Correct Breathing in Karate: Kokyu, Techniques, and Exercises

Breathing in Karate plays an odd role. On the one hand, every Karateka agrees on its importance for vitality, great technique, speed, and power. On the other hand, most Karateka do not know much about breathing in Karate or how to breathe correctly. Neither do they know much about how to train it and what exercise to utilize to breathe better. In this article Punito Aisenpreis is going to give an extensive overview about the Dos and Don´ts of breathing in Karate and how one can become a better Karateka through breathing.

In Karate a specific type of breathing is necessary. Then in training and in competition the same rule applies: When we lose our breath we lose ourselves.

Thus, this article deals with breathing in Karate and the many possibilities to use it consciously. I intend to give the Karateka guidance to train more efficiently, more easily, more consciously, and with more motivation through apply effective breathing techniques.

There is no first breath in Karate!

We breathe about 500 million times between our birth and our death. Since our phylogenetic ancestors came ashore, pulmonary breathing has been essential to generate energy. Our breathing is slow when we are relaxed or asleep, and fast when we are moving or become emotionally – positive or negatively – aroused.

The breathing process runs automatically. Only in thin, sticky, hot air, when we “run out of breath” during exertion, or when we suffocate we really become aware of our breath.

In Karate, on the other hand, we try to establish a consciousness for our breathing. When beginners start Karate training, they often become overwhelmed by instructions regarding breath control. Their unconscious patterns of  “stress breathing” emerge, learned early in childhood, and over steer any well-intentioned attempt at “the right” breathing in Karate.

General Breathing Mechanics and Physiology

“Understand first your own breath, then the breath of the opponent.”

Before we go into the specifics and techniques of breathing in Karate we have to clarify first some general breathing mechanics and the physiology behind breathing.

Outer and inner Breathing

When we understand, how our breathing works and how it gets out of rhythm, then we can control it more efficiently.

The outer breathing, for instance, works simplified as follows: When we inhale, special nerve cells of the breath center in the brain become activated. They stimulate peripheral nerves that initiate the contraction of our diaphragm and our deep lateral neck muscles (MM. scaleni).

The contraction of the muscular diaphragm moves it down towards the abdomen and pushes the liver, stomach, spleen, kidneys, and intestines towards the pelvis. The chest space (thorax) above it becomes enlarged. The lung fill with air due to the resulting vacuum.

From a mechanically standpoint on can say: A pump handle movement describes breathing at best. As more relaxed the fascia and muscles of the thorax are as more the lung can inhale (up to 5 liters).

The inner breathing happens as gas exchange between the pulmonary vesicles (alveoli) and the blood of the pulmonary circulation. Fewer environmental toxins, dust, and tar on the fine alveolar membranes of the lung mean better transfer of oxygen to our muscles, organs and nerves.

Cell Breathing and Energy Supply

Breathing, however, has a chemical reason. Red blood cells transport O2 molecules to cells because they require oxygen. At the cell membrane the  oxygen diffuses into the cell and is replaced with CO2, the waste product of cell respiration, which then becomes transported back to the lungs. In the cells the mitochondria, our so-called cell batteries, metabolize sugar and O2 into CO2 and water.

In doing so, energy in the form of  ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is generated. ATP is our cell fuel, which is needed  and used up in all cells. During Karate training ATP is mainly utilized in muscles, the heart and the brain. Thus: as higher the O2 uptake of the body as more energy can be provided. Nourished, regenerated and connected cells mean better body performance.

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The Role of the Autonomic Nervous System

At rest, relaxation and in sleep, adults breath between 5 and 18 times per minute. If we are positively or negatively aroused or physically active or stressed, we breathe up to 30-60 cycles per minute. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our breath rate and breathing volume, which consists of the three components:

  1. The sympathetic (activation, fight-flight),
  2. Parasympathetic (relaxation, regeneration) and
  3. the “Old Vagus system” (digest, freeze).

As more aroused we are, e.g. in a combat situation, as more the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the respiratory center. This, on the one hand, provides more energy, on the other hand, it poses the risk that we breath too fast and “get out of breath” and “lose our head”.

Breathing Disorders and Breathing Therapy

“Karate begins and ends with proper breathing!”

Understanding Breathing Disorders

In one of the basic works of traditional Karate, the Bubishi, the authors discuss vital points and the accumulation of “Ki“. Itosu Anko, the teacher of Funakoshi Gichin, warns about breathing too much “Ki” in the head, as it can result in a red head and high blood pressure. The breath should be directed down into the “field of Vermillion” in the lower abdomen (Hara).

