One of the most important aspects of martial arts training is proper breathing. However, for practitioners of hard styles, effective breathing methods are often left to the students to figure out on their own. The central principle of breathing is of internal cleansing, getting rid of that which is old, worn out, and stale, and exchanging it for what is new, fresh, and energized. During inhalation we are bringing in fresh oxygen, nutrients, and vital energy. During exhalation we are expelling carbon dioxide and other toxins and poisons that we produce or collect in our daily lives.
With the ever-increasing incidence of lifestyle diseases like cardio-vascular and nervous system disorders, the time has come for us to address this ourselves, fair and square WITHOUT external dependence.
Did you know that reprogramming your natural breathing technique would not only help in preventing these problems but also help in the “reversal” of several such harmful conditions? Yes, it’s not only possible but proven too. In fact leading cardiac experts are advocating the benefits of “correct” breathing to their patients.
By Aaron Hoopes
Breathing is essential to Yoga practice, yet it is often the most neglected aspect of our training as we work to perfect our posture, stance and alignment. The simple fact is that breathing is the fundamental aspect of our physical body. It is a continuous rhythm that runs throughout our whole life. The body can go for days, even weeks without food. It is able to survive two or three days without water. But it is virtually impossible to go without breathing for more than a few minutes. Without fresh oxygen to the brain the bodily systems quickly shut down and we die.
By Aaron Hoopes
One of the most important things I have learned in teaching breathing to martial artists is that one can only understand its importance by actually practicing deep breathing oneself. The same is true with stillness training. It is impossible to adequately understand the benefits of contrasting movement with stillness without actually trying it yourself.
Shotokan karate is a powerful and dynamic martial art. Yet, sometimes its emphasis on strong, hard techniques seems one-dimensional and overshadows the need for contrast. Without weakness there is no such thing as strength. Without soft there is no hard. This idea of contrast or balance in the martial arts is best symbolized by the concept of Yin and Yang. The Yin/Yang symbol is one of the oldest and best-known life symbols in the world. It represents the two poles of existence, which are opposite but complementary, and which exist everywhere in every part of the universe. The light, white Yang moves up blending into the dark, black Yin which is moving down. The two aspects are in opposition to each other but they are also interdependent. Yin and Yang can be described as dependent opposite forces that must always be in balance. The opposite forces flow in a natural cycle, one always replacing the other. Each force contains the seed of the other, which is why we see a black spot of Yin in the Yang segment and a white spot of Yang in the Yin. They do not merely replace each other but actually become each other. Absolute or pure Yin (or Yang) does not exist. Everything contains some degree of its opposite.
What the Yin/Yang dichotomy is telling us is that in life all things have two opposite dimensions. If light exists then darkness exists as well. Wherever there is an “up” there will also be a “down”. If something has a front it must have a back. Something that is born will eventually die. There are no advantages without disadvantages; there are no disadvantages without advantages. All the opposites one perceives in the universe, then, are embodied in the opposing forces of Yin and Yang. This changing combination of negative and positive, dark and light, cold and hot is what keeps the world in motion. In our individual lives all change can be seen as one opposite becoming the other.
As something reaches an extreme, it always gives way to its opposite. Just as the seasons cycle through summer-fall-winter-spring and create opposite periods of hot and cold, windy and still, rainy and dry. Yin and Yang cycle through active and passive, dark and light, strength and weakness. If Yin and Yang are balanced and flowing, life itself is balanced and flowing. Each of us must have this balance to be complete.
For people who train in the martial Arts, one of the most important principles embodied by the concept of Yin and Yang, is the relationship between stillness and motion. Stillness is the natural state before movement begins, and yet it is also the basis of all movement. Understanding the symbiosis of stillness and movement can guide you in establishing true balance and control within yourself. A technique which begins from perfect stillness enables you to execute the movement in a coordinated and efficient manner which, in turn, allows your body and mind to reach together a balanced harmony. Furthermore, by increasing your efficiency of movement, you can release unnecessary tension and relax more completely.The best method for learning the principle embodied in stillness and movement is to stand still - completely still. To begin, choose an individual position from your favorite kata. For beginners it may be a back-stance, knife-hand block (kokutsu shuto-uke). More advanced karate-ka may choose the first move from Sochin or the last move from Gojushiho-sho. The actual position of the arms and legs is less important than the requirement of the training, which is simply to remain completely still. Once in position, do not move at all. The goal is to achieve total, pure stillness. This is different from just getting into a stance and holding it. The point here is to make absolutely no movement at all. No adjustment, no shifting of weight, nothing. I realize that this may sound simplistic. But if you practice this training you will eventually come to understand the difference between absolute stillness and what passes for stillness in your regular training. You will become intimately aware of each and every muscle that is in use. Then the quality of your movement will naturally move toward perfection.
