Improve your breathing 呼吸法の上達
We all know breathing is important. It is probably most important for our survival. Water and food are also important but we can survive for a week without food and maybe one or two days without water. On the other hand, most of us will not survive if there was no air for us to breath for more than two minutes. Many of us cannot hold our breath or stay under the water even for one minute.
I suspect that all the readers will agree; breathing is considered extremely important in martial arts training, of course including karate. We all know that proper breathing is necessary to make a kime. By not being able to keep the good breathing we get tired very quickly in our training. The senior practitioners also know that it is important to hide our breathing from their opponents. By doing this they can keep their intention and techniques undetected.
Benefits of Breathing Training:
But do you know the full extent of the benefits from breathing exercise? Here is a good article that you should read, “9 Benefits of Breath Training” written by Chad Schwab of South Africa who is a serious athlete specializing in surfing and boxing.
Here are the nine benefits listed by Schwab.
- Have the lung capacity of a whale
- Increase your cardio strength
- Perform better, recover faster
- The mental game: increase mental strength and confidence
- Decrease stress
- Increase your anaerobic threshold
- Handle higher levels of Carbon Dioxide
- Increase Oxygen in the body
- Increase your immune system
After knowing these benefits, I bet you would wonder why you had not trained seriously in breathing exercise before.
In fact, there are many different ways of breathing. They teach this in yoga, Tai chi chuan and zen meditation. On the other hand, sadly, I have not seen much teaching on this important subject in the karate dojo I have visited so far. Despite such importance of the subject, only a few sensei seem to know how to teach this subject. Apparently, their teachers did not teach them how to train, exercise or control the breathing. It is a shame so I wish to contribute my knowledge and hopefully shed a light on this “ignored” or “forgotten” subject.
Hino kokyu (火の呼吸):
As I have mentioned earlier that there are many different ways to breathe as well as exercise methods. In other words, you control your breathing by three different actions. Most of the readers know that they are inhalation and exhalation. However, only a few are aware of the importance of holding the breath as part of a breathing exercise. Of course, there are several breathing methods without holding breath. One of them is Hino kokyu (火の呼吸, breathing of fire), found in yoga and Shugendo (修験道).
According to Encyclopeida of Shinto, Shugendo is explained as “Shugendo is a form of Japanese folk religion, based on primitive mountain worship, and formed under the influence of Buddhism, Daoism, Onmyōdō, and other religions. The name shugen is derived from the term genriki, which refers to special powers acquired as the result of religious practice (shugyō) performed within the mountains. In the past, such persons were frequently referred to by such terms as sanga (one who beds in the mountains) or the more common yamabushi (one who retreats to the mountains). While Shugendō provides abstract theories regarding the meaning of such terms, they are generally used to refer to those who possess supranormal magico-religious capabilities by sheltering in the mountains, in other words by retreating to the mountains and engaging in concourse with mountain spirits. Shugen practitioners are also called yama no hijiri (holy-men of the mountains), genja (men of power), or gyōja (ascetic practitioners).”
If you are interested in the history and the full explanation, here is the link to the encyclopedia. http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=830
Hi no kokyu became famous, at least in Japan, Rickson Gracie (photo right) revealed his training menu more than ten years ago and this rapid breathing method (hi no kokyu) was one of them. Here is a short video of his yoga training including the breathing exercise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CB_KRHXU1BA
However, we will not go into Hi no kokyu or any other sophisticated breathing method today. Today I wish to share one very simple exercise method that anyone can do to improve his breathing. You will find out how by reading this essay, but you need to train just as you do with the karate training almost daily for many months. I cannot over emphasize that it will require consistent (almost daily) training to acquire the new breathing technique or skill.
Even if you do not or cannot continue for many months, I am pretty confident that there are many useful hints in this essay that will improve your breathing method.
Let me give you a few improvement ideas that you can acquire right away. One is to inhale (almost always) through your nose during your breathing training. Of course, you want to do this in your daily life as well. Breathing through mouth is highly discouraged due, mainly for the health reasons. You want to limit breathing through your mouth if your nose is congested or during the strenuous training.
According to Breathing.com (founded by Michael Grant White: California State Certified Nutrition Consultant; N. Carolina Licensed Massage and Bodywork Therapist), nose breathing does the following:
- Helps fight infections
- Ensures better blood flow and lung volumes
- Helps to maintaining body temperature
- Helps in better brain functions
- Helps during your workouts
On the other hand, here are the things that can happen when you breathe through your mouth.
- Deadly bacteria have a free entry through your mouth
- Weakens your lungs, heart, etc.
