How often has your sensei told you ‘to breathe’ whilst performing a kata, a combination or some other technique? My sensei is always shouting ‘remember to breathe’ as have other instructors who’ve taught me on various courses I have attended.
Breathing is not only fundamental to our existence; hence we normally do it without conscious thought, it is also fundamental to our martial arts training (and to any other physical training). You would expect breathing whilst exercising to come naturally to us but clearly, to many of us, it doesn’t!
Many people, particularly in the early kyu grades tend to hold their breath when performing kata or any other technique requiring physical exertion. Holding the breath whilst exerting oneself not only leads to a bad performance it can actually be physiologically dangerous.
A bad performance results from the fact that you don’t have enough oxygen in the blood to supply those hard working muscles. This means you tire easily and pant like mad once you do breathe. A failure to coordinate the breath patterns with physical movements also leads to techniques that are executed with a lack of rhythm or intent.
However, incorrect breathing techniques can cause more than merely a bad performance. Holding the breath whilst contracting the diaphragm and abdominal muscles or exhaling sharply whilst constricting the glottis can induce the Valsalva’s manoeuvre. The rise in intra-thoracic pressure that results from this manoeuvre causes a trapping of blood in the great veins, preventing it from entering the chest and right atrium. On release of the breath the intra-thoracic pressure drops and the trapped blood is propelled through the heart, producing an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. In susceptible people the damage done to the cardiovascular system by repeated induction of Valsalva’s manoeuvre can lead to heart disease, aneurisms, strokes, haemorrhoids and blackouts.
When we talk about breathing during martial arts training, we obviously mean intentional breathing – something we are consciously controlling and regulating. So why do we need to do this?
Martial arts are often underpinned with the belief that correct breathing helps us to unify the body and mind. Controlled breathing helps us to focus and control the mind, indeed it is an important part of meditation. By focussing on breathing during meditation the practitioner can often reach a state of mushin (empty mind). Once the mind is clear of extraneous thoughts and focussed to the point of ‘no thoughts’ the body is free to move fluidly and instinctively to execute techniques without the hindrance of conscious intervention. This is what we try to achieve in our martial arts. Kata is an excellent method for training to achieve mushin and is often referred to as ‘moving meditation’.
In addition to these meditational aspects of breathing the physiological consequences of breathing prepare us for action by stimulating the cardio vascular system, filling us with oxygen, removing carbon dioxide and pumping blood to the muscles and brain. By controlling the way we breathe we can coordinate loading up our systems with oxygen (inhalation) with ‘turbo charging’ our techniques as we perform them by exhalation – a strong and powerful exhalation can promote a strong and powerful technique.
Inhalation should be through the nose whilst exhalation should be via the mouth. Rapid exhalation, which involves contraction of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, is called ibuki breathing. Ibuki breathing often gets a bad press but this is usually only warranted if it is accompanied by a Valsalva’s manoeuvre. Sanchin kata is often criticised for encouraging breathing with a Valsalva’s manoeuvre but really this is the fault of the performer, not the kata. Sanchin requires good controlled breathing, not constant repetitions of the Valsalva’s manoeuvre! When performing ibuki breathing you should always make sure that your glottis is fully open when exhaling – do not breathe against resistance.
So next time your sensei tells you to breathe remember he/she is trying to teach you a very fundamental aspect of martial arts training. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Inhale in preparation and exhale on the execution of technique. Simple, eh? I wonder why we need reminding so much……