Guidelines for Breathing in Tai Chi

By Grandmaster Shou-Yu Liang and Master Wen-Ching Wu

Breathing is a process that we often take for granted. We never learned how to breath, it simplycamenaturally when we were born. However, as we get older, due to a weakening and lack of exercise of the primary muscles associates with breathing, we begin to lose the full capacity of our lungs. Older individuals often find themselves breathing shallower and at a faster pace than when they were younger. This is primarily due to the loss of efficiency of the intercostal (rib) muscles and the diaphragm.

The mechanics of breathing have two phases: inhalation and exhalation. To inhale, the atmospheric pressure in the lungs must be lower than the atmospheric pressure of the environment. During inhalation, pressure in the lungs is reduced by lung expansion. This will increase the volume of the lungs, thereby reducing the pressure in the lungs, allowing higher pressure air from outside the body to enter the lungs. To increase the volume of the lungs, the body contracts the diaphragm and intercostals muscles, to raise the ribs. Exhalation usually happens naturally by relaxing the contracted diaphragm and intercostals muscles. The relaxation of the intercostals muscles releases the elastic-like rib cage and pushes the air out of the lungs. As air is forced out of the lungs by the retraction of the rib cage, the differential pressure between the lung cavity and the abdominal cavity pulls the relaxed diaphragm upward. A relaxed diaphragm looks like a inverted bow pressing up on the bottom of the lungs.

In Taijiquan practice, initially the breathing should be natural. That is, following the breathing pattern you are accustomed to. When your movements become smooth, then abdominal breathing is added to the postures. During abdominal breathing, abdominal muscles assist the intercostals muscles and the diaphragm in your breathing. During normal breathing, human lungs only exchange about 10% of the air in our lungs in each breathing cycle. That means we are diluting 10% of fresh air with 90% of residual air. As we get older, the air exchange rate becomes even less, due to the loss in the intercostals muscles and diaphragm efficiency. Abdominal breathing can help to make up the deficit, and assist the intercostals muscles and the diaphragm in functioning more efficiency.

Abdominal breathing is also known as Back to the Childhood Breathing, because during childhood, children are able to breathe with their abdomen, making each breathing cycle more efficient. Pay attention to a young child during his or her sleep; you will notice that the child may still have the inherent ability to breath with his or her abdomen. There are tow basic abdominal breathing practices. One is called Normal Abdominal Breathing, the other is called Reversed Abdominal Breathing. In Normal Abdominal Breathing, the abdomen is pushed out as you inhale; and the abdomen is pulled in as you exhale. In Reversed Abdominal Breathing, the abdomen is pulled in as you inhale, and pushed out as you exhale. Generally speaking, Normal Abdominal Breathing is more relaxed than Reverse Abdominal Breathing. However, in Reversed Abdominal Breathing, more air can be pushed out of the lungs, thereby allowing more air exchange in a breathing cycle.

Even though, the term Reversed is used to describe Reversed Abdominal Breathing, it is still anatural way of breathing. Pay attention to how your abdomen reacts to your breathing while attempting to do a physically demanding task, you will notice that your abdomen behaves in the fashion described for Reversed Breathing. For example, if you were to push a car stuck in a ditch, you would normally exhale while pushing and your abdomen would push out. This is a normal reaction for your body while doing a demanding task that requires a more efficient air exchange.