Breathe Life Into Your Karate

Gichin Funakoshi said in his latter years that the Karate practised at that time in Japan was very different to the Karate of his youth in Okinawa. Some of the changes are no doubt very beneficial. Some very obviously are not. It is very clear that the early Shotokan exported to the rest of the world in the post war years was very hard, forceful and physical. It’s Okinawan predecessor was based more the concepts of using Ki/Chi (internal energy). I realise that many practicing Karate today will not believe in Ki energy . . . . . and don’t worry, I’m not going to try to convince you either way. Nevertheless I think it is fair to say that as the Okinawans did believe in this concept, they would have had more of a leaning toward relaxed and natural movement, unlike the more muscular emphasis of the early exported Shotokan.

Since then, much work has been done by many people to return Shotokan to a more relaxed version of the art. This is partly through great masters such as Kanazawa, Asai, (and others) who have studied Chinese martial arts and brought back some of this knowledge back into our Shotokan. It is also due in part to sport scientists looking to squeeze the extra bit of speed out of competitors. Whatever the route of the influence I think that most “old hands” will agree that Shotokan is generally a more relaxed, softer art than how it was taught 30 years ago.

The aim of this article is to help Karateka who are trying to make their own Karate more relaxed and natural but are not really sure of how to achieve it. I’ll be doing this by looking at one of the key concepts and how I believe it has been badly misunderstood by most of us for many years. In fact, for decades. That is breathing and its relationship to producing Kime.

In an excellent article, The Art Of Breathing, by Kok Hung Poon in Issue 93 of SKM; he describes how we should inhale during the first half of a technique, and exhale during the second half. For example when performing Oi Zuki; from our starting point in Zenkutsu Dachi we should inhale as we start to move and up to the point where our feet come together. We then exhale as our stepping foot passes the supporting foot to the completion of the technique.

This is the way my own Sensei, Paul Mitchell, teaches. However, I can remember many years ago training elsewhere at the beginning of my Karate career, exhaling throughout the entire technique. Sensei Mitchell also emphasises that during the execution of a technique, we should only be tense for about 2 to 5% of the time (as have a few of my other previous teachers). Very logical as tension slows you down and impedes movement. We all know that to be able to move fast we need to be relaxed.

In his book, Shotokan Myths, (which I highly recommend), Shihan Kousaku Yokota, 8th Dan (a regular columnist to SKM) tackles the myth of Kime. Or rather, the over-emphasis of tension when attempting to produce Kime! He points out how many instructors teach that you should finish like a “bronze statue” with the whole body tensed very hard. I’m sure most the old hands in the game have at one stage or other seen this done with veins popping out of the forehead, neck disappearing as it is engulfed into the trapezius muscles and face distorted with tightly clenched teeth. No disrespect, but it sounds a bit like more a gargoyle than a bronze statue!

I can remember for years being taught that the strong exhalation at the end of a technique turns the movement into tension, which in turn produces Kime. But is this really right? As Shihan Yokota points out in Shotokan Myths, no other style has this heavy tension at completion of a technique, so why do so many Shotokan Karateka do it? Furthermore, is the point of exhaling sharply really to create tension?

Lets look at other physical activities outside of martial arts and see how they use sharp exhales of breath. It is very common throughout the sporting world to use a sharp exhale to generate power and strength. Notice, I said “power and strength” not “tension”. If you watch tennis, you will often hear players “grunt” as they hit the ball. This is the same principle as they use the grunt to generate power. But as the racket connects with the ball, do they freeze like a bronze statue (or gargoyle depending on your perspective)?

No. The racket is accelerated through the point of contact and comes to rest naturally well past the contact point. The tennis player uses this grunt, to help generate movement, not tension. If they tensed, they would not be able to move.

Weightlifters often yell (similar to an extended kiai) as they lift a heavy weight. True, they do lock out at completion of the lift in a similar way to how we “freeze” on the end of a basic technique. However, the weightlifters “kiai” is performed throughout the lifting phase and is all but complete by the time they reach the end of the lift at the “lock out” point. When the lift is completed, the joints are locked out and most of the weight is supported by the bodies skeletal structure rather than the muscles, so again, not that much tension at that point. The weightlifters “kiai” is used to generate strength throughout the lifting movement, not for creating tension. With tension, their muscles would bulge, but the weights would not be raised.

The only physical activity that I can think of that requires true prolonged tension is bodybuilders flexing their muscles as they pose during a competition. But this prolonged tension is normally accompanied by either a long slow exhale or even holding the breath. There is not very much movement and there is certainly not the sharp exhalation present in Karate, tennis or weightlifting.

