BREATHING IN TAI CHI reviewed by Julie Lucas

Tai Chi is most often promoted for its health promoting qualities and one important feature is the focus on calm controlled breathing.

It seems that correct technique is of crucial importance if we are to have calm breathing, and to obtain the calm state preferred for practice. Also that although practicing our Tai Chi slowly can contribute to slowing down our breathing pattern unless we consciously become aware of how we are breathing we may also be sabotaging our Tai Chi efforts.

The first stage to calming our breath is to have awareness of how we are breathing.


  1. Stand in front of a mirror or a friend. Place 1 hand on your chest and other on your belly below the waist.
  2. Take a deep breath. Check mirror or friend whether A) chest or shoulders were raised or B) the belly moved.

If B) congratulations but read on to convince yourself why.

If A) this breathing style could be affecting your wellbeing. Read on….

The respiratory system is also closely linked to our thoughts and feelings, continually changing in response to our needs - whether physical, emotional or mental. So in our Tai Chi practice we are advised to begin with a calm mind, we begin with the intention of being empty: no thoughts, no emotion and no fears (because we are in a safe environment). This attitude of calm leads to a stable breathing pattern.

Sometimes, despite our good intentions we cannot empty our minds: our thoughts and feelings or fears get in way of our goal for calm. This is the Fight /Flight Response (F/FR) at work.

F/FR is activated by the emotional center of the brain and physiologically leads to an increased demand for oxygen. (Heavy panting / shallow breathing –hyperventilation). ‘Turbo- Charged Breathing’ The blood becomes saturated with oxygen and low in CO2; altering the acid/alkaline balance; increasing calcium content of heart cells; contracting of the blood vessels; raising blood pressure and blood clotting ability. (1) No wonder heart attacks commonly occur after a severe shock!

F/FR also causes a cascade of changes in other bodily functions, which gives us extra energy to respond to the ‘stressful event’. Modern living seems to cause this primitive brain mechanism to be in overdrive so that the F/FR may become permanently switched on. Left un-addressed this situation may eventually lead to serious health problems.

The F/FR breathing pattern is only designed for use in short term. In the long term it is inefficient and has been suggested as having a more fundamental role in generating heart problems than conventional risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, or smoking.

It seems F/FR is also responsible for high blood cortisol (a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands an excess of which may give rise to abdominal weight gain and fluid retention-concerns of heart disease reduction). A recent interesting study showed that lifestyle management of stress alone resulted in a reduction of body fat, in a 3month period. (See New Vegetarian and Natural Health Spring 2003 p20)

F/FR breathing pattern is the main mechanism by which mental/emotional disturbance can lead to a chain effect through the body.

EXERCISE 2 (*caution* Do not attempt first part, if you have any heart or other condition which may be affected by unusual effort/ stress).

  1. Be seated. Place 1 hand on upper chest. Breathe deeply ‘into your hand’ 6-7 times. Notice feelings of distress, discomfort or physical hyperventilation. Notice the physical tension and rigidity of the chest. Perhaps even your head lowered (a response of feeling faint).
  2. Now (slowly) readjust so that your spine is erect and you feel well supported. (Think of your Tai Chi posture).
  3. Place one hand on the Dantien (sometimes called the false diaphragm by singing teachers). Relax the underlying muscles into your hand (there maybe a feeling of dropping down).Now breathe into your hand several times. (You might imagine you have a balloon inside your belly which expands then gently deflates – no need to push or force. Notice how you feel and the calmness.

By relaxing the muscles associated with the Dantien, not only are the organs of the torso released from being held with excess rigidity, but for the practice of efficient breathing, the real diaphragm can expand down too. This creates a vacuum in the chest and effortlessly allows the lungs to expand and suck in air just like bellows. (This ‘abdominal’ breathing pattern is often referred to as ‘bellows breathing’.)

So the connection is made: to breathe effortlessly, it is necessary to relax the Dantien. However since most ‘beginners’ come to Tai Chi as a result of stressful living, this aspect of controlling the abdomen to breathe requires initial patience and perseverance. By taking control of your breathing (until it becomes habit) you can begin to take control of your life: and the increased feelings of well-being and positive changes to your health make the breathing aspect of Tai Chi, a practice, very worthy of being promoted.

Reference: Young, K. in Tai Chi and Alternative Health Magazine Issue 23 2000, Pp42-45.


Home Page   Articles