by Aaron Hoopes
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.
There are a large number of breathing exercises. Some are simple and easy while others require years of practice. I will discuss the five I believe to be the most effective for the martial artists who are beginning to explore the potential of proper breathing. First, we will describe the two methods which are best suited for becoming aware of the body: Attention Breathing and Abdominal Breathing. We will then go on to the more advanced exercises of Reverse Abdominal Breathing and Nose Panting. Finally we will introduce The Complete Breath which is more challenging and requires increased concentration and practice.
In practicing these breathing exercises it is important to concentrate on breathing through the nose, both during inhalation and exhalation. Of course when training in the martial arts, breathing strictly through the nose is unrealistic. In fact it is physically impossible since the body's demand for oxygen increases too fast for the nose to handle the flow. However, while doing these specific exercises it is important. Think of it as a closed circuit within the body, breathing in through the nose and out through the nose. If you open your mouth, you break the circuit and the energy dissipates.
It is important to realize that people breathe differently. Children tend to breathe with their abdomen, while middle-aged people breathe with their stomachs, and older people often breathe mainly with their upper chests. But the way people breathe is also affected by other factors, emotions, for instance, or ill health. Someone who is excited will breathe faster and shallower than someone who is sad. Someone who is calm will breathe slowly and deeply. Someone out of shape may be panting after a short walk or climbing some stairs.
Attention breathing, as its name implies, is about focusing your awareness on the natural rhythm of your breath, not to control it but simply to observe it as a bodily function. Your awareness is the instrument which enables you to shift from unconscious breathing to conscious, or dynamic, breathing. This shift is accomplished by concentrating on the feeling of the body as it breathes. Feel the air as it enters your nostrils. Follow it as it flows into the lungs and notice how deeply it reaches into them. Maintain your full attention and follow it back up as you exhale. Feel the used air as it is expelled from the body.Gradually, as you become aware of the feeling of the breath it should become smoother and more relaxed. But don’t try to change your breathing during Attention Breathing. Your aim is to observe your unconscious breathing habits so you will be able to feel the difference when you actually begin dynamic breathing. If you find your mind wandering, simply catch yourself and return to the breath. Try to perform Attention Breathing for five minutes each day at the same time of day, perhaps in the morning when you wake up or at night when you are about to go to bed. As you become used to it, see if you can focus on your breath at other times throughout the day. Eventually the awareness of the breath and your breathing should become an integral part of your life.