we exhale, waste gas is dispelled, the mind is de-energized and it “falls asleep.”  As we say “yes,” the body straightens and the torso is vertical upright.  When we say “No,” we exhale, the hips sag and the torso tilts forward slightly.  Similarly, as we decide we are going to do something, we inhale.  When we do not want to do something, we exhale.  While we are drinking or sipping coffee, tea or a nice wine, we neither inhale nor exhale, but immediately after the sip or drink, we exhale.

Natural diaphragmatic breathing is what we do in our daily physical activities. When the mind generates a thought that stimulates a desire to do something, we inhale. Whether it is serving someone a cup of coffee or raising a hand to greet a friend or forming the shape of a Tai Chi posture, we inhale.  Inhalation as we begin to go into action, the gentle movements of the palms is intertwined with breathing and awareness. As the oxygen is flowing inward that increases the inner energy and creates mind and body activities.  We end the task by exhaling. Once the thought has diminished, awareness and energy is decreased, and waste is released with our exhalation.

When we are lying in bed, we breathe naturally; we feel the breath change the shape of our lower abdomen, which fills outward with our inhalation and relaxes inward with our exhalation.  – First thing in the morning, we wake up with a nice deep inhalation.  – At night, just before we fall asleep, we release all our tensions with a pleasant exhalation.  It is always good to have a good night’s sleep with little to no disruption so that we can balance our natural breathing system.

Breathing is also closely related to our emotions, which are linked to awareness and desires, which may change our blood pressure and heartbeat. On the inhalation, the blood pressure drops and the heart rate increases.  On exhalation, the blood pressure rises and the heart rate decreases.  When we are happy, we inhale, the torso straightens, and we appear cheerful. When we are unhappy, we exhale, the body sags, and we have a sullen facial expression.  We inhale when we raise a hand in agreement and exhale if we disagree or lack interest.

Inhaling the oxygen increases the cellular activity of the brain and body, which in turn raises awareness in the mind and energizes the flow of energy in the body.  The fuel in the brain is sugar; it burns like wildfire when the oxygen arrives. The body captures the energy released, and then the brain wakes up.  Every exhalation expels waste from the lungs, decreases tension in the mind and reduces unwanted thoughts.  It helps to loosen all joints of the body and sinks energy into the ground.

Inhalation increases thoughts. Exhalation decreases thoughts. Too many thoughts will lead to stress.  Too few thoughts may lead to a dull or less productive life and may obstruct the fulfillment of one’s obligation to society.  As normal human beings, we need to inhale in balance.  Inhalation transports oxygen into the lungs and, in turn, into the blood stream for the body’s needs.  Exhalation removes the waste from the lungs.  A balance of both is needed for balance in life.

Without complete exhalation to remove any accumulated waste, the capacity of the lungs for oxygen intake is limited.  Mixing oxygen and waste in the lungs decreases the efficiency with that oxygen is made available to the body, which is harmful to the cells.  This process may cause the mind and body to deteriorate, accelerate aging and contribute to the loss of memory capacity, walking balance, as well as general problems in the internal organs. Inhaling cigarette smoke is a major factor in the development of heart disease and lung cancer. A good flow of oxygen is crucial to meet the demands of the cells in the brain and body.

The full, gentle exhalations in the Tai Chi Chuan practice allow plenty of room for incoming oxygen to be brought into the lungs by a gentle, deep inhalation.  This provides sufficient oxygen to help prevent the problems that senior citizens experience in regard to prematurely lost memory capacity and physical function.

The exhalation of carbon dioxide from the lungs is relatively important to have a nice room of the building that needs a good ventilation system. To make sure that is able to remove the entire odor from room of the building to exchange the fresh air for body need.  Similarly, so that good oxygen is not degraded by mixing with the remaining carbon dioxide in the lungs, a healthy inhalation is preceded by a full exhalation. This will enrich the activities of all the cells.

A larger quantity of oxygen supply is extremely important to our body cells. The billions of cells in our body depend upon oxygen to survive. This is particularly true of the brain.  An inadequate oxygen supply may result in brain damage or death within a few minutes.  Oxygen entering the lungs races into the blood stream and rushes to the brain cells in less than half a second. However, the limitation of space in the lungs caused by accumulation of carbon dioxide is a major obstacle to the oxygenation process.  Good amount intake oxygen is important to the body.  It increases immune system and enhances the functioning of the brain, heart, liver and nervous, as well as enhancing immunity from disease and equilibrium in walking.

In human nature, interaction of mind, body and breathing are intricately intertwined as we engage in our day-to-day mental and physical activities.  In our normal daily breathing, we inhale more than we exhale.  As we go through the day, we constantly want to do something, and thoughts begin to rise, more oxygen is required, inhalation occurs, and oxygen is drawn into the lungs to support the brain and body for the increased activity. Exhalation is always short-changed by inhalation.

As we live in this disorderly, chaotic, unpredictable and very stressful world, we are constantly thinking, doing or worrying about something. It is almost inevitable that the mind becomes restless.  When mental activity spikes up, the increasing fullness of the mind always interrupts exhalation.  Whether we are at home or in the office, when we go to answer the phone or we reach to pick up a pen or a piece of paper, or when we want to do anything at all, even in sleep, when the nightmare wakes us up, we inhale.  Even though we should continue with an exhalation to clear the lungs for more inhalation, we inhale more than we exhale on a daily, hourly, or moment-by-moment basis.  Because our daily inhalations and exhalations are out of balance, we need to be aware of how to breathe, Breathing, awareness and movement are intertwined, and understanding the significance of how all three interact can yield profound mental and physical benefits.