Early childhood breathing disorders with an overactivation of the “freezing-system” of the ANS can, for example, lead to asthma and restrictions during inhalation. A Karateka, who tends to have asthma, has difficulties to exhale the air completely, because his or her bronchial system tightens.

Even a rigidly inflated chest, which looks powerful and tries to show domination, leads to movement restrictions. Especially during rotational movements it makes the throat and neck immobile. So, during the execution of a Kata the Karateka has to spend way too much effort and yet it will look strenuous in succession. Instead, of the abdominal press, without fine perception of the abdominal organs, the “lip brake” will have to be used for the accumulation of the breathing air, which does not allow for powerful techniques.

Breath Therapy

When present, a respiratory dysfunction is best treated play with a respiratory based therapy. After thorough analysis of the body structure, the fascia system, the oxygen uptake of the metabolic system in volume and frequency (spirometry) and  the respiratory mechanics of a Karateka are used in various forms in the therapy: 

Fascia therapy for diaphragm, intercostal muscles, Scaleni muscles, abdominal wall and the ancessorial breathing muscles. The ribs, the sternum, shoulder girdle and spine are treated osteopathically to create more balance and mobility. Respiratory therapy detects unphysiological breathing patterns and induced physiologically correct breathing. In the Dojo, the trainer has to perceives the breathing patterns of the students and if pre sent, can detect respiratory dysfunction. He/she should then be able to give assistance to the students, as to correct and induce performance-oriented natural breathing patterns.

Exercise: Bodhidharma Heart-Hara Breathing

Before we dive into breathing in Karate, let us do a small breathing exercise while you read this article. So, breath slowly with abdominal and chest breathing by counting to “four”. Imagine the oxygen from the breathing air entering your heart area. There you hold it approximately two seconds and then let it flow slowly over the back, counting to “six”, into your lower abdomen while exhaling. Feel how the entire abdominal and pelvic space fills up with energy. Let your center of gravity slowly sink into your Hara (belly).

Breathing in Karate

What is breathing in Karate about? The first concept, I want to describe is: Kokyu also know as breathing power.

Kokyu: Breathing Power

“Hard and soft, tension and relaxation, slow and fast, – all in combination with the right breathing”

Gichin Funakoshi

Breathing and karate are firmly interwoven. At the center stands Kokyu: breathing power. Karateka know the concept by heart. When a techniques becomes executed Karateka exhale with force. The effective use of a Karate technique depends to a large extent on the right breathing and the appropriate breathing rhythm.

In Karate inhaling leads the air deeply into the abdomen by lowering the diaphragm. When exhaling, the diaphragm arbitrarily tightens in accordance with the abdominal muscles and thus stabilizes the trunk. This stabilization creates together with the muscle groups of the back, the possibility to connect the upper and lower body to an effective and stable unit.

Through increasing the pressure in the lower abdomen it to support the acceleration of a technique with muscle strength, the weight and movement of the total body. The body, thus, becomes a “projectile” with which the Karateka strikes at the opponent. When inhaling the body should then fully relax again.

Kime and Kiai

If Karateka can coordinate all muscle groups involved in breathing they also achieve a stable posture. Another important effect is the direction of energy. If the optimal tension of the abdominal cavity is given, a Karateka can transmit the energy generated at the pressure point of the heel through all necessary fascia, bones and joints into the fist. The force follows, therefore, the intended direction.

With the snapping of the stretched fascia system, breathing also comes to an abrupt stop. Thus, it amplifies the chain of action of the body structure and stabilizes the power transfer to the endpoint. The battle cry (Kiai) naturally comes from the depth through the belly, when the air escapes at the moment of Kime. Moreover, letting flow the breath freely allows a better kinesthetic sense of all the body fascia and allows to unify the body perception into a continuation from toe to head.

Karate Warm-up Exercises for Breathing Muscles

1. Spinal Twist

The spinal twist works as follows:

  • Both sit bones touch the ground.
  • The right leg is placed on the sole of the foot over the outstretched left leg.
  • The body turns to the right.
  • From here the left elbow presses from the outside against the right knee.
  • The right hand touches the left knee while the right arm supports it in a stretched out and straight line to the ground.
  • The head turns further to the right back.
  • The spine stretches up right while being twisted.
  • The lateral abdomen and the intercostal muscles are stretched.
  • The large chest fascia is stretched in continuation with the hip and pelvic fascia.
The picture shows Punito Aisenprais doing a Spinal Twist for breathing in Karate.

