On Tuesday, I was the only one to show up to class, so Sensei and I had a very nice, highly instructive one on one session. We covered the four empty-hand kata I know thus far (Seisan, Seiuchin, Nahanchie, and Wansu), plus three self-defense patterns that he is adding to the requirements for belt testing. While I won't have to know them until black (there are nine altogether), he's teaching three at green, three at purple, and three at brown.
Toward the end of the session, we got to discussing the two brown belts who have left the dojo since I arrived. One is essentially a black, just without the belt, as he never was able to make the time commitment for long enough to push through and test for the black, even though he basically had all the skills necessary. Sensei still has hopes that they may be able to work out an arrangement that will allow L to put in the training time, just elsewhere (he now lives quite a distance aways).
The other brown belt left for reasons I'm not clear on (and that aren't really any of my business), but she had a lot further to go before she would have been ready for black. She was (and is) an excellent brown belt, but she had worked herself into a corner, and getting out - well, it would take a tremendous amount of work and time.
The problem is that she didn't breathe correctly. In every other way, her technique is all over mine, so I feel a little funny commenting critically, but she breathes backwards. It's something I see all the time in the world around me, and all the time in white and yellow belts, but most upper level belts have started, by sheer necessity, to breathe more properly.
You see, to breathe correctly, you need to use your diaphragm and your belly. Hold your arms out straight to either side, shoulder-level. Now rotate your thumbs until they're pointing straight behind you. Feel the position your ribcage is in? That's good breathing position - and that should never change. Drop your hands, but leave your chest and ribcage in the same position. Now put a hand flat on your belly, just about on your bellybutton, and the other hand in the small of your back. Breathe in deeply. If you're breathing correctly. both hands should be pushed out, the belly more than the back, while your ribs should not move. Doing this while maintaining muscle tension in the abs takes time and practice, but will reap huge dividends in stamina.
Breathing backwards is exactly the opposite. The belly and back don't move while the chest and even shoulders do the expanding and contracting. The problems with this as regards karate are two-fold. First - you simply don't get as much air for the effort this way. Moving your ribs is hard work, much harder than moving the diaphagm and belly, and you don't get nearly the lung expansion - so you exhaust yourself much quicker. This is where most beginners run afoul of bad breathing, and why most of them begin to change, even if the Sensei does nothing to correct it. Sooner or later they exhaust themselves, their bellies loosen, and poof, they start breathing more correctly. The body knows what's good for it, and so the more this happens, the more the student tends to start breathing that way, often even without realizing it.
Secondly, breathing backwards will get you into trouble even if you develop the stamina and lung-power to work around problem one. This is where our brown belt ran into trouble. You see, if you're breathing with your rib muscles, then those muscles are not available for other work, and vice versa. If you want to throw your very strongest punch, and you breathe with your ribs, you cannot breathe while punching, because you will leach muscle power from the punch. So our brown belt was fine fighting, and fine during most practice, but when she would practice katas full force, with all those techniques coming one after another, she would run out of steam very quickly - long before she could possibly have gone through all of the empty-hand kata. Unfortunately, as ingrained as her breathing pattern was, I suspect she would have to break almost all of her technique down, retrain her breathing, and build it back up with the new breathing worked in.
Breathing is something our Sensei does fine himself, but he doesn't particularly teach it, other than the old stand-by of having the students breathe out with every technique. I'm beginning to think, that if I start teaching a regular weekly class, I should work up a lesson on proper breathing. Most of the techniques I know come from singing, though, and I'm a little uncertain as to how they would be received by a karate class. I mean pushing against a wall while singing will teach you not to use your chest muscles in no time flat, but how are a bunch of pre-teen karateka going to respond to being asked to sing in karate class?
Something to ponder. I've still got time.
PS - for those interested, I've sent in the hook for Ghost Dancer to Miss Snark's Crapometer for critique. (It's #133, not up yet)