Friday, June 18, 2010

On Breathing (#1)

This is funny. After commenting at Kick-ass Sue's blog about cross-training, and mentioning that singing had been surprisingly helpful in my journey with karate, I had decided to write a post on breathing. I had the title up, and hadn't really gotten going yet on it when I left for class. And this turned out to be a class that put me on notice that breathing is going to take on a whole new importance in my karate teaching. And then when I checked back in this morning, prior to starting to write, Sue had requested a breathing post! So I think a breathing post is definitely in order.

What I know about breathing comes primarily from voice training. While not everything from singing applies directly to martial arts (Shocker, I know!), good voice training will teach you tremendous amounts about the mechanics of breathing, how you do it, why you do it, when you should do it.

Breathing is foundational to any movement discipline. If you're not breathing correctly, you're not doing any of the rest of it right. Good breathing is as fundamental to a proper strike as a good stance. You can get a long ways, covering for poor breathing technique with power and endurance, but sooner or later a lack will trip you up. If you're breathing with the wrong muscles, then those muscles aren't available for the strike - or if you use them for the strike, then you can't breathe through it.

Unfortunately, vast numbers of people wander through their lives breathing all wrong. The majority of adults I've ever seen come into the dojo, and a substantial number of the kids, need to be retaught how to breathe. Some instructors are really good about this, some aren't - possibly because they may not know how to teach breathing. Most people will improve their technique through sheer necessity as they progress through the ranks; it's physically exhausting to breathe wrong in sparring! But actually teaching breathing technique could save a lot of time and windedness.

So - the fundamentals of a good breath.

First, and most important. A good breath comes from low in your body - down in the bottom of your abdomen. Chest muscles are not much involved. With every breath, your belly (and back!) should expand. For learning purposes, this means a loose belly (protective tension comes later). If you stand and put one hand flat on your belly, just below your navel, and the other flat in the small of your back, a good deep breath should push outwards against both hands. The hand in front should actually move out several good inches. Your shoulders, on the other hand, shouldn't budge. The fastest thing to look for in a student is the shoulders. If they go up and down with each breath, they're not belly breathing.

"But, but..." many people will protest, "my lungs are in my chest, not my abdomen. How can I even do that?"

It's all in the diaphragm. You breathe by creating extra space in your chest cavity, creating lower pressure, which air surges into your lungs to equalize. You can do this by raising your shoulders and expanding your ribs - but that's not really how it's designed to work. Instead there's this nifty muscle call the diaphragm that sits like a membrane between your chest cavity and your abdominal cavity. When at rest it arches upward like a shallow dome. When it tenses, it flattens, creating more space in the chest cavity above it. But the abdominal cavity isn't exactly empty. Intestines, the liver, the spleen - there's a lot of stuff in there. So unless you relax your belly to allow more wiggle room, the diaphragm has a hard time flattening so your lungs can expand. If you look at the image above, notice how even though it shows the chest expanding and contracting, there's a lot more volume change caused by the movement of the diaphragm - but to get that movement, everything below the diaphragm has to move out of the way.

So - why wouldn't you do both, to get the maximum air change? Because the rib cage is bone, and fairly rigid. Expanding and contracting your chest is a lot of work, as compared to relaxing your abs. You can maximally expand your chest to get in the last little bit of air when necessary. But that's usually not going to be in the middle of a kata or a match. It's the sort of thing a singer does in the break before a very long passage, or a swimmer does just before heading underwater for a while. For most exertions, even high level ones, it's simply not necessary. Your diaphragm is capable of pulling enough air into your lungs for dynamic purposes. You're far better off holding your chest in a fairly expanded position (however much is comfortable), and leaving it there while your diaphragm does the work of moving the air.

A second reason is because you use many of those same chest and rib muscles in tzuki waza (striking techniques). We had one brown belt (who ended up dropping out for other reasons), who absolutely could not make it through more than two kata back-to-back without pausing to gasp for breath, and the whole reason was that she was breathing with her rib cage so every time she would punch or block, her breath would pause until she was done with the move. She was never fully oxygenated, and she was having to rely almost entirely on her anaerobic fitness to get her through. This was a lady who ran for aerobic conditioning, and couldn't understand why she could run for miles, but be gasping and winded in minutes in a kata.

This is probably long enough for a first installment, but I'm seeing at least two more entries on this. Be warned, I can talk breathing for an entire two hour class. I don't want to think how many posts I can get out of it!


wendryn said...

A conductor when I was little asked us to imagine a belt of noses to help remember what should be moving when we breathed. It was surprisingly useful.

Thinking about breathing is like thinking about swallowing - it's hard because it is so automatic. Breathing correctly can make a huge difference, though.

Michele said...

Great post...I look forward to your future installments on breathing.

SueC said...

Hi Cindy, a great start to your breathing posts - you explain things well. Looking forward to the rest - I'll practice my belly breathing in the meantime!

Felicia said...

Hey, Cindy...Good stuff! We also have a first kyu brown belt who gasps and sucks wind after two kata. He probably is breathing totally inefficiently - as he also uses lots of "extra" movements to accomplish techniques (blocks, strikes) in his kata as well.

I felt my belly move when I put my hand there but not the small of my back. Oh no!!

Looking forward to reading more :-)

Perpetual Beginner said...

wendryn - A belt of noses, I like it! One of my voice teachers would have me imagine that the air was coming in through my feet.

Michele and Sue - thanks! I'll be putting the next post up today or tomorrow.

Felicia - don't worry too much about the small of your back. It doesn't move a lot. You'll probably feel pressure against your hand, but little or no actual movement.

Your brown belt likely does breathe inefficiently. Almost all US adults who haven't worked on it do. I'll be talking about some exercises I use with our students over the next couple of posts.

Ariel said...

Nice post! I've been thinking a lot about breathing lately because I've been getting really winded after only a couple of forms also. Looking forward to your next posts!