Karate Breathing


There are aspects of karate that are rarely focused upon during a martial artist’s training. One important yet under emphasized aspect of our martial arts training is breathing. Without proper breathing, you’ll fatigue quickly and slow down.  Vince Lombardy former head coach of the Green Bay Packers had a famous and very true statement hanging on the walls of his player’s locker room. It said,” Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” When we get tired, we withdraw to rest and by doing so we cease our attack. Fatigue causes us to lose the ability to think and react quickly. We no longer follow our game plan.  When you stop following your training and slip into the self-preservation mode you are vulnerable. Being able to recognize poor breathing in an opponent can be as valuable a solid reverse punch. Proper breathing technique slows fatigue, so now that we know the dangers of fatigue, we can see the value of this topic. You will rarely see the main character of a martial arts movie talking about his/her fantastic breathing technique, but it is one of the most important aspects of fighting.

As stated previously the purpose of this paper is to talk about breathing and its’ importance to the karateka. In the beginning of a martial artist’s training a great deal of emphasis is placed upon maintaining a balanced stance along with proper blocking and punching but breathing because it is a natural part of our physiology it is often overlooked. The student should be taught that each time a technique is executed a breath should be taken.

Monitoring your opponent’s breathing can be a great advantage to you in kumite (fighting). If your opponent is breathing heavy, you should press the attack. Figure out if it is fatigue or injury and keep pressure on the opponent. Hit or attack him/her as they inhale. Make every attempt to take the opponent’s wind away. A punch to the solar plexus can knock the wind from an opponent. If they appear to have a rib injury making breathing painful, periodically kick them in the ribs, and do not let them regain control of their breathing. If they cannot breathe, they cannot effectively defend themselves.

There is no magic cure for running out of breath. Hard training is the best method for insuring you don’t become winded during combat. There are some techniques that a student should practice during his/her training to teach breath control, but this is no substitute for hard work. Do not stop the body from breathing hard when you’re exhausted. This is natural. Once you’ve conditioned the body through hard work, you’ll stop becoming winded easily.

Forced breathing is a technique beginner should work on while developing the balance in their stances. In the beginning a student’s balance is compromised with each punch or block, so they must, punch, block, and kick until it feels natural. During this process, breath control should also be emphasized. With each punch or kick the student should force a little breath out. This forces the student inhale. Beginners should make an audible sound, so the sensei knows they’re breathing. Advanced students should make no sound. Forced breathing is practiced by expelling a little puff of air through pursed lips. It will make a whoosh sound. Eventually the student will breathe in his/her kata naturally and this will increase their power within the form.

This practice is not limited to simple blocking, kicking, and punching in air. It should really be emphasized during kumite (fighting).  One means of bringing breath control into kumite is to force it during bag work. Each time the student strikes the bag make them exhale. Eventually the practice will become natural. Controlled breathing improves timing, develops rhythm, and combats fatigue.

One of the great benefits of kata is that it can expose a student’s lack of breath control. Many students hold their breath during the entire kata, so the sensei must watch the rise and fall of the student’s chest to determine if they are breathing properly. Each time a piece of situational self-defense or bunkai ends the student must quietly inhale and exhale. Beginners can inhale and exhale on every technique within kata to emphasize the importance of breath control. One obvious means of determining a breathing problem, during kata performance, is when near the end of the kata a student’s techniques slows down, gets less focused, and appear weaker. This slowing of technique means they’re running out of gas. No one should become fatigued during a hundred move kata. If a student is holding their breath, during kata, they’re holding their breath when they fight. Regardless of their conditioning, if they’re holding their breath, they will run out of gas and become vulnerable. Breathing in kata should be as important as any technique because it is a valuable aspect taught in the context of kata training. There is no argument that memorization of situational self-defense is the most important aspect of kata, but breath control is another less focused upon benefit.

Students can be forced to breath, during practice by making them kiai. This yell will force them to exhale, which automatically causes them to inhale. Another purpose of the kiai is to force the air from the lungs prior to receiving a punch to the solar plexus or ribs. My mother called this getting the wind knocked out of you when I was a child. A kiai automatically tightens the muscles around the diaphragm protecting it from being traumatized. If the diaphragm is traumatized momentarily, you cannot breathe. Try to kiai and keep the stomach muscles relaxed. It is very difficult. Practicing breathing, while moving, helps the student in any sports endeavor.

Get the breath knocked out of you and you’re vulnerable. A skilled fighter will recognize this advantage and press the attack. You too need to recognize when an opponent has had the breath knocked out of him/her. When you see this, it is a green light to attack with fury. If you see an opponent covering one side of his ribs, this is an indication that his/her ribs are bruised or broken. Pound the arm that covers the ribs if necessary, to maintain pressure on that area. Pushing the blocking arm into your opponent’s ribs brings pain that reminds him/her of the injury. If the opponent is focused on protecting an injury, they’re not focused on attacking you. Once the opponent begins to react quickly to protect his/her ribs fake a shot to the ribs and punch to the side of the jaw. Drive shin kicks into the blocking arm. Do not let the opponent breath. Pain inhibits the opponent’s breathing, and thinking, so maintain pressure on the ribs. Beat the blocking arm until he/she cannot lift it and then strike a large target knockout point. Remember if the opponent cannot breathe, he/she cannot fight.

The Shaolin Monks recognized breathing’s importance when they developed Kung Fu. One of the oldest katas known in karate is Sanchin kata. This form comes from the ancient monasteries of China and is found in almost every style of Okinawan karate. It emphasizes isometric muscle development and Ibuki breathing techniques.  Ibuki breathing is also called hard breathing. It causes a tightening of the diaphragm and stomach muscles. The Exhale is always audible with the mouth open during the execution of a technique. However, when it is time to breath, do not inhale through the mouth, but inhale focusing on pulling air through your nose. In an interesting footnote one old school Chinese instructor told Baehr sensei that there are many different types of breathing, and the Ibuki breathing practiced in Sanchin came from western medicine and not Chinese. Western medicine of the eighteenth century believed that bad things, in the air, were filtered through the nose and in turn the expended gas should be released through the mouth. Thus, the western version of Ibuki breathing worked its way into traditional kungfu and later karate. Sanchin is a black belt kata. Note that when this kata is performed correctly it will leave the karateka’s muscles tired, but he/she should not be out of breath.

Breathing must be controlled when you experience fear. Your natural response, to fear is to hold your breath, but as martial artists we must overcome this part of the fight or flight syndrome. When fear is experienced, breathe in slowly through your nose and hold the breath for a second before slowly exhaling. Allow your mind to search for means of self-defense, while focusing on the source of potential danger. Do not fix on the potential danger, but keep the source in your peripheral vision while formulating your strategy. Give yourself permission to be afraid later. Controlled breathing will calm you and allow your natural breathing to return. Not every time you experience anxiety means there is a real threat, but this is an opportunity to train your breathing in a fearful situation. Controlled breathing must be practiced at every opportunity, so it becomes a natural response.

Breathing is natural. Walking is natural. In the martial arts we relearn these natural functions and bring them to a level that protects us in crisis. Remember if you don’t breathe you die.