Diaphragmatic Breathing In Martial Arts

Diaphragmatic breathing is used in many traditional martial arts, but I don’t think that all martial artists completely realise the full extent of how important this really is.  It actually helps us on a number of different levels.

But first though for anybody new to martial arts (or this concept) lets have a look at what diaphragmatic breathing actually is.  Most adults breathe into the top of their lungs and as they do so their shoulders and collar bones rise slightly.  But with diaphragmatic breathing, the diaphragm (which is a large internal muscle at the base of the lungs) is used.  This pulls down on the lower part of the lungs, opening up the whole of the lungs and thus pulling in more air (hence more Oxygen).  When breath is pulled in this way, the shoulders and collar bones do not rise.  However, as the diaphragm pulls down it displaces the lower torso organs and the stomach area in particular is pushed outwards.

Young children and animals naturally breathe this way.

Many people say that you “breathe into your stomach”.  This is of course not physically possible, but that is how it feels.  And sometimes looking for a feeling will help you to get the correct technique, even if it is not actually possible.

So lets look at some of the many ways in which diaphragmatic breathing helps us:

Technique

As above, when you pull the breath in with your diaphragm and it feels as if it is going down to your stomach (otherwise known as hara or dan tien).  This is where your centre of gravity is, so by having your focus on that part of your body, you can start to move more fluidly.  When you movement is generated by your centre of gravity the rest of your body follows naturally, whereas if you lead with shoulders or upper torso (which is common with beginners), you drag your centre of gravity which will slow you down and compromise fluidity.

When you inhale with your diaphragm it has a relaxing effect on the rest of the body.  Again this helps with the fluidity of movement as it helps to remove tensions from the rest of the body.

When you exhale rapidly from the  diaphragm, it allows you to generate rapid muscular movement to drive your strike/punch/kick into your opponent.  As the diaphragm is connected to the core muscles, it also assists with the over stability of your body and your ability to absorb any reaction force to the impact of your blow.

Masking Intent

In a conflict situation the last thing you want is for your opponent to know what you are planning to do and when you plan to move.  It is instinctive to inhale before launching an attack.  As mentioned above, most untrained people breath into the top of their lungs and their shoulders and collar bones rise up.  When you see this, you get a warning that you are about to be attacked.

Even if you did not know this fact and your conscious mind does not notice, your unconscious mind will notice and give you that intuitive feeling that something is coming, giving you that tiny fractional bit more time to prepare or react.

When you inhale with your diaphragm your shoulders and collar bones do not rise so you don’t give away this little warning signal, so your opponent has less chance to react or prepare for it.

Calming the mind

Much is written these days about the effects of adrenaline, especially by those who are into reality based martial arts, and that is a good thing.  One of the effects of adrenalin is that breathing becomes short and shallow.  Oxygen tends to be pumped into the limbs ready for fight or flight, but the brain receives less oxygen which blunts the ability to think a way out of the situation.  This can even lead to panic or freezing up.

Diaphragmatic breathing should be practiced during pressure training.  That way when you are in a real street conflict situation you are more likely to be able to maintain diaphragmatic breathing rather than resorting to the short shallow breathing.  This in turn allows you to draw in more oxygen which will allow you to function better both physically and mentally.  It will keep you calmer.

If can use this to keep your calm when you are facing a violent assault, you can also use it in other areas of your life (problems at work, exam nerves, relationship tensions, even just stressed when stuck in traffic).

intuition

This is tied in with the section on calmness above.  As mentioned earlier, the unconscious mind can pick up a lot of signals that the conscious mind misses.  This is when we have a feeling of intuition, when we just sense or feel something but don’t really know how or where this knowing comes from.

However, a mind that is in a state of panic will not access this intuition as well as a calm mind.  This is why you can sometimes fight/spar with a very experienced person and they just seem to read you like a book and know what your moves are almost before you do.  They respond with what seems almost supernatural reactions.  But what you notice from anybody with this ability is that they stay completely calm throughout, allowing themselves to access this intuition.

