Breathing is one of the basic functions of our body, part of an autonomous system. We do not have to learn how to do it, we are born with this ability. If you look at a baby breathing you can see that there is no struggle, breaths are easy and full, the abdomen moves rhythmically with every breath.
When we grow we seem to forget how to breathe fully and healthily. Our breath changes becoming shallow and quick. Air in our lungs is not fully exhaled, preventing us from being able to fully inhale fresh air. In this way we are only using a third of the actual volume of our lungs, decreasing the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, therefore our brains and other organs are never fully oxygenated. Most of us breath with the upper parts of the body only. This type of breathing is called intercostal breathing. In Karate, just like in meditation, we try to focus on the diaphragm when breathing.
In Karate the centre of the breath is in the Hara or Tanden, a spot about four fingers directly below the navel. Breathing with the Hara requires good posture, our spine is elongated, our abs are relaxed, our diaphragm is stretched and pulled down when we inhale and our abdomen pushes outwards.
Exhaling compresses the stomach pushing the diaphragm upwards and forcing the air out of our lungs. When we are relaxed we should see the rhythmic waves of our stomach moving in and out.
In Karate we have two types of breathing:
Inhale – Breathe in through the nose. Centre your breath in the stomach letting the breath in naturally without using the abdominal or chest muscles at all.
Exhale – Breathe out through your mouth. Lips should be slightly open and your tongue elevated. Let your stomach fall back in and breathe out slowly, double the length of the inhalation. When you feel that all the air has left your lungs squeeze gently with the lower part of your abdomen.
This type of breathing is very helpful in relaxation and calming down. It is used in meditation and medicine. The principle of taking a longer breath out than the breath in is used in the prevention of hyperventilation, for example in women giving birth.
Ibuki (power generating breath)
Inhale through the nose rapidly, filling up your lungs from the bottom to the top, using your stomach muscles.
Exhale and tense your abdomen muscles with your mouth open wide, throat open and your tongue relaxed held in lower palate. Squeeze from your Hara (the point blow the navel) and keep breathing out loudly till your lungs are completely empty then dynamically squeeze the rest of the air out with small cough.
This type of breathing is use to develop power, often you can hear Karate practitioners make a loud noise, this is a Kiai. This is the same type of breathing but faster and in time with a technique to generate the most power. This technique is used also by weight lifters to generate power.
Zen masters say that to relearn the natural way of breathing takes around six years and it is an art in itself.
As in learning all skills experience is the key to understanding and this is gained through individual practice under an experienced teacher and the right atmosphere in a dojo.