You look at any other living thing you care to name, be it a plant, an animal, even a rock can be more natural than your average human being. Somewhere along the line we have allowed ourselves to forget what it means to do things naturally. The consciousness we have evolved over time, the ability to think, although a great gift is also in some ways a curse, even a hindrance in some cases. Breathing, for example. We have forgotten how to breathe, as unbelievable as that may sound.
Or rather, we have forgotten how to breathe correctly.
The proper, smarter way to breathe correctly is naturally.
Just to explain. Breathing naturally means breathing through the nose and out through the mouth, whenever possible. It is not always possible to keep breathing through your nose, sometimes you have to take air in through the mouth first, and sometimes you have to gasp for it like a fish out of water.
Martial artists especially would know this. At least you should know it. A lot has been said and written on the subject of breathing over the years, some of it quite illuminating and instructive, some of it intellectualised twaddle. There exists so many different takes on how to breath correctly, especially in the martial arts, that it all overshadows the truth of the matter, which is that breathing correctly means breathing naturally.
The Right and Wrong Way
One breathing method I often read about in articles involves only breathing through the nose when you’re sparring. That way, your opponent only sees how calm and unaffected you are and finds it harder to anticipate your movements.
This sounds like very sound advice, at least in theory. In reality, you end up feeling like you’re going to pass out after a few moments of trying to breathe exclusively through your nose. During such a physically demanding activity as sparring, you have to take in a lot more air than you normally would, necessary to get enough oxygen to the muscles you’re busily putting under stress.
You also have to be able to change the rhythm of your breathing at a second’s notice, depending on whether you are attacking or defending. I defy anyone to breathe calmly through their nose while they’re taking a flurry of punches to the face and head.
You can’t do it, unless you are a robot or dead inside, in which case, none of this will matter to you anyway.
I’m not saying you can’t breathe through your nose when you’re sparring. Of course you can. I’m just saying you can’t expect to do it constantly without interruption from your pesky mouth like some martial artists will have you believe. I think that when people advocate these kinds of ideas they are really advocating ideals, and ideals cannot be attained, that’s why they are ideals. Of course ideals have a place in the martial arts because they give us something to aim for, to work towards when we train. However I do think it would be more helpful to your average martial artist if they were just told that it’s okay to do things another way sometimes; that it’s okay to breathe through your mouth when you have to.
When I’m sparring I breathe through my nose as much as possible, especially during split second breaks in the action just before I attack. I breathe deeply through the nose, just to regain my composure, because breathing through the nose has a very calming effect on the person. The rest of the time, whether I’m attacking or defending, I usually exhale sharply through the mouth, as most martial artist’s do. This helps to focus my attacks and strengthen my defense.
The old adage in the martial arts has always been to inhale on the defensive and exhale on the offensive, and while I don’t entirely disagree with this breathing strategy, I do believe that each individual should adopt whatever breathing strategy works for them. Not everyone is comfortable breathing in this way. I often like to exhale while I’m blocking because I think of blocks as being a form of initial strike, the first opportunity you get to do damage to your opponent, so why not focus as much power as possible into them, even if that means exhaling while you do so. What does it matter? We’re not Zen Monks. We’re martial artists. Sometimes we have to do damage and that’s all there is to it.
One thing I will say here though, and this is something that is often mentioned in relation to breathing -especially Westerner’s breathing- is that you should always breathe through your abdomen, as opposed to your chest. Shallow chest breathing is something adopted by Western cultures for some reason, perhaps to keep everything in the culture on the same shallow level, even the physiology, I don’t know.
Regardless, breathing just through the chest is ill-advised because you can’t take in as much air as you could if you drew deeply from the abdomen. Your body and mind are therefore not fully optimized for action and quick thinking. Breathe deep down into your abdomen and you take in a lot more oxygen, and more oxygen can only be a good thing.
Again though, sometimes you do have to take shallow breathes, especially when you’re under extreme duress and you’re breathing hard, in which case you take shorter, shallower breathes until you are able to breath deeply again without feeling like your heart is going to explode out of your chest on to the dojo floor (in which case I hope you have the good grace to clean up after you because no one likes training on dirty mats).
What I am saying here is that it is quite hard to breathe only one way all the time when practicing martial arts. The type of breathing you do will vary depending on what type of training you are doing. The only time you can really control your breathing to any great extent is, I would say, during Mokso or meditation, but this is a very regimental and practiced sort of breathing.
During these practices you have nothing else to concentrate on but your breathing, and so you can control it as much as you want. Breathing in this way, taking long deep breathes, filling up the lungs and then completely emptying them again is very beneficial for focusing the mind and relaxing the body. Here you can start to put into practice some of the theory surrounding breathing correctly; you can effectively train yourself to breathe in a certain way if that is what you desire. Personally I just enjoy the effect such breathing has on allow yourself to breathe naturally your mind and body. The breathing is just a technique to facilitate this.
So my advice to you is to not fill your head with ideas about how you should be breathing when you are training and to just, or in whatever way you feel most complements your performance. Only you can judge effectively what works for you.
In the meantime, keep breathing. It really helps, you know.