Breathing for Strength & Flexibility
By Aaron Hoopes
Breathing in karate training is seldom given systematic attention. It is hard to tell whether this is due to a belief that it really isn’t that important or an unspoken agreement that karate-ka need to work it out on their own. Whatever the case the fact remains that breathing training is not practiced in most modern karate schools. This is rather unfortunate because breathing is actually fundamental to effective karate training.
The purpose of this article is to explore the two main methods of breathing that are used in karate training. Part 1 of this article is concerned with Abdominal Breathing which is the breathing method used when working on flexibility, building muscle strength, and replenishing energy reserves. Abdominal Breathing is grounding and peaceful. Part 2 of this article is concerned with Reverse Abdominal Breathing which is the breathing method used for the generation of power and focus.
Breathing practice has been a major part of all martial arts for thousands of years. It is only in modern times, especially in hard-style martial arts such as karate, with the emphasis on sports and tournament competition, that breathing exercises have been neglected. Proper breathing oxygenates the blood which is critical in enabling muscles to become more supple and strong. Breathing also has the effect of helping the mind to calm down. When we are looking inward, focusing on our breathing, other disruptive thoughts that run continuously through the mind settle of their own accord. The mind relaxes. This, in turn allows the muscles to relax, stretch and lengthen to their full potential.
Abdominal Breathing or belly breathing is the practice of learning to use your lungs to their full capacity. The focus is on the abdomen, or hara, the spot just below your navel. As you breathe in, push this belly area out and down filling the lungs completely from the bottom up. This is a muscular action as well as a respiratory action, which involves becoming aware of your abdominal muscles expanding. By pushing the abdomen out, you create a vacuum allowing your lungs to open and be filled to their maximum capacity. You should not feel as if you are expanding your chest; instead, imagine you are drawing the air deep into the lower part of your body. Next, as you breathe out, contract your abdominal muscles, pulling them in and up allowing them to squeeze the air from your lungs. It is especially important to relax and focus on releasing tension during the exhalation process
Abdominal Breathing is most effective when warming up or stretching and is the best method for building strength and flexibility in the musculature. As a general rule muscles need time to unwind and release the tension that builds up within them during everyday life. By practicing Abdominal breathing, you give the muscles time to relax. This, in turn, allows them to lengthen gradually and naturally.
Of course, most karate classes spend the first ten to fifteen minutes stretching. The stretching is primarily focused on specific muscles or muscle groups that are to be used during the class. It usually entails pulling muscles in opposite directions, often with a soft bouncing motion in order to loosen them up. The stretches concentrate on short extensions in preparation for the rigorous physical exercise that is to come. Other muscles, which may only play a supporting role, are often insufficiently stretched. This is fine to warm up muscles that are already loose; however, it is woefully inadequate as a primary stretching warm up, especially without proper breathing habits. The best suggestion is to take time outside of class to practice Abdominal Breathing while stretching. This will allow you to slow down the pace of your stretching and actually feel what is happening inside your body.
Within a short time you should begin to notice a difference in the way your muscles feel and the quicker response you get from them. Part of training is becoming aware of living in your body: feeling the muscles move and experiencing the deeper effects the techniques have. Abdominal Breathing gives you the chance to focus on and access this feeling.
Keeping your attention focused on the particular muscles that are being stretched brings your mind and body together toward the same end. Slowing down your stretches enables you to feel each stretch completely and to experience it in depth. Whatever stretches you do are fine, especially ones that are done in your regular karate warm-up. Just do them longer and slower…and remember to breathe. Practicing Abdominal Breathing while stretching, helps coordinate your muscles and gets them all working together by lengthening and toning your complete musculature along an extended range of motion. In karate the body is trained to move as a complete unit. Each muscle works in harmony to produce an effective technique. Proper breathing and stretching brings your whole body together so that it will respond when called upon to perform.
Abdominal Breathing builds strength within the muscles and allows them to become more flexible. It also replenishes energy reserves. Once the body is strong, flexible and full of energy, we can begin to practice a breathing method which allows us to circulate and focus that energy in the creation of real Ki power. In Part 2, I will discuss Reverse Abdominal Breathing.
Aaron Hoopes began his karate training in New Orleans in 1982 under Sensei Takayuki Mikami. In addition to karate he also began studying Tai Chi with sifu Chien “King” Lam of the Tamashii school. In 1986 he moved to Japan to continue his training at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association. While there he had the opportunity to train with Sensei Nakayama at his private dojo (Hoitsugan). In 1996 he completed the intensive Shanti Yoga instructor training program at the Australian Meditation Institute. In 2002 he founded Zen Yoga, a blend of Tai Chi movement, Shanti Yoga stretching and Qigong breathing. He is the author of Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit and Breathe Smart, as well as the creator of a series of training DVDs and relaxation CDs. His new book The Art of Zen Yoga is due out from Kodansha in 2007. Website: www.artofzenyoga.com