Health

Firstly, we need oxygen to live.  Oxygen has great healing properties and can even kill cancer cells.  Diaphragmatic breathing pulls more oxygen into the body then just breathing into the top of the lungs.

Also, toxins always gather in the body, including in the lungs.  Those who only breathe into the top of their lungs do not clear the toxins from the bottom of the lungs.  People who are used to diaphragmatic breathing will pull the breath right down to bottom of the lungs and clear these deep rooted toxins.

“Sinking” In Your Stance At The End Of A Technique

In many martial arts we are taught that on the climax of our technique we should “sink” into our stance.  I will admit that if my knees are sore, I sometimes find this quite difficult to do.

But firstly, why do we do it?  “Sinking” at the climax of out technique is a way improving our skeletal structure and helping us for form an immovable “root” to the ground, thus enabling us to more efficiently absorb the reaction energy to any impact from our blows.  Or more correctly, we don’t absorb the that reaction energy as it tries to go through our structure, finds the immovable ground, and is rebounded into our opponent again (so he gets it twice).

So why do a lot of people struggle with it?

Although you obviously have to bend your knees more in order to sink, if you focus on bending your knees then ironically it will probably not come easily.  It’s a little bit like doing a squat, the more you bend the knees, they more you intuitively tense your legs to absorb the weight!

In some styles  such (as in the early versions of Shotokan exported from Japan) there was an over exaggerated exhalation/tension in order to produce kime (focus).  I remember being taught to tense the whole body including the legs, which will obviously make it them a bit more resistant to bend, in order to sink further.

Also, if you have knee pains, you intuitively tense the muscles around them in order to prevent your knee bones/cartilage/ligaments/tendons/etc from moving about too much (hence less pain).  I know this from personal experience.  But this tension makes it difficult for you to bend the knees more and sink.

The best ways to “sink” into your stance is by getting the right feeling rather than focusing on a physical movement itself, because focusing on physical movement tends to make you focus on muscles, hence – tension.  Some say it is like “falling down a hole”, but obviously you stop yourself before going too far.

Different things will work for different people, but I’d like to share something that has worked for me.

We are usually taught in most martial arts to “breathe into your stomach” (or hara/dan tien).  This is of course not actually physically possible as the air we breathe in goes into our lungs and can’t get passed the diaphragm to our stomach.  Our diaphragm moves down and displaces our internal organs, so that it feels like we’re breathing into our stomach.  In fact it’s a visualisation that we use help get the right breathing technique.  It is however a very popular visualisation which most of us are taught right from the very beginning.

We can however build on this.  When you want to sink in your stance as you exhale, try to visualise the breath leaving the stomach through the legs, to the feet and out into the ground.  If you focus on the breath going down (rather than your weight going down), you should find it relatively easy to sink slightly without unnecessary tension.  The whole process becomes much more relaxed and natural movement which is what we should be aiming for.

I actually learnt this through Tai Chi, but have applied it to my Karate.  Of course, once your body gets used to the correct feeling, you can drop the visualisation as your body will know what you are looking for, but it is a useful tool to help get that feeling in the first place.

The “Corkscrew” Punch (The Devil In The Detail)

The “corkscrew” punch where we rotate the fist at the end of the punch is unique to Oriental martial arts.

Twisting the fist  is something that we all know about and take for granted.  And why shouldn’t we, we’ve been doing it since our very first class in Karate/Tae Kwon Do/most styles of Kung Fu .  The reason that I write about it here, is because I believe that it is something that though deeply ingrained into us, is still not done quite right by a good many people.

It may sound a bit strange to question something so basic, but bare with me.  Although many will be doing what I describe below, a good many others will not be.

Why not?  Because people will rotate the fist to get it into it’s correct finishing position, but not think about how the rest of the arm is moving to get it there!