So why is it that so many Karateka think and teach that exhaling is all about producing tension? If we exhale during the whole second half of an Oi Zuki (as mentioned earlier), then we are exhaling throughout 50% of the technique, yet as also pointed out above we are only tense for 2 to 5% of the time. That means that over 90% of our exhalation is actually used (like in every other sport/physical activity) to generate movement. NOT to generate tension!

Now doesn’t that contradict decades of dogma! Before anybody takes out a Mafia hit contract to bump me of for my heresy, let me elaborate a little bit more.

Why do we need any tension at all on the end of a technique?

Well let’s go back to the weightlifter analogy. Let’s look at a bench press for example. At completion of the lift, the arms are locked out and the weight is supported through the arm bones to the shoulder joint, to the spine and into the bench. Does this mean that the weightlifter can relax his muscles completely and just let his bones support the weight?

No he can’t. Although it is primarily the skeletal system supporting the weight in this locked out position, he has to apply as much muscular exertion as it takes to support the bones to keep them in place. It is very important to understand that at this stage, it is primarily the skeletal structure that is supporting the weight, not the muscles.

The muscles however are still very important is supporting the skeletal system and keeping it in the correct alignment. However much less muscular exertion is required in this “locked out” position than is required to lift the weight in the first place. This is why weightlifters can actually pause at this point if need be and take a few breaths before they continue. They can in effect “take a break”. As they lower the weight again, the structure in the arms fold and muscles take over supporting most of the weight again.

So how does this apply to karate?

The reason that we continuously hammer basics, basics, basics over and over again, is also to get the right structure. We may not have a load bearing down on us like as weightlifter does, but we do have the reaction force from the impact of our techniques when we strike a target. In the case of an Oi Zuki, the impact travels through the bony knuckles of the fist, through the arm bones to the shoulders joints to the spine, through the pelvis, through the leg bones to the floor. It is correct skeletal structure that absorbs most of this impact and bounces it back into the target, not muscular strength. If any joint is out of correct alignment, it may give way under heavy impact. Although it is the skeletal structure that absorbs the reaction force from the impact, the muscles must support the skeletal structure to stop it collapsing and to keep it in place (like the weightlifter in the “locked out” position).

When you look at the torso, the upper torso has the big shoulder joints and rib cage whilst the base of the torso has the pelvis. The hara (stomach area) has only the spine so has much less skeletal structure than the rest of the torso. This explains why we focus our exhalation from the hara, tightening our core muscles and giving extra support to what could otherwise be a weak link in the skeletal structure.

However, we don’t actually need a lot of strength to actually support the correct skeletal alignments, (just like the weightlifter can “take a break” at the top of a lift).

Sensei Paul Mitchell has a great way of demonstrating this. First put somebody into a correct Age Uke (rising block) position; then you push down hard on the blocking arm. If the person in the Age Uke position has a good structure, then they can resist the pushing and maintain their position with very little muscular effort.

However, change the Age Uke to a poor structure with the arm a bit too bent and with the hips too square and try again. The person doing the Age Uke will not be able to resist the person pushing down on their arm, even if he/she uses much more muscular exertion than they did previously. So if a correct skeletal structure/alignment can be maintained against this kind of pressure with little muscular effort, it stands to reason that heavy impacts can also be absorbed easily with correct skeletal structure/alignment and relatively little muscular exertion. Certainly very little exertion when compared the gargoyle Kime described earlier. This is why little old Karate masters can knock out much bigger, younger men with seemingly very little effort.

To quote Avi Rokah in Issue 96 of SKM, “less is more, soft is strength”.

One of the main points of repeating techniques over and over is to get good structure and skeletal alignment as this is the real key to being able to absorb the reaction force from the impact of your technique and let all of the impact go into the opponents body. Funakoshi and many Okinawan masters emphasised the use of the makiwawa. Funakoshi explained that the main point striking the makiwawa was to learn correct alignment. Hardening knuckles etc was secondary.

The primary role of the rapid exhalation is to induce the muscles to create rapid movement (not tension) accelerating you to your target. During this stage, most of the breath should be spent. The secondarily role of the muscles is to support the skeletal structure when you arrive at the point of impact. As described earlier, this secondary support stage requires less muscular effort than the primary acceleration (moving) stage. However, it is this secondary stage which is usually emphasised the most.

Although tension is definitely required at this point of impact, only enough is required to support the skeletal structure and it is only required at the moment of impact and not a nano second longer. As holding the skeletal structure requires less effort than generating rapid acceleration of the technique, it is therefore OK that the breath is all but spent at this point.

These are the main elements of producing Kime.

Any holding of muscular tension beyond the moment of impact is completely futile as it serves no purpose whatsoever. In fact it will slow you from moving onto the next technique, should you need to.