2. Knee Seat

The knee seat is another warm-up exercise for better breathing during Karate training. It works as follows:

  • The body turns backwards.
  • The arms go backwards over the head and leave the lumbar spine long and uncompressed while, stretching the entire front fascia system.
  • The front chest and trunk muscles as well as the intercostal muscles are stretched as well as the anterior diaphragm attachments.
The picture shows Punito Aisenprais doing a Knee Seat for breathing in Karate.

3. Zenkutsu Dachi Hip Stretch

Zenkutsu Dachi can also be applied for a breathing warm-up. The hip has to show towards shomen. The heel is puched back and both arms are stretched up. The Lateral fascia system is stretched as well as the intercostal muscles, the lateral neck muscles and the fascia.

The picture shows Punito Aisenprais doing a Zenkutsu Dachi for breathing in Karate.

Patterns of Breathing in Karate

But Karate offers several breathing patterns and approaches:

  • slow exhalation when performing a technique,
  • slow inhalation while reaching out,
  • rapid inhalation and slow exhalation when performing a technique,
  • slow inhalation and rapid exhalation when performing a technique,
  • half breathing out with two consecutive strike techniques.

In addition, the air is exhaled either until Kime and then stopped. Or Kime takes place exactly after the complete exhalation.

However, different areas of Karate also require but also offer distinguished breathing approaches. The concepts of breathing in Jiyu Kumite differ from the ones in Kata, for instance.

Breathing Techniques in Jiyu Kumite

In Jiyu Kumite breathing can be utilized in the following ways:

  • One can attack while the opponent inhales and has thus difficulties to react.
  • One can also can breathe to be more insensitive to the impacts of the opponents attack.
  • A strong exhalation ends with Kiai to make the belly press even more effective or to irritate the opponent.
  • “Let your breath be thin,” says an unknown Chinese quote (so that the enemy cannot discover your breath and act on it).
  • In case of nervousness self-control can be restored by a long exhalation.

Find it out for yourself: Inhale, exhale, and ask yourself what makes a technique slow, what makes it fast, weak or strong? Then try to reflect about the question: What is best breathing pattern during an attack and during defense?

Breathing in Karate Kata´s

Kata´s, on the other hand, offer a different set of breathing patterns. Hangetsu, for instance, is a Kata with 41 techniques from  Naha-te, called Seisan, which originally comes from China. Actually, this is a Kata for practicing the stances (Hangetsu dachi) and unusual techniques.

However, it is also excellent for breathing training (Kokyu ho). Then it comprises different breathing patterns.

To reach a deeper understading of breathing in Kata Karateka should ask themselves the following questions:

  • How long, short, and how loud is the Kiai in the different Kata?
  • What are breathing techniques and breathing rhythm that the kata dictates through its respective techniques?

Mindfulness Breathing in and outside the Dojo

When greeting and closing (Mokuso) the conscious breathing is usually carried out too short. Our thoughts often wander around. In Kata, in Kihon and in Rei the appropriate way of breathing to the technique can be trained. Breathing while practicing combinations (e.g. Sanbon Zuki) can lead to interesting insight. Thus, breathing can be seen as the fourth factor of an effective Karate technique – Yon ten riki ho (four areas of power) – in addition to the compression of the joints, the hip rotation, and the shifting of weight.

Breathing is special in many ways. It is the only body function that can be executed both fully aware as well as unconsciously. Thus, it represents a bridge between mind and body. Such a connection between the unconscious and the conscious emerges when one contemplates about ones own breath without controlling it.

Breathing can be a key to health and well-being. Karateka have the opportunity to learn to regulate their respiratory function and to develop and improve a physical, emotional and mental well-being. However, only a few Karateka learn how to use their breathing.

In fact, breathing patterns can be controlled. Karateka with foundational breathing techniques can reduce stress, lower their blood pressure and regulate many physical systems without medication. Breathing has direct connections to the limbic system (emotions) and to the ANS (auton omous nervous system).

Following I present some breathing techniques that are prominent in different Karate styles.

“Ibuki” Breathing of Gôjû-ryû vs. Shotokan Breathing

Ibuki breathing is the name of the forceful “pressure breathing” of Goju-ryu Karate. To do so Goju-ryu Karateka close their voice box to let only a small portion of audible breath in and out at a time. This practice aims at strengthening the breathing muscles, ventilating the total lung space and leading to a high air- and blood pressure in the body.

The effect of this breathing method stimulates the vagus nerve through the pressure receptors in the aorta and the carotid sinus. However, it might also lead to a permanent high blood pressure if overdone.

