Saturday, June 19, 2010

On Breathing (#2)

Last post, we established that belly breathing is essential. It provides the most air movement for the least effort, and avoids using muscles needed for other aspects of your martial art. In this post, we're going to cover some refinements for that essential belly breathing.

The relaxation of your abdomen isn't the only relaxation that ought to be going on in proper breathing. Much like in strikes, the secret of efficiency is to only use the muscles required, and only for as long as necessary. When students are struggling to control their breathing, it's very common to see tension in the shoulders, chest and throat, even if they've gotten the hang of belly breathing. They're trying to control the flow of air, and haven't got the hang of using their abdominals for all aspects of the task.

For our students, I'll often have them face the wall and lean in as if doing a wall push-up, but maintaining tension, pushing against the wall for all they're worth - then have them sing an even note. (Yes, I make karate students sing, and yes, they protest.) With the chest and shoulders muscles fully engaged, you are forced to control the flow of air from your abdomen. The sung note makes it easier to tell if the air stream is well controlled. If raised shoulders are a problem, the same trick can be used by pulling up against a heavy object with both arms. My college voice teacher would use a pair of chairs with other students sitting in them.

Another useful exercise is to have students (this works well with a class as a whole, if they're receptive) lie on the floor on their backs. Dim the lights if possible. They should be in a classic yoga savasana position (corpse pose - see the picture at the top), legs apart about shoulder width, arms slightly away from the body, palms up, chin just barely tucked towards the chest to ensure the back of the neck isn't tight. Starting at the feet, talk them through tightening each part of their body on an inhale, drawing it tighter and tighter, and then releasing on the exhale. How slow or fast you do this can be varied depending on how much time you have, and how relaxed the students are at the beginning, but in general at least a breath each for feet & lower legs, thighs & butt, back & abdomen, arms & hands, chest & shoulders, and head & face. Then let them breathe for a little bit, imagining tension flowing out of their body and into the floor.

Once they seem well and truly relaxed, there are a number of different things you can start doing. Even simply lying there observing the breath without interference is helpful (and meditative). My first voice teacher would have us blow all the air out, imagining air coming up all the way from our toes, and blowing it out to the last dregs, and then filling up again, just as full as we had been empty, until our lungs couldn't possibly hold any more (do this very slowly to avoid hyperventilation).

My favorite is to start concentrating on the exhale. When someone has trouble getting enough air the impulse is always to worry about the inhale, which makes sense - too little air, so try to get more. Unfortunately it's exactly the wrong way around. Inhalation is pretty automatic - provided there's room in the lungs. Most people run out of breath because they haven't emptied their lungs sufficiently to bring in enough fresh air to meet their needs. A student will hold their breath, feel oxygen deprived, and try to suck in more air without ever having truly exhaled what was already in there. The result is a lot of shallow gasping. Contrariwise, if they concentrate on blowing out, the body will automatically suck in fresh air once they're done - problem solved.

Within the context of the savasana exercise, I have people start thinking of the breath as starting with the exhale. Counting each breath, starting with "one" on the exhale, "and" on the inhale, "two" on the next exhale, etc. can get the point across. Have them put all the effort of the breath into the exhale, the inhale should float into their lungs with no effort on their part at all. (It does take a while for most people to achieve. Thinking of the breath as starting with the inhale, and putting the effort on the inhale is fairly universal, at least around here.)

In general about 5-15 minutes (total, including the initial tensing and relaxing) is a good length for this exercise. Too long and you may find that people have fallen asleep.

Effort on the exhale can also be programmed into kata practice. With students who have problems holding their breath when doing kata under stress (I.e. those who forget to breathe, rather than those with structural breathing problems), I'll help them look for places to build in exhalation to their kata. If certain techniques are always accompanied by a pronounced exhale, the inhale will follow behind automatically. Most times I find that building in the exhales through the whole kata is unnecessary, a few strategically placed exhales will prompt the student and act as a vaccine against holding the breath throughout.

Pronounced exhaling can also be a stress-management technique during performance. In my brown belt test video, one of the things I noticed was how audible my exhales were in almost all the katas. Not ideal perhaps, but distinctly better than either hyperventilating or forgetting to breathe. Likewise, a pronounced exhale followed by a deep inhale has a distinct relaxing effect on the muscles, which is useful before things like board breaks, when you need the starting relaxation to get the necessary speed and power.

Belly breathing, relaxation, and effort on the exhale so far. Next time I'll get into appropriate, supportive tension.


Felicia said...

Ooooo! I like it! Can't wait to try it with the little ones this week! Thanks, Cindy :-)

Felicia said...

Just thought of something else (as I spent most of the day walking around thinking about exhaling, LOL) - when I first started running many years ago, my then HS coach used to tell me all the time to exhale more than I inhale; loosely translated, that meant one breath in, two out as a way of making sure we didn't hyperventilate.

Thanks for jogging (no pun intended, LOL) my memory :-)

SueC said...

Hi Cindy, you're completely turning around the way I think about breathing! I'm not in a position to try these exercises on other people (yet!)but I'm going to have a go myself.

Thank you

Perpetual Beginner said...

Yay! I'm glad you both are liking the series. I'm really enjoying writing it.

Marie said...

What a great series of posts. As a pretty new karateka I've been struggling a little with my breathing. I tend to lapse into breathing through my mouth which gives me terrible cotton mouth when I'm training. I'm also guilty of holding my breath in my kata. I'm going to try putting some deliberate exhalation points in and see if that helps. The thinking of the exhale as the starting point makes great sense to me.

Looking forward to any other installments.