- An open invitation to snoring or sleep apnea
- Causes constriction of blood vessels
- Restricts your enjoyment of smelling
- Can affect your appearance
You can read the entire explanation of those symptoms and benefits at the following URL: https://breathing.com/pages/nose-breathing
Next, let’s study that there are three functions or stages of breathing. One is inhalation or breathing in, and the second one is exhalation or breathing out. These two functions are familiar to you. Then, what is the third one? Did you know that it is holding your breath? Believe it or not, holding process is as important if not more as the other two.
Here is an interesting article by Stig Severinsen (photo right), the founder of Breatheology. Severinsen is not only MSc Biology & PhD Medicine but also 4 time free diving world champion and a holder of Guinness World Record. He is also the author of “Breatheology – The Art of Conscious Breathing.
Develop Mental Power with Breath Holding
In this article Severinsen claims that holding breath provides
- more energy
- resilience to stress, mental stability
- a greater focus on priorities and goals
- a closer connection to the body and more attention to the moment
He also claims the following:
On the long run meditation and breath holds seem to develop your nervous system and brain. Scientific studies have revealed that people who practice meditation and/or freediving show marked changes in their brain and nervous system. One area in the nervous system that undergo changes lies in the brain stem and is connected to the vagus nerve. This is part of the calming parasympathetic pathway which counteracts stress.
Now you have learned the basic ideas about breathing and I believe that we can jump in to the breathing method. But before that, do you know how many times you breathe in a period of one minute? It is your respiratory rate. This is such a simple thing to find our rate, thus it seems all of us should know. However, as far as I know not too many people bother to measure it or test our breathing cycle. If you do not know the exact data on your breathing, please take a few minutes and find out on average how many breathing cycles you have per minute.
According to Cleveland Clinic an adult breathes average of 12 to 20 times per minute. If you are an athlete or a karate black belt you probably breathe less than those numbers. By doing breathing training you train to have fewer breathing cycles which means you breathe longer in the breathing process. Breathing quickly and shortly is not a sign of good health. You have seen the sick people and obese people doing that type of breathing. Zen meditation goes with slow breathing and it is for both mental and physical health improvement. If you have been in a zen meditation or yoga class I am sure you learned how to breathe slower and longer. Here you do not need to do the meditation. You sit casually either in a chair or on the floor.
Cleveland Clinic has a very interesting article on Vital Signs including Respiratory Rate. I will share the URL here: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10881-vital-signs
Breathing Training Steps:
Here are the simple steps I suggest to improve or extend your breathing.
You have checked your breathing cycles and now you know how many times you normally breathe per minute. If you are breathing 2 times or less per minute you can jump to Step 5. However, most of the readers will find that they breathe ten times or more per minute. You want to reduce the number down but we must do it gradually.
What you need to do is to cut your breathing cycle down to 8 times per minute, unless you are already at that level. Eight cycle means you take 7 to 8 seconds per one breathing cycle. To make it easier to calculate let’s take 8 seconds for one cycle. What you need to do is to allocate the same time for inhalation and exhalation. In other words, you need to breathe in for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds as well. This should not be too difficult to do. At this level, you do not need to introduce holding breath period.
What is difficult is to make this cycle a permanent one. Unless you train your breathing habit regularly and teach your body the proper breathing time, it shortens or you will return to breathing faster. This is why it is a good idea to combine the breathing exercise with meditation. By closing your eyes, (though optional) and trying to think less, you can focus on your breathing much easier. I suggest you will do this every day if possible, for one month. This is like karate training so the minimum time of breathing exercise should be 3 to 4 times per week and no less. If you do not have much free time during the day time, you can do this while you are in bed right after you wake up or right before you go to sleep.
If you become comfortable with eight times per minute, extend your breathing and try 4 times per minute. You will use about 15 seconds for one breathing cycle in which you will not only spend the same amount of time for inhalation and exhalation, but you may want to introduce a breath holding period. The desirable amount of time for each section of the breathing cycle (inhalation, exhalation, and holding) is 5 seconds each. Initially however, you may find it difficult to hold the breath that long. In that case, you can reduce the amount of holding time, say down to 3 seconds. The time for inhalation and exhalation, of course, will be extended to 6 seconds each to keep the total cycle time at 15 seconds. When you become comfortable doing this breathing at those intervals for one hour or longer then you can increase the holding time to 5 seconds or even longer.
Just as you did in step 2, you need to train your breathing technique as often as possible for at least one month or until you feel comfortable doing the breathing cycle as described above. Of course, if reducing down to 4 times per minute is too challenging you can reduce to 6 times from 8 times. This is much more gradual and will be easier to adopt. However, the time to reach the ultimate goal will be further out and you will need more commitment and patience as you will have to take more steps.
