Effortless Tai Chi Breathing: Step by Step Guide, Exercises & Techniques

Jun 01, 2023
tai chi breathing guide techniques exercises
When you are practising Tai Chi you may ask yourself: am I breathing correctly? 

Proper breathing technique not only makes for more enjoyable Tai Chi practice, it can help you through stress, fatigue and challenging emotions. An awareness of the breath connects us to the body and helps return us to balance.

In this guide, we’ll walk through step-by-step how you can breathe effortlessly during your tai chi practice and in everyday life. We’ll explore wisdom from traditional Chinese medicine, Taoist philosophy and, later on, a special video from Master Gu. 

Qi: the breath of life

Inhale. Exhale. The fundamental yin yang rhythm with us from birth to death. 

Wisdom traditions from around the world consider breath to be the fundamental energy of life. In the Bible, God breathed into Earth to create the first human. In Hawaii, the most powerful healers are known as Kahuna Ha, “Masters of the Breath.”

Ancient China’s great healers and philosophers use the word “Qi” as the term for both “breath” and “life energy”. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there are three main sources of human qi: breath, food, and our inherited biological energy.

Therefore understanding how to breathe well is one of the basic ways to increase our life energy, enabling us to live well for many years to come.


The power of belly breathing: the Dan Tian

"The breathing of the true man comes from his heels, while men generally breathe only from their throats”. 
— Zhuangzi 300BC, Taoist Philosopher
In TCM, the source of our Qi energy resides in the “Dan Tian” (literally “Elixir Field”), found three fingers below the belly button. 

If we want the full benefits from breathing and Tai Chi, we can gently guide our breath deep into our body, towards the Dan Tian. According to TCM, this ensures a proper Qi circulation: fresh air reaches the Dan Tian, then on the exhale, stagnant qi can rise and be released.
In practice this is how babies breathe which is why the Taoists call it natural breathing. We may call it belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.

On the inhalation, the diaphragm moves downwards, pushing the abdomen out. This increases the volume of the lungs, creating a partial vacuum and sucking air in. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes upwards, the abdomen releases inwards, pushing the air out.

Inhalation: abdomen expands. Exhalation: abdomen contracts 
This is the most efficient and natural way to breathe. The dropping of the diaphragm opens the lower area of the lungs, where most of the oxygen exchange takes place. 
Contrary to popular belief, breathing abdominally actually creates more internal space, more room for the lungs to expand than expanding the chest. The upper ribs are much less flexible than the lower ribs. This is why if you’re stressed and your breath is up in your chest, you feel tension and shortness of breath.

Visualise your breath travelling down towards the Dan Tian. This practice will not only give you more oxygen for each breath, it releases tension and the diaphragm gives your internal organs a gentle massage. Not bad for simple breathing!

Should you breathe through the nose or mouth?

It's best to breathe through the nose. The nose contains fine hairs (cilia) and mucus that help trap and filter out dust, pollutants, and germs. Some of these harmful particles are swallowed, thus removing them from the respiratory tract. 

Allow, don't force 

Tai Chi and Taoism emphasise naturalness, simplicity, and tranquillity. Too much focus on the breath can mean we get in our own way. We start overthinking and it’s harder for us to relax into a natural sense of poise and balance.
Feel free when you are doing your Tai Chi practice to forget everything you’ve read in this article! Simply be present with your movement and allow your breathing to happen.

Other times, you can focus specifically on your Dan Tian breathing.

As you cycle between conscious attention and relaxed flow, over time your body will learn how to breathe effortlessly from the Dan Tian; less and less, conscious intention will be needed.

Let’s try it out: standing breathing exercise

I invite you to try out how this breathing feels with a simple standing meditation.
Master Gu and I doing Zhan Zhuang (tree trunk standing meditation)
Stand in a qi gong or tree trunk (Zhan Zhuang) stance. Your legs are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Softness in your knees. Your weight spread over your whole foot, not just your heels.

Your body is upright and relaxed. Shoulders gently down, drop the elbows. Hands together in front of you around your Dan Tian.

Settle into this position. Get comfortable. Enjoy this time of presence!

When you are ready, close your eyes and start to follow your breath.

Where is it travelling to and from?

There is no judgement here, no correction or adjustment. Just observation.

Bring your attention to the Dan Tian. Visualise it. The place from which life arises, our vital energy centre. Try to perceive it. Feel its energy radiating from just below your navel. You can use your imagination.

Now bring your attention back to your breath and, without forcing it, observe as the breathing fills your belly, connects with the Dan Tian and then flows out.

Do not try to inflate your belly or force the stomach out. Instead, be curious and find that with time you can bring your breath deep into your belly.

You will probably notice thoughts about other things. When this happens, just observe the thought, without judgement, and let it go. Return your attention to your breathing.

Do this for 5-10 minutes and feel that your body begins to breathe this way without intention.

When you are ready, come out of the meditation by gently opening your eyes. Shake your body. Bounce up and down. Wake your body up. Let out a belly laugh! You are a Tai Chi practitioner on a beautiful exploration of your being.

How do you breathe during Tai Chi?

Now we have an idea of what effortless natural dan tian breathing feels like. Let’s move with it!
What’s the secret to Tai Chi breathing?
Breathe out on the attack. Breathe in on the transition.
Tai Chi has its roots in martial arts. While today we practice it for wellness, thinking about the martial origins can be helpful.
In martial arts, a fighter will let out a quick breath through the nose on each attack. This increases their power and ensures tension is not held.
In your Tai Chi practice, if you release air slowly as you push outwards, you will find a sense of powerful connection between your breath and body.
Watch this video with Master Gu from the Introduction to Taiji course on the Online Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy. In this lecture he explains how the Qi moves around the body as he does tai chi:

Re-connect with the magic of breathing

We have explored a very simple but surprisingly powerful technique.

Techniques aside, just your intention to work with your breath is powerful by itself. It’s easy to take breathing for granted. Through the stresses of everyday life, many don’t stop to think about their breath; the magical energy that works through our body, keeping us alive, with no expectation of reward. The generosity of nature breathes through us. Paying attention to the breath can be a simple gratitude practice. Grounding us in the body and the world.

Have fun exploring these ideas. Breathe easy!
George Thompson & Rosa Parrella
San Feng Pai 16th Generation Tai Chi disciple, Taoist Explorer

More Tai Chi breathing learning from the Academy

If you would like to learn powerful, peaceful and beautiful Tai Chi breathing with Master Gu, you are warmly invited to join the online Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy. The academy is designed to help you live long and live well. It teaches Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Taoist philosophy from the Wudang Mountains, China.
As a student, you can get in-depth with tai chi and qi gong breathing. You’ll learn concepts such as:
  • A powerful morning meridian adjustment standing meditation.  
  • “Tu Na” expelling the old and inhaling the new.
  • How to stand strong like a tree.
  • Immortal’s Waterfall breathing technique
  • The principles of powerful, peaceful and beautiful Tai Chi
  • Step-by-step tuition of Wudang Tai Chi forms
  • Step-by-step tuition of Qi Gong forms
  • Taoist philosophy
  • +more!
Students also get to join Master Gu for a live Q&A every month to ask their questions. If you are interested in becoming a student, click here to learn more!