By Aaron Hoopes
Whenever I teach a “Breathing in the Martial Arts” seminar I always have the students breathe in and out through the nose. This often brings quizzical looks and invariably, at the end of the session, the first question asked is; “Why are we breathing in and out through the nose?” This is a valid question and I’d like to address it here. Before I do that, I need to explain a little bit about Ki energy and how it relates to breathing.
Most martial arts practitioners have some idea about the concept of Ki energy. Ki refers to the natural energy of the Universe, which permeates everything. All matter, from the smallest atoms and molecules to the largest planets and stars, is made up of this energy. It is the vital force of life. It is the source of every existing thing. Ki has many manifestations. Different philosophies and cultures call it by different names. Metaphysical science calls it “vital force.” Friedrich Mesmer called it “animal magnetism.” The Indian and Hindu yogis call it “Prana.” To the Kung Fu and Tai Chi practitioners of China it is known as “Chi.” Western science defines it as “biorhythm,” and New Age thinkers simply call it “cosmic energy.” Naturally, in each manifestation the Ki is viewed and defined differently, but basically it is the same thing. It is the power which enables us to think, move, breathe, and live – the power that makes gravity act like gravity.
It is what makes electricity electric. It is the link between our perception of the inner and outer worlds. It is our connection to the very flow of the universe and the prime moving force within the human body. Ki is not breath, it is the power that makes it possible for us to breathe. Ki is not simply “energy,” it is what gives energy the power to be energy. Ki is the power behind movement and thought…and it is everywhere. It is in the oxygen we breathe and the blood that flows through us.
It is difficult to define Ki concretely. It cannot be seen or measured, it cannot be touched or captured. It is everywhere yet we have no way to touch it, make it tangible, or even prove its existence. Therefore Ki is a difficult concept to accept. The Western mind likes the tangible, the concrete and the specific. It likes a scientific explanation which defines, dissects, and categorizes. Ki transcends this kind of explanation. It doesn’t fit easily into a strict biomedical framework. It is simply indefinable in those terms.
Ki within the body is like power in a rechargeable battery. Occasionally it needs to be replenished. The Ki of the universe is inexhaustible, yet the body needs fresh Ki to maintain its vitality. When you are exchanging the Ki within you with the Ki of the universe, you feel healthy and vigorous. By energizing the body with Ki it is revitalized naturally, enabling it to fight off illness and maintain good health. The true secret to replenishing Ki resides in our breathing.Breathing in and out through the nose is the only method that enables the body to process Ki energy effectively. Most people understand the importance of breathing in through the nose. The nose has a series of defense mechanisms that prevent impurities and extremely cold air from entering the body. These were detailed in my previous article “Breathing Training for Martial Artists” (SKM Issue 72). Breathing out through the nose requires a deeper understanding of the nature of Ki energy. Practitioners of martial arts, especially karate, need to absorb and process the Ki that they are breathing in order to generate the power and force for the techniques they practice. They also need to be able to retain the Ki within the body until the moment it is needed. Basically, when we inhale we are bringing fresh oxygen and Ki into our body. When we exhale through the mouth we are expelling carbon dioxide which contains all the toxins and poisons that have built up within the lungs. We are also expelling Ki from the body. But if we are continuously expelling the Ki we never give it a chance build up into the rich source of energy needed to complete our techniques to their maximum effectiveness. By exhaling through the mouth the Ki energy is simply dissipated back into the world. Breathing out through the nose, however, completes a closed circuit. By exhaling through the nose, the Ki energy, instead of being expelled with the carbon dioxide, is transferred to the dan tien or hara, located about three finger widths below the umbilicus. With each breath in, more Ki enters the body and circles down to the dan tien growing stronger and stronger. During this breathing process, the tongue is up, touching the top palate of the mouth just behind the front teeth and the air is expelled from the nose with a slightly audible hiss. There is also a feeling of the abdominal walls contracting down with the exhalation.