Monday, June 28, 2010

Temporarily Off-line

We're redoing the floor and repainting the walls in the living room, which involves disconnecting the computers. So I'll be gone for the next couple of days. I'll have the next breathing post when I come back.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Just a little hint for those who go to other people's houses. When working in a client's home and trying to establish a friendly relationship, the proper reaction to seeing the client's wedding portrait is not to exclaim "Wow! You were pretty!" in tones of utter astonishment.

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.

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!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Two Tests

I had a workout with Sensei at his house yesterday. It was really nice to get a chance to just work on my own kata. These days, most of my time in the dojo is spent teaching, though Sensei has made a real effort to give me instruction time as well. I've just finished learning Urashi Bo, which means I've actually learned all the stuff I need to know for my 2nd dan. I can't test until August 2011, though, so I have the unbridled luxury of a year-plus to tease apart all my forms and really work on the details.

When I headed home after the workout, Sensei sent me off with a DVD of two promotion tests. The first is Sensei L's shodan test - Sensei L was Sensei's first promotion to black, and an awesome karateka. The second test was my own brown belt test. I remember both of these tests vividly, and seeing them on video was interesting.

Sensei L's test was from three years ago, back when I was still a 3rd kyu. I remember that at the time his kata just looked awesome and unapproachably perfect. I was quite intimidated, because I was certain I would never reach that level of awesome with my own kata.

That test looks really remarkably different, three years later, and nearly a year after my own black belt test. Sensei L's kata still look awesome, don't get me wrong. He has an intensity and focus that is just mesmerizing. But - he doesn't look unapproachably perfect any more. I can see where he's nervous and tight, where he's rushing too much and sometimes scanting on the technique because of it. All these things that I didn't see at the time. There are plenty of things in his kata that are marvelous, and I would be a happy woman if I could develop half of his kime. But at the same time, I can see places where my technique actually comes closer to that elusive ideal. It made me feel less like I'm not holding up the standard for Sensei's black belts.

My own brown belt test was similarly enlightening. Given that I was front and center in the audience at Sensei L's test (and participated at a couple points), between the two videos I had almost two hours worth of seeing myself on video, where I don't think I've ever seen myself for more than a couple of minutes before. I think I begin to understand why a lot of people seem to automatically assume competence from me. I remember being nervous enough for my test that I had to use every trick I have ever learned to keep from freezing up altogether, or possibly hyperventilating. My knees were shaking, my hands were sweating, the whole nine yards - but I didn't look it at all on the video, just focused. In both tests, I was always watching what was happening, responded immediately to anything said or done that involved me, and just generally looked a lot more clueful than I felt in either situation. I also looked more like a big, strong woman than the merely fat one I generally feel like.

That interesting observation aside, I do hope that my kata have improved significantly since brown (I think they have). My techniques were generally good, but I didn't have enough kime, and my speed and flow were lacking. Where Sensei L was rushing and skimping technique, I was getting in the technique properly, but the kata looked - chunky - for lack of a better term. My straight punches and side kicks were awkward looking enough for it to seem a little surprising when I went straight through the breaks with no trouble at all. The difference, for example, between how awkward I look punching vs. how I look with a hammer fist is striking (sorry!). It looked natural that I should hammer fist straight through the concrete, but surprising that I could punch through wood or put out a candle.

That video is going to give me a lot to chew on as I try to notch my karate up to a higher standard. I'm not sure if I'm disappointed or grateful that the video camera ate the file of my black belt test.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Back again


First, let me start by saying "Thank you" to everyone who has been so loving and supportive during Dad W's decline and death. I'm very glad I have wonderful friends, even if I've never met many of them IRL.

Second, yes I'm fine. I pretty much dropped off the internet because my computer caught a nasty virus and is defunct. I now have a shiny new computer, but it took a while to get it set up. We're still trying to see if we can recover my files from my old hard drive. We probably can, but nonetheless, if any of you have files of my writing on your computers (particularly the most recent renditions of Ghost Dancer and Riptide), I would be very relieved to have them.

Life is beginning to return to normal. We're still dealing with the estate lawyer and trying to convince Dad's various creditors that they need to deal with her, and not with us. They keep trying to convince us that we want to take responsibility for his debts, which is a big, fat "No!" This is somewhat complicated because when Dad bought his house from us (it's complicated) about eleven years ago, he apparently never bothered to change over the utilities - he and Rob had the same name, after all. But that means that his utilities are genuinely all in our name. Ack!

The boys have one week left of school. Aaron is pretty much done with school work, while Robbie is being inundated with make-up work as his teachers try to pull up his grades to levels to warrant all the advanced classes they recommended him for for next year. Robbie has been very willing to work, but his organizational skills are so abysmal, that he has a lot of zeros for simply failing to turn in work that he did do. He can lose things between packing his backpack at night and his locker the next morning. It's fortunate that he's both engaging and very bright, because his teachers like him, and are willing to work with him to get the grades up and keep him in the advanced classes (boredom only exacerbates the organizational problems, because then he's disorganized and he's not paying attention because he's bored). I wish organization were something I was any good at, but frankly I had exactly the same problems when I was his age, and never have really gotten better organized - I just got better at keeping track of a couple specific kinds of things, like school papers. It's the main reason I've never attempted to home school Robbie or Aaron. They both need significant help learning to organize, and I am not the person who can give it to them. Heck, I'd love to sit in on the sessions Aaron gets as part of Special Ed. I could use them.

Rob is on the grand European tour. Nine cities in fourteen days, all the best chemical plants and conference rooms. It means he'll be away for Robbie's birthday, which he hates, but Robbie seems to be taking it in stride.

And last, but not least - we're down to two dogs! It's absolute heaven. The barking has dropped enormously, and there's almost no peeing in the house any more. I feel safe walking around in my bare feet again. Without the dachshunds harassing him and peeing on things, Toby has calmed down even more, and stopped peeing on top of the things they've marked. It's definite that we're keeping him now. So have a look at our new permanent basset - Toby the very sweet doofus. That's him at the top of the post.