Breathing is, of course, something you have done your entire life. You would think you would be pretty good at it by now. You probably aren’t.
If you pause right now and take a shallow breath you will probably feel your chest swell gently. As you exhale, your chest will fall. This is how nearly everyone breathes. It is perhaps not always the best approach.
Shallow breathes like these represent the vast majority of inhalations and exhalations. When you are sitting in the car, watching TV, or browsing the Internet it is likely this is how you are breathing. This breathing method utilizes perhaps a third of your lung capacity
Breathing in this manner uses the intercostal muscles in your rib cage to expand and contract the chest, allowing your lungs to fill with and then exhaust air. Your diaphragm is not used much when you breathe in this manner. This breathing method is commonly referred to as “chest breathing” because your chest muscles are the primary means of moving air into and out of your lungs.
Stomach (or abdominal) breathing however uses the intercostal muscles minimally and relies much more on the diaphragm to expand and contract the lungs. When you inhale using the diaphragm it expands downward and into your abdomen causing your stomach and other abdominal organs to be pushed out of the way. They typically move down and forward so that your stomach appears to expand and contract rather than your chest. In fact the chest will move relatively little when you breathe in this manner.
Abdominal breathing uses your lung capacity more fully, allowing a greater exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Try to inhale and exhale fully using only your intercostal muscles. Now try the same exercise but this time try to use only your diaphragm. You should notice a fairly dramatic difference. Here is an experiment you can do to demonstrate this more saliently.
Breath in using your chest muscles. Now hold you breath for just two seconds. Without exhaling, use your diaphragm to inhale further. You should notice that you pull in nearly as much air as you had originally. Now you are using your lungs more fully. Okay, you can let the air out now.
Most martial art styles will tell you that the proper way to breathe is by using your diaphragm instead of your intercostal muscles. In truth, you will probably always breathe with both, to varying degrees. If you don’t focus on how you breathe then you will likely rely primarily on your intercostal muscles. If you focus on breathing then you may rely more on your diaphragm.
Exertion and Stress
When you are exerting yourself it is probably best to breathe with your diaphragm. The air exchange rate is much greater. But the downside is that the breathe cycle is much longer. Your body will tell you to take in short quick breathes. This may be hard to ignore, but you should be aware that deeper and more relaxed abdominal breathing will exchange more carbon dioxide and oxygen and will likely allow your body to recover more quickly than will fast and shallow chest breathing. This is difficult to do when you’ve just done 200 kicks, but the more you can practice this type of breathing the more you will be able to rely on it when you need it most.
When you are in a conflict you may wish to mask your need to breath heavily. Some of this skill may come from good conditioning. If you are in excellent shape you will find it easier to maintain a more relaxed breathing pattern. If you remain relaxed and confident you will also reduce the rate at which you breath.
Another benefit of breathing in this manner is psychological. If you are breathing slowly and relaxed after a few seconds of conflict but your opponent is panting heavily, he or she may quickly assume they are outmatched. They could continue to fight, of course, but breathing slowly and with confidence can cause a bit of doubt to creep into your opponent’s thinking.
If a person believes they are about to be involved in some form of physical conflict there are some notable changes in their behavior that are usually apparent. Some of these are voluntary, some are involuntary. A common involuntary change involves breathing. Typically the breathing rate increases and breathes become increasingly shallow. This is done to address the nervous tension and rising heart rate associated with stress. Unfortunately, this type of breathing actually contributes to increased stress. You may wish to watch for this when this breathing pattern develops in a potential adversary. They may not be a potential adversary for much longer.
When a conflict is about to ensue you will benefit from concentrating on your own breathing. Maintain a slower and deeper breathing pattern so that you can be as relaxed as possible. This will enable you to respond more quickly should you suddenly be attacked.
Breathing Makes You Tired
Quite often I will work with a student who attempts to be energetic and intense during his or her training session. I absolutely encourage that behavior. But one thing that often occurs is the student will exaggerate their breathing pattern in an effort to be more focused and powerful. This pattern of behavior causes the student to inhale and exhale powerfully at very frequent intervals, often at the end of every significant movement. Naturally the student believes this is increasing the oxygen flow to his or her muscles and thereby allowing for increased stamina and intensity.
What happens though is that within a minute or two these students are exhausted. What is often not accounted for is that some of the largest and most abundant muscles in your body are used for breathing. These muscles require a great deal of blood flow and oxygen in order to keep them functioning well. Every time you breathe in and out you are expending energy, consuming oxygen, and creating additional heat. Breathing more than necessary will quickly make you tired (and pretty darned sweaty).
Of course you will want to breath when you are working hard, but you should not breath more than is realistically required. Forcing powerful breathes or twenty breaths in a minute is not an efficient breathing pattern.
You can prove this for yourself. Take a seat and monitor your pulse rate for thirty seconds. If you are at rest it will typically be in the range of from 65 to 80 beats per minute depending on your level of conditioning. It doesn’t matter what the level is (provided it is not dangerously high or low), just note the number of beats over a thirty second period then double it. You will have established your current at-rest heart rate.
Now without moving quickly inhale and exhale deeply. Over a period of thirty seconds breath in and out aggressively as quickly as you can. Now what is your heart rate? You are likely to notice it has elevated significantly. You may also notice you are now somewhat warmer than you were before. A note of caution is in order. If you feel light headed or faint during this exercise resume a natural breathing pattern immediately and seek medical assistance if the condition persists.
Breathing Slows You Down
The first stand-up martial art that I learned was very biased toward self-defense techniques. There were literally hundreds of them to learn. We were taught that a fundamental element of most techniques is to ensure you breath often and before each significant sequence of actions. Part of the reasoning behind this was to ensure students didn’t hold their breath for long periods of time. That made sense. Another part of the reasoning was that this increased your power and stamina.
This often resulted in students breathing as discussed in the previous section. Every sequence of actions was preceded by an inhalation. The exhalation usually came as the sequence of blocks or strikes unfolded, usually to the accompaniment of a Kiai. This often emptied the lungs and therefore required another inhalation.
Techniques would typically last about five or six seconds in duration. They were relatively quick and powerful. Within the time it took to perform a given technique a student might take three or four breathes so they could derive the necessary power and energy to perform the technique at maximum output levels.
What is interesting is that if students took out all of the breathing then the technique would last only one or two seconds. The breathing patterns used for techniques often inserted artificial delays in the execution of the technique. One might argue that to achieve maximum power and effectiveness for a short duration activity one need not breath at all. In fact, breathing in such a situation will only slow you down and represent very short duration moments in which you are effectively frozen in position. Most senior people in the art I studied came to realize that minimizing the number of breathes required for a technique could be quite beneficial.
Everything is a matter of degree. There were certainly cases where a student did not breath at all during a longer duration activity and this was not beneficial either. You do need to breath with some regularity to maintain your stamina and mental faculties. You will need both. But what is clear is that utilizing an artificial breathing pattern can be quite detrimental. Breath when you must, breath as deeply as necessary, but do not breath more than required. Breathing should help you remain relaxed, calm, and alert. It should not cause you to be overanxious, easily winded, and slow.