Secret sounds of Martial Arts are often referenced with little to no explanation given about them. In Taijiquan practice the secret sounds of “Heng” and “Ha” are often referenced by practitioners in passing but only ever discussed, in my experience, behind closed doors, with trusted disciples. This creates secrecy and a feeling of being on the “inside” for those people who then pass on the same secrecy and shroud they experienced to other people who would like to hear about these “higher level” methods. This is what makes secrets valuable to new customer… uhhh… students. And while some training methods can be dangerous to ones’ health if taught too early or incompletely many secret methods are not and are kept secret only for the prestige they then represent.
Heng and Ha are considered the secret sounds of Taijiquan and are generally not taught at first or even mentioned sometimes for years to new students. This is understandable from the point of view that breathing methods are something that should not be focused on until the other laundry list of internal principles have been learned, examined, and integrated into a person’s training. If a student is having a hard time finding how to get their verticality in the body through posture adjustment while in motion through single movements then adding ethereal ideas about the breath is just a distraction. TaiJi is hard enough without focusing on the breath.
There are lots of legends about what the heng and ha sounds can do but let us just stay in the present and the observable. Heng and Ha are the sounds of the breath during inhalation and exhalation respectively. When breathing in or out quickly a sound approximating either heng or ha is generated from the passage of air through the throat. So, if this is the case then why are these sounds secret? Because training the breath and understanding what it is and its apparatus is a big project and one not to be taken lightly. Understanding the body and how we breathe is important and very relevant to the martial side of TaiJi and these sounds.
The torso contains various muscle groups that all assist in breathing, different groups move in different ways when inhaling or when exhaling and the secret sounds of heng and ha (inhale and exhale) are a trigger to remember to breathe appropriately during practice, applications and combat. Learning to exhale forcefully from the torso and allowing the release of the air from the mouth gives the sound “ha” and also allows for a complex and powerful muscular engagement to take place in the torso. This engagement when timed with martial movements that are meant to exert power outwards from the body add the force of those muscular contractions to the already present cascade of contraction from the trained movement itself (Dantien & six harmonies). Force is a result of muscular engagement put towards a singular purpose and so engaging the breathing muscles on exhalation adds a great deal of well-trained force to a strike.
The sound “heng” is that of inhalation and when done quickly and forcefully by opening the throat and allowing the torso to engage and draw air in creates an upward movement in the ribcage. This upward movement is sometime referred to as clavicular breathing as when the torso fills up the clavicles (collar bones) rise and the muscle surrounding them engages to help them rise to create room for the lung to expand. Martially, heng breathing is used in cases where you have joined with an opponent and are working to lift their body like seen in so many Taiji movements. Uprooting and throwing an opponent involves leverage, structure, strength, precision etc. but picking up another person’s body weight is no small task even when done well. In the case of a movement like “flash the back” from Chen Taiji which strongly resembles a Judo style throw (or reaping throw in Chinese arts) one puts their torso against the opponents directly. Inhaling quickly and forcefully when joined in this way raises the ribcage strongly and when done along with the cascaded movement of Taiji produces extremely strong upward force.
In short when lifting and floating the opponent- attach and breathe in. When striking or rending, breathe out.
There is of course movement by movement analysis that can be done by application and through push hands training with a good teacher but in general, this rule applies.
Secret? Meh, not really. But there is certainly a time and a place to teach it to a student and a time and a place not to as well.
My Two Cents.
Neil Ripski 2017