It would be more correct to say that you should “twist your forearm”.   The fist is actually incapable of rotating on its own, it is only capable of moving up and down in a waving/hinged motion when isolated from any other arm movement.

Try this little exercise.  Perform any linear punch, then just freeze for a second with the arm in the extended punch position (no snap back).  Now keep check if the crease of your elbow joint (where it folds) is pointing upwards or inwards.  If you are not sure, then being very careful not to move the upper arm at all, bend the elbow.  It the fist rises up then the crease of the elbow joint is facing up.  If the fist moves inward (parallel to the floor) then the crease of the elbow is pointing inwards.

So why should you care about that?

Like the fist, the elbow is incapable of rotating itself, it is a hinge joint rather than a ball joint.  From the starting position with the fist at the hip, the crease of the elbow joint points forward.  As the arm is extended forward (without rotating), the elbow crease should end up pointing upwards.

For the elbow to rotate (so that the elbow crease points inward), you actually have to rotate the arm in the shoulder socket.  To be a bit more technical, you rotate the humerus bone in the ball socket at the shoulder.

Kata bunkaiThis is something that you shouldn’t be doing.  Firstly it is an unnecessary movement of the shoulder joint and as we progress, we should be looking to take out all unnecessary movements.  Secondly, it creates a small jarring feeling at the elbow, so it is not good for the long term health of either shoulder or elbow joint.

Furthermore, it’s a less efficient punching technique, so it is less effective if you really need it.

Try standing in front of a mirror with you arm and shoulders exposed.  Now extend your arm in front of you and towards the mirror.  Don’t worry about making a fist or any technique, just relax.  Now rotate the whole arm several times at the shoulder joint.  You will notice when you look closely that upper arm actually moves very slightly away from the body when you rotate the arm so that the elbow crease points inwards rather than upwards.  Linear techniques are based on having the body weight behind them, so anything that takes the strike sideways away from the body will weaken that technique.

Granted, this is a very slight outward movement, but as you get more advanced, so it become more about fine detail.

It also effects your muscular alignments too.  The shoulder and lateral muscles (underneath the arm pits) act as shock absorbers and maintain the body structure when you strike a target and receive a reaction force from the impact.  Rotating the humerus outward in the shoulder socket slightly stretches those muscles making them less efficient at absorbing that reaction force.

Furthermore, when you punch, you use your triceps to extend your arm.  The triceps work more efficiently with the crease of the elbow facing upwards.  Don’t believe me?  Ask anyone who does weight training, or look up “triceps curls” on Youtube.

The bones of the forearm (the ulna and radius) are much smaller and they can rotate around each other.  There is not a big ball in socket rotation required as with rotating the humerus in the shoulder socket.

If you are not used to doing it this way, it may feel awkward at first and you may not be able to fully rotate the fist all the way over.  Stick with it, your forearm muscles will become more flexible and it will become easier.  You’ll find when you get used to it that the whole punch is much smoother than when you rotate the shoulder joint.

There is an argument that the bone alignment is weaker when the ulna and radius are rotated about each other.  However, the idea when punching is that you actually make contact with the target before rotating the forearm (when the fist is still palm up).  So the point of impact is when these bones are still in a strong alignment.  You only rotate the forearm after contact has been made so that the rotational energy is added to forward impact to the punch, giving it a very penetrating “corkscrew effect”.

This forearm rotation comes into many other techniques too, such as at the very end of Soto Uke (Outside Block), Uchi Uke (Inside Block) and others.  With these blocks, the rotation of the fist at the end of the technique cannot be supported by the rotation of the shoulder joint because of the arm being bent and the elbow joint being lower than the fist.  Practicing for maximum forearm rotation in the punches will help maximise the forearm rotation in these other techniques too, making them more powerful, even with smaller movements.  It helps to give a small “whip” on the the end of these other techniques.