If you are successful with 4 times per minute, you are ready to reduce to 3 times per minute. Though cutting down to 3 from 4 seems to be easy, you will find out the degree of difficulty increases exponentially.
In 3 cycle breathing, you will do one cycle in 20 seconds. You can divide the three functions equally such as 7 seconds each. There are three different ways of breathing.
One is the pattern of exhalation, inhalation and holding. The second is inhalation, exhalation and holding. These two seems to be similar and you may not see the difference. However, you will find, if you try them, that the second method is harder than the first one. In other words, it is much easier to hold your breath after you fill the lung with the air. On the reverse way, you need to hold the breath after you empty your lung. You can try the easier one first. After mastering it you can try the more challenging way.
The third way is to split the holding in two and place it after each inhalation and exhalation. In other words, you will spend 7 seconds to inhale, hold for 3 seconds then spend 7 seconds to breathe in and finally have the second holding of 3 seconds. This method will give you an opportunity to train holding your breath after exhalation. Once you are accustomed to this method, you can go to method one and two described above.
If you can breathe comfortably three cycles per minute, your final goal in this essay is to reduce it down to two cycles or 30 seconds per each breathing cycle. The training process is very similar to that of Step 4. You can figure this out on your own so I will skip describing the details here.
You may want to ask if two cycles per minute is the ultimate goal. No, it is not. The ultimate goal for the martial artist, I think, would be one cycle per minute. In fact, some of the yoga experts and zen masters can and do their breathing much longer. My average breathing interval when I am meditating is about 2 times per minute. Even though it is a good number, I have not reached the master level yet. My current goal is to reduce it to one time per minute.
Try this simple exercise described above and see if you can lengthen your breathing cycle. If you are busy and do not find spare time every day, you can do the breathing training during your driving. It will not only train your breathing but at the same time it will keep you relaxed. As a result you will be less tired from driving as you exercise slow breathing. If your hobby is reading books like me then this training is perfect to go along with your reading. You will enjoy reading and your eyes will not get tired as fast as before. If you also have to work in front of a computer for a long time this exercise will help you with your concentration.
The benefits are almost limitless and a wonderful thing about the breathing exercise is that you can do this almost any time and anywhere. You will have no excuse not to do this training. After getting used to this training in your daily life you can easily implement it in your karate training.
Heart Beat (bpm):
To me, the best benefit I can get from longer breathing is slower heartbeat. A doctor may tell you that you cannot control the speed or action of your heart but it is not true. By breathing differently you can. If you hold your breath, say, for a minute your heart beat will increase. On the other hand, if you lengthen your breath, meaning a longer breathing, your heart beat will slow down. By practicing this closely you can control your heart’s action and its beating speed and rhythm. This ability should be a big benefit if you are an athlete. The average heart beat or rate is 60-100 bpm (beats per minute). The goal should be to stay somewhere between 50 and 60 bpm. This is not a medical advice as I am not a medical doctor but I am suggesting this because it works for me. The heartbeats will differ significantly depending on one’s various conditions so the numbers I mentioned here are only a guideline.
Another benefit of controlled and slow breathing is the total relaxation that goes further than your muscles. You will be able to relax, unconsciously, your blood vessels which means larger diameter to let more blood to flow. The more blood flow to your head during the meditation will help you if you wish to reach the stage of nirvana and or total mu. This is why zen meditation comes with a breathing practice that is to breathe very slowly.
Being able to pump more blood in your circulatory system will help you during the training, won’t it? In addition, after a hard karate training, you can recuperate faster with the relaxed blood vessels. If you have a problem with sleeping after a hard training in the evening, I recommend that you will do the controlled slow breathing down to 2 breathing cycle per minute. This will slow your heart rate and your brain waves will change to Alpha and even down to Theta then I guarantee that you will have a very restful sleep very quickly. Relaxed blood vessels can also prevent many cases of heart attacks and strokes. Just as you can relax your muscles you can train to relax your blood vessels. This may be a controversial statement but I have been practicing this and I believe in this.
Improve Immune System:
With this breathing exercise I guarantee better health. Believe it or not, you can overcome hay-fever and allergy symptoms. If you are suffering from this then you need to improve your breathing as well as your diet (which is another subject which must be discussed separately).
After your exercise let me hear from you if you feel better or improving your karate training. Of course, training this only one day will not have any visible impact but I am sure you can feel that this exercise will make you feel better.
Slow down and make your breathing longer; that is the key idea in healthy breathing! Oss