In that light, the intrinsic benefits of Tai Chi Chuan bears examination.  The motion of serving a cup coffee or tea, which would correspond with an inhalation, is only one-third (1/3) foot per a second.  And the slow motion of Tai Chi Chuan is even slower than the movements of serving a cup coffee or tea.  There is no need for any excessive compression of energy for these movements, which is very different from hard style martial arts or western boxing, in which the goal is to maximize the speed and with maximum power.  This goal is beyond the normal physical capacity, and so requires additional compression of energy.

The pitch of a shout or a loud screaming noise generated by our vocal cord is an indication of the explosive force from inside the body. The bigger the compression, the more powerful explosion and a louder shouting noise are produced.  The shout is not a result of an exhalation: it is a compression of energy from inside the body.  This is part of a synergistic process that increases the explosive force required for physical actions such as punches, kicks, weight lifting and jumping.

It is a law of physics that any amount of energy compressed downward will generate an equal and opposite energy upward.  When a bomb goes off, the bigger the fireball goes up into the air, the deeper the crater goes into the ground. As the energy flow compresses outward though the vocal cords, a shouting noise is produced.  The greater the explosive power compressed inside the body, the bigger the shouting noise out through the vocal cords, the more the explosive power compressed down to the lower abdominal Tan Tien”丹田” from inside the body, and the more extra force and momentum provided for the physical action.  Immediately after the shouting noise or any fast or powerful punch or lifting weights, an exhalation follows.

To make it easier for beginners as well as for advance students to practice the movements of Tai Chi Chuan more comfortably, more relaxed and therefore, more effective, I have made changes in my Tai Chi Chuan form. In contrast to the lower stance and bigger steps seen in some forms, my Tai Chi form is practiced with higher stances and smaller steps. Tai Chi Chuan form practice requires that body weight slowly be transferred from leg to leg.  If the practitioner is properly relaxed, the weight tends to sink down.  Consequently, the practitioner may experience a certain fatigue and exhaustion in the legs which leads to an unconscious tensing of the upper body, ultimately affecting body coordination and the smooth flow of inner energy. My higher stances and smaller steps are designed to prevent such possibilities.  The most efficient angle at the knee for the quadriceps to do any physical action is between 15 to 20 degrees. An athlete running in field or a fighter in the ring never bends the legs too much.

An important breathing principle in slow motion Tai Chi Chuan is that before we inhale, we should exhale all the way.  In the transitions, we should keep the breathing free and natural.  Even though it is difficult to completely remove the waste, we want to remove it as much as possible. When practicing Tai Chi movements, we “sag” and tilt torso forward lightly, which helps release more waste out of lungs?  This result in the Tai Chi practitioner removes more carbon dioxide from the body and receives more oxygen into the blood stream for the body’s needs. The relaxation of the movements helps to loosen all passages, allowing the distribution of oxygen more effectively and evenly.

Tai Chi Chuan will reduce our hypertensions and does not cause the practitioner to breathe heavily from physical exertion or hyperventilation, nor does it encourage breathing in short breaths from the upper part of the chest, which may be a sign of congestion or stress.  Instead, Tai Chi Chuan teaches the full exchange of waste and oxygen for the needs of all body cells, and the slow, gentle movements help to regulate the nervous system.  Through balancing gentle and deep exhalations and inhalations, it promotes physical relaxation and mental serenity. The movements are effortless and continuous, slow and gentle, like unhurried clouds flowing and dancing in the sky. The mind is therefore rendered peaceful, free of worry and free from the stresses of the world. The peace and tranquility of tai chi practice integrates spirit, body and mind, leaving the practitioner feeling almost ineffably quiet, calm and cool. A peaceful mind is worry free and – free from stress.

The concept of my natural breathing with the 60 movements was from the early 1950’s, when I was an assistant to Professor Cheng Man-Ching: he always said that the breathing system used when practicing Tai Chi Chuan is based on natural breathing. Coordinating natural breathing in Chinese is “內開外合”, “外開內合”.  “when the inside is open, the outside is closed” (內開外合) — i.e., when waste gas from inside the lungs is expelled, then the palms and arms shrink inward. “when the outside is opened, the inside is close” (外開內合) — i.e., when the energy Air fills the lungs, the palms and arms expand outward.  He reminded us that “we should not worry about it too much; the natural breathing will automatically correspond with the natural movements of Tai Chi Chuan”.

There are many Tai Chi Chuan players whose breathing is different from mine as they practice their Tai Chi Chuan movements. I don’t feel that they are wrong and I am right; they must have their reasons.   As far as that goes, every one does the Tai Chi movements and postures different from the others, even within their own style. There is a saying, “條條大路通羅馬”,”All roads lead to Rome” — as long as you get to your destination that is most important.

I like to thank all my students, who have been supporting and studying with me for all these years.  That gives me a great opportunity to learn from my teaching, and to confirm this proper breathing coordination.

The coordination of breathing is only one of the benefit approaches from Tai Chi Chuan; there are many other benefits that should be taken under consideration.

This article explains to Tai Chi players how and why I follow natural diaphragm breathing.  I am very pleased that the breathing is applicable to good health as well as to any actions for martial arts.


* “內開外合”: 內=internal; 開=released out; 外=external; 合=fold in together. Which means the internal energy releases with exhalation, the external palms and arms fold inward.

* “外開內合”: 外=external; 開=move outward; 內=Internal; 合=filling the energy together. Which means that the expending palms and arms outward is the result oxygen energy floating and filling into the lungs.

The energy Air is contained 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and other minor components that we cannot live without it, the life will be terminated.

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