Maximising The Thrust Behind Your Reverse Punch

OK, this is mainly from a Karate perspective, but does also apply to some other styles too.  If you’re not a Karateka but sometime compete with them, then it might help you to understand some of the mechanics of our techniques too.

The content in the video below is in fairness nothing new, it’s just honing a fine detail which may help some to understand the mechanics of a reverse punch (gyaka zuki) that little bit better.

For those who teach, it may just give another way for you to explain to your students the mechanics of the movement that you’ve been trying to get them to understand.

I talk a lot on this website about practicality and bunkai, but you still need to have good technique or the practicality and bunkai won’t work very well.

It might be immodest of me, but I consider one of my strengths to be an ability to break techniques down into fine detail and sometimes to re-frame details to help people to understand that little bit better.  I might of course be deluding myself so I’ll let you be the best judge of that.  If however you agree and find this video useful, then please pass this link on to you club mates and martial arts friends.  I hope you enjoy it:

Natural Breathing In Karate (And Other Martial Arts)

One of biggest assets in a real fight is to be able to move naturally.  And there is no more natural bodily function then breathing.

Yet in Karate, I believe that one of the biggest problems over the years has been an over emphasis on the exhalation at the end of the technique.  In fairness to other styles, I should point out that most of my experience is with Shotokan Karate so it may not apply to other styles quite so much.  But if everybody is honest, I don’t think that Shotokan is completely alone with this fault.

An over-emphasis on exhalation at the end of a technique, especially if the exhilation continues after the technique is competeled will unnecessarily waste energy, create pauses between techniques (where your opponent could counter) and create stiffness and tension in the movements.  Not only is this counter productive for self defence, but it not the healthiest way for the body to move either.

I would guess that a lot of this come about because many of Funakoshi’s early students where lost during the War.  After the war, Funakoshi was quite old and not able to steer the teaching quite so much.  Also Karate was dumbed down a lot for political and social reasons (see my 5 part video course for more info) so more emphasis was placed on the physical development.

Over the decades Shotokan Karate (and probably most other styles) has progressed and become much more fluid and relaxed (hence more effective).  Some of the very senior Karate masters like Kanazawa, Kase and Abe have also studied Tai Chi (as does my Sensei) and have brought some of that knowledge back into their Karate.  There are still many who do it the old way tense way, but it’s changing.

However, I think that for the majority, the details of breathing are seldom broken down in the way I’ve been taught.  So I’ve put together a couple of videos to help anybody who is not quite sure of how it should be done.

Ironically, the way it performed in the more modern versions of Shotokan is quite similar to how it is done in the more modern versions of Tae Kwon Do where they use the sine-wave movement.  Although Shotokan does not rise up and down like the sine-wave, both breath in during the first half of the step to get relaxation and fluidity and exhale in the second half of the technique.  It is explained a bit more in the following video’s which I hope you enjoy.

How To Put The “Whip” Into A Linear Punch (Part 2)

In Part 1 of How To Put A “Whip” Into A Linear Punch, I looked at how to use the hips properly to generate a waveform motion through the body for basic punches.  Many people struggle with this because as beginners we tend to move the whole torso as one, rather than generating movement from the hips and simply relaxing the rest of the torso so as to let it flow naturally.  This puts tension into the body and takes away our power.

The method used in the first video is great for single basic techniques, especially Choku Zuki (straight punch in upright standing stance) and Gyaku Zuki (reverse punch), where we end with the hips square to front or just 10 to 15 degrees past square.  Well in this next video we take it a step further.  When you snap a towel (or your belt), you have a “pull back” just at the end of the forward movement.  We can incorporate this “pull back” to gain extra whip/snap when we perform a snap punch, or multiple techniques (e.g.  stepping punch, reverse punch or block then reverse punch).  That pull back at the end of the first techniques not only puts an extra whip/snap on the end, but also initiates the hip movement for the second technique.

