I'm doing a Tai Chi class and am pretty much a novice at it, so I also youtube'd around and read a lot. I'm now confused about breathing.

My class teacher (old guy, but aren't they all?) says for the first movement (lifting the arms, then lowering them again), that I should breathe out when lifting my arms, breathe in when lowering. His reasoning: when you lift your arms, you're releasing energy and that works best when you breathe out.

A video series I found (also an old guy) said the exact opposite: when lifting, breathe in, when lowering, breathe out.

I've read this post on the stack about breathing in different martial arts, and the answer says it depends on the martial art.

I also found this "classics" text:


To Gather the Ch'i

If the ch'i is dispersed, then it is not stored and is easy to scatter. Let the ch'i penetrate the spine and the inhalation and exhalation be smooth and unimpeded throughout the entire body. The inhalation closes and gathers, the exhalation opens and discharges. Because the inhalation can naturally raise and also uproot the opponent, the exhalation can naturally sink down and also fa-chin [discharge energy] him. This is by means of the I, not the li mobilizing the ch'i.

This seems to be saying: inhale when lowering arms, exhale when raising them.

Now I'm trying to do tai chi, and I'd like to do the breathing correctly. Does anyone have a definitive answer? Or is it "feel what feels best"?

9 Answers 9


In general, you should be inhaling when raising the arms and exhaling when lowering them. This is taken from the 18 Lohan set which is where the 8 Pieces of Brocade was taken from.

When inhaling when raising the arms, you are gathering the chi, when exhaling while lowering, you are sinking the chi to the build the root in the stance, then you have a solid foundation for the first movement.

Inhaling is used to collect the chi and gather it in the posture, then the exhalation releases the chi for the strike, block, ward off or other actual martial techniques used in fighting. It's important to remember that Tai chi is not a health system at it's core, but an extemely effective and powerful martial art. All of the health styles that are so popular today are all derived from the original martial sets, of which the Yang style is probably the most popular.

The book "Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan" by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming is an excellent book to get that will further guide you in this area should you really wish to pursue it further. Even if you only want to use it for health purposes, his books take you step by step through every move, the breathing, stepping, martial applications, fighting moves and theory, strikes and far more. All the best.


If you have confidence in your teacher's abilities, then do as they say. They might be teaching something different than what you think they are teaching at that time. Of course, you could always ask them why. They are there for that. A student's curiosity is (generally) a good thing. Besides, we learn best by understanding what we are trying to achieve.

If, on the other hand, you do not trust you teacher: What the hell are you doing taking their class???

  • 1
    Well, it's lesson 4 at the moment :p I'm still deciding who to trust...
    – Tominator
    Nov 13, 2013 at 8:18
  • 1
    @Tominator: I would strongly suggest you asked the teacher for the why. Depending on how and what his answer is, it should give you an indication. Nov 13, 2013 at 9:03

It's often hard to get a good sense of what to do, in a practical sense, from classical tai chi texts. Their flowery language, extensive use of metaphor, references to connotations we aren't familiar with, and use of the obfuscatory term "chi" all contribute to this.

The rule of thumb for fighting is to usually exhale when striking or making an explosive movement. Similarly, a pulling or drawing-in motion is generally accompanied by breathing in. (Sometimes these two rules conflict (such as in a judo throw's tsukuri or "entering" phase), in which cases these general guidelines must be broken.) Which of these rules apply to this particular movement depends on the combat application.

However, in the context of the Yang tai chi form, I suspect there is a right answer to this question. Unfortunately I'm not familiar with the form. In checking whether your tai chi instructor is getting this move right, I recommend looking for this specific movement, not for general rules.

  • Thanks for the info; in the form, the breathing actually continues with everything, so it should start correctly to be right until the end.. It kinda matters with what you start :-)
    – Tominator
    Nov 13, 2013 at 12:30
  • @Tominator Fair enough. There is a fair degree of "in this class we do it this way" in any forms practice, however. Nov 13, 2013 at 13:11

If you're ever unsure, a rule of thumb is to inhale at the start of a complex movement and exhale at the end. Think of breathing in as pulling back on a bow and breathing out as releasing. Which is, coincidentally, how you shoot a bow.


Try doing this: Every time your arms/body extend/expand, exhale. and every time your arms/body contracts, inhale.

Then try this: Every time your arms/body extend/expand, inhale. and Every time your arms/body contracts, exhale.

Both work but for different reasons. Think about your intention. Hope this helps. Now go train.

  • You are quite correct in this I feel. I've done the class for a year now, and from the things the teacher talks about, there's no right or wrong way. Now to master intention :-)
    – Tominator
    Sep 8, 2014 at 7:37

It all depends in what your intention is. Like the classic text says inhaling gathers chi and exhaling projects chi. Now if you' re practising you want to gather chi to yourself, so you breathe out when pushing down. In healing or in combat however you want to project your chi into something or someone else outside of your body. That's when your breathing has to change. Generating force (like in a punch) usually goes with expelling breath. Grappling is most often used to uproot your opponent but stabilizing yourself. There your breathing turns around. But the most useful because more often used way of breathing is: in - movement to yourself and out - movement away. This is what you should be practising as you begin. (The first 50 years vor so ;-) )


Your teacher is right, as ist the classic text you cited.


Doing it the opposite way isn't necessarily wrong. In the beginning, it seems more "natural" to inhale while rising the arms and to exhale while lowering the arms. Nothing wrong with that, it is a good exercise for your diaphragm and for learning to breathe deeply.

However, when you begin to test the actions of the movements, you'll notice that you get stuck if you inhale while raising the arms, especially against a resisting training partner. Lowering the arms with your training partner pulling can be done while inhaling, although exhaling is also possible (the principles are not that simple! :D ).

Depending on the teacher, you'll learn the breathing coordinated with the action right away (breathing out while raising the arms, breathing in while lowering the arms) or at a more advanced stage only (so you might begin training breathing the "natural" way first).

In the applications, inhaling has a special purpose (prior to the action), all actions are done while exhaling.


In my experience with qigong, the inhalation is done on the gathering (yin) phase of the movement, and the exhalation is done on the expressing (yang) phase of the movement. I understand that Cheng Man Ching taught the opposite of this.


Don't try to over think Tai Chi Breathing; 99% of the movements are in a pair. The pair is Inhale and Exhale. You want to do it slowly and, if you can, control your breath. You control your life. Inhale at the beginning, drawing an arrow in the bow; this stores your Chi. Exhale to deliver, and release the arrow to deliver the Chi. The breath connects your mind to your body.

Ever noticed you're uptight and your breath gets short? This is because your breath is a direct result of your emotions. The beginning of movement is inhale and the second part is exhale. Simple, and do your Tai Chi as slow as you can. It will engage more of your muscles. I believe the real benefit is that our lives are moving too fast and we need to slow things down. Doing Tai Chi slow will make you slow down in real life.

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