Beginners and low grades obviously do not have very good structure and skeletal alignment when they first start training. Therefore it is acceptable for them to use more muscular intervention to support the flawed alignment of their skeletal system during their early training. However, as they progress and their skeletal structure and alignment improves, they should need less and less muscular tension to support that structure. That is why we should become more and more relaxed in our training as we progress through the grades. Also, the breath required to produce the acceleration and support for the skeletal system at impact should get smaller and smaller until it becomes more like natural breathing and less like the heavy exhalation of the beginner. Again, less is more.

Yet so often we see people progressing to become better and better bronze statues as they learn to apply more and more muscular tension to a correct alignment that simply does not need that amount of tension to support it. As a previous Sensie of mine, Graham Mead would say; we end up getting 2nd and 3rd Dans who were really just very very good brown belts.

From a pure self defence point of view, this over-tensing means that a lot of energy is simply being squandered, which you can’t afford to do if ever you had to fight for your life! This is especially true if you have multiple opponents, you must reserve your energy as much as possible. Also as we get older we lose some of our natural athleticism, so we need even more to reserve our energy. Furthermore, this over tensing means that you freeze for a split second longer than you need to do. A mere split second too long in a real fight could result in a split skull if the attacker has some kind of club or impact weapon. It really is inviting disaster should it ever come down to a life and death struggle.

Not only does correct breathing and only using enough tension to support your good structure make for better, faster, more powerful technique; but it is also better for your health as well. Constantly over tensing like a bronze statue/gargoyle is not good for your internal organs or joints. Constantly looking like a gargoyle might even spoil your good looks too, but that’s not so important. If you want to train Karate for a lifetime, then you need to look after your body.

Although I have just talked about life and death struggles, in all reality unless you live in a really rough inner city area, go to the wrong kind of pubs or have a job that requires you to go to trouble situations (such as police, prison officers etc) then in all honesty the ravages of age and ill health are more likely to get you than a mugger. There is no point in being able to fight off every street predator if you end up not being able to walk probably through damaged joints or organ damage later in life.

Many of the older Shotokan Karateka have had hip and knee replacements due to training methods that are not healthy. This has caused very many high grade and experienced Karateka to give up training altogether which is a shame after all the work they’ve put in over years, or even decades. However, the professional teachers must have the operations and find a way to make it work again.

Compare this to the old Okinawan masters who trained into old age with no such hip/knee operations available. The Karate they trained was far more relaxed with none of the over-tense kime, yet there are still many stories of their prowess lasting well past the age that most Westerners have given it up as they are “too old” and have “too many aches and pains”. This was also a time when your Karate could mean life or death, not winning or losing a point; or training to become a better person.

Apparently in Shuri-Te (Okinawan style from which Shotokan is largely derived) they emphasised natural breathing, without any of the “heavy” exhaling that we are used to. I have also been told (though it is outside of my own personal experience) that in Kendo (Japanese swordsmanship) they train to breath naturally too whilst performing their moves. You don’t get more “life and death” than fighting with big pointy sharp things that separate you from your limbs or head for a pass-time, yet no big pauses with heavy tension there.

Some may point out that when performing a kiai, the shout is extended beyond the finishing point of the technique, so what is that all about. True, when performing basics or kata, our kiai often extends after the point of impact and kiai is often associated with creating tension for kime. However, look at how it is used in competition where you need to snap your punches back in order to score the point. In order to snap back the punch you must be relaxed, so even a kiai does not necessarily create tension. In his book Shotokan Myths, Yokota actually suggests that when we reach Sandan and beyond, we should learn silent kiai as don’t have the time to make the noise. In fact he points out that the earlier Okinawan Karate did not even contain kiai’s.

The over emphasis of tension is not really natural and no other physical activity does it (except bodybuilders, yet even they do it differently as mentioned above). No other physical activity uses a sharp exhalation to create tension, they use it to create powerful movement. Furthermore, in all other physical activities when the power generated is transferred into whatever the objective may be, they immediately relax again. Once the tennis player hits the ball, or a bowler releases his ball, they relax. Even a weightlifter, once he has lifted the weight will relax as far as he is able (though not completely as he needs to maintain the skeletal structure to support the weight). Only in Karate (and particularly in some versions of Shotokan) do we strike the target and then hold the tension inside our own bodies rather than relaxing and transferring all of the power into the target.

This goes against the anatomical physics of generating power. We need to do things more naturally. I do not want to offend anybody here, but this is why Shotokan used to have such a reputation for being “stiff”. As mentioned at the beginning, many branches of Shotokan have moved on and developed a much more relaxed approach. With the greatest of respect, many however still need to learn to move more naturally. If we want to train for a lifetime as the old masters did, then giving up the overly tense “gargoyle Kime” is not an option, it’s a necessity.

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