Now I know that not everybody will have been taught this way, so before you watch my video, please have a quick look at this one by Master Kagawa, 8th Dan Shotokan Karate and Technical Director of the JKS.  As he performs Age Uke (rising block) you can clearly see his hips rotate fully, then just settle back slightly at the end of the movement.  This settling back (or pull back) gives that extra little “whip” on the end the rising block and can be used to initiate the next technique (which is usually a reverse punch).  So for anybody who has not seen this before (and there will be very many who haven’t), I’m not making it up.  This is nothing new, it’s always been there, its just always explained in detail.  I’ve been lucky with my teachers.

[Waveform punch Part 2]

How To Put The “Whip” Into A Linear Punch

I usually focus on the practical application of techniques on this website, but today I’m actually going to focus on technique itself.  I think this one is important, as it can greatly enhance the power of your punches and other strikes.

The Karate masters of old often taught that we should use our body like a “whip”, but this is not always easy to do, especially if you practice a predominantly linear style.  In practically all sports, power is generated from the hips, transferred to the shoulders, then to the arms/hands.  However, people often struggle to do this in linear styles.  I believe that this is because we are often taught that everything finishes together, whereas in most other activities they are taught to move in sequence.  I believe that this is partly brought about by the fact that we focus (kime) into one spot, whereas in most other disciplines (including other sports) they move through their target.  When a golfer hits the ball, he does not stop there, he moves right through it (as does anybody using any kind of racket or bat to hit something).  When somebody throws a ball, they do not stop at the instance of release, they move through that point.

Yet with a linear punch, we stop dead at the point of focus, especially in basic form.  Even in freestyle, at the point of focus we strike and retract rather than moving through, and I think this is what causes the problem for so many.  Many people end up moving the shoulder and hips together, rather than in sequence like everybody else.  The only way we can move shoulder and hip together is by tightening the muscles of our torso and locking them together.

Yet we are always told that we should be as relaxed as possible and that movement comes from the hips . . . . . . . or as some would say, the Hara (Japanese) or Dan Tien (Chinese).

If we are locking the shoulders and hips together, we cannot be completely relaxed.  Also, movement cannot be said to come from the hips (Hara/ Dan Tien) as the whole torso moves as one.

If we truly generate the power from the hips and we are truly relaxed in out torso, then the hips should move first, creating a small rotational stretch in our body as the shoulders are left fractionally behind.  When stretched, the body naturally wants to return to its original shape, so the shoulders will start to rotate as well, just fractionally behind the hips.  However, as we are not actually focusing on our shoulders and the torso is relaxed, there will be a feeling of the shoulder and arm being “thrown” by the hip, rather than having to focus on moving them and extending the arm.

Chinese circular styles seem to achieve this whip like feeling more easily as a circular techniques goes through its target and does not stop at the point of impact (unlike a basic linear punch).  Some of the modern day masters talk of a putting in a waveform motion.  The Russian martial art, Systema (The System) also talks of a waveform.  This is often compared to the standard Karate/TKD punch and advocated as being much more powerful.  However, I believe that this is because most people are not really aware of how to put the waveform into their linear technique.  Using the method described above and demonstrated in the video below, it is relatively easy to get this waveform (whip) into a linear punch.

I must put in one disclaimer however, and that is that many advanced Karateka/TKD practitioners do this naturally as they learn to relax.  However, I don’t think that most of them are actually aware of the mechanics of it, certainly very few will explain it in this manner.

When I’ve shown this before, I’ve had people say that they loved it, but had never seen anything like it in their own club.  I believe that I may have “re-framed” things a bit, but everybody should be training this way.  By re-framing it I hope to make it clearer; I am not introducing something new here.  If this concept is new to you, please give your feedback below on what you think of it.  If you have been taught this concept, but this video makes it clearer please tell me.  If you think I’m a mad Karate heretic, then say so 🙂

[Waveform punch]