Andre Bertel talks about the difference between Shotokan Karate breathing  and “Ibuki” breathing of Gôjû-ryû especially in the Kata Hangetsu:

“It is important to note here, insofar as breathing is concerned, that Hangetsu does not encompass Ibuki style breathing that is audible; like, for instance, in Sanchin Kata. Nevertheless, some instructors have incorporated this element into Shotokan-Ryu (of ten via Hangetsu). That being said, it is claimed that “…the original version of this kata, in Okinawa, did not  feature audible breathing” but, rather, the breathing was done in a stealthy manner. This method is what is maintained by the JKA. – One point, which his Master Asai Sensei stressed, was that “The breathing in the Nihon Karate Kyokai (J.K.A) Hangetsu must not be audible like that of the Naha-te Sanchin, it must be deep and  undetectable.”

Andre Bertel 2016

Buddhist Karate Breathing vs. Daoist Tai Chi Breathing

Abdominal breathing can be executed it two different ways: in the Buddhist and the Daoist one. The Buddhist way is usually practiced in Karate. The underbelly gets inflated when inhaling and deflated when exhaling.

Daoist breathing, on the other hand, works the other way around: while inhaling the underbelly is drawn in, when exhaling it is ballooned out. This kind of breathing is preferred by experienced Taijiquan practitioners. In a personal exploration the two different ways were measured with a HRV scanning device in order to detect and quantify the autonomic regulation effects. At least in my personal trial the “Buddhist” Karate breathing produced overall about 10% more autonomic nervous system response than the Daoist breathing.

Breathing, Heart rate and Regeneration after Training

Breathing and heartbeat are interdependent. The heart rate variability describes changes in heart rate over a period of time, controlled through the ANS (autonomous nervous system). As stronger the short-term changes of the heartbeat, controlled by the parasympathetic Vagus nerve, the more adaptable the organism is.

The picture shows Punitoe Aisenprais during a heart rate measurement and Karate. The heart rate has a huge influence an breathing in karate.

One could compare the overall regulation of the ANS with the “Ki”. The graphic on the left shows that slow breathing with 5-6 cycles per minute achieves the best regulation values. Breathing with 20 cycles per minute is the worst. At 5-6 breaths per minute the body relaxes fast and regenerates after a strain. Breathing and heartbeat control can be used very well with “HRV Biofeedback Breathing Training”. Both can be executed after training or after work. It also works for training and load control of competing Karateka.

I would like to add the 4711 formula. Scientists have found out that daily 11-minutes of breathing exercises with 4 seconds inhalation and 7 seconds exhalation can stimulate the vagus nerve in such a way that body and mind are immersed in a very special state of deep relaxation and regeneration. That can bee seen as the counterpart to stress responses. If this breathing exercises is performed over 9  weeks, it can lead to a change in the brain structure to more stability, relaxation, and awareness.

If the bodies oxygen uptake at rest falls below a certain value, the cell respiration can no longer function correctly. The metabolism must produce lactate even at low loads to meet the energy demand. This leads to a great loss of performance and an increasing acidification of the body, which results in pain, stiffness, and other problems.

In this case, a training at artificial height with reduced oxygen exposure comes into play. Such a training situation forces the body of Karateka to alternately breaths reduced amounts of Oxygen and intermittently breathes over saturated air. This will improve cell respiration and metabolic capacity. Even in preparation for championships, this procedure already showed in some studies its power-enhancing effect.

Breathing in Karate: Between Technique and Natural State

Breathing training has been around for centuries. It was already used in India in the Vedic Scriptures (1500  BC), the Upanishads (700 BC), and mentioned in the Yoga of Patanjali (200 BC). There, breathing exercises and  meditations are adequately described as “Pranayama” (prana = Ki (breathing). From there, the path of breathing and awareness training went to China (Bodhidharma, Chan, 500 A.D.) and came with Zen Buddhism to Japan (Dogen 1200 A.D.).

Breathing training and mindfulness training are inextricably linked throughout Asia. Through the mindful observance in Zen (Shikan Taza), a transparent and shapeless sitting, the breath-counting (Susokan) or the breath-observing sitting (Zuisokan), the body relaxes and Ki can be accumulated in the lower abdomen (Hara).

Karateka, who practice the above breathing training also outside the dojo,  sharpen their mind, improve their responsiveness, increase self-regulation and regeneration and develop their character. They learn how to be strong and happy through breathing.

That is why Karateka should take away the following five summarized statements of breathing in Karate:

  1. Conscious breathing strengthens and stabilizes the center for transmitting Kime from bottom to top;
  2. Conscious breathing strengthens awareness, mindfulness, respect;
  3. Conscious Breathing initiates and strengthens regeneration (via the Vagus nerve);
  4. Conscious breathing controls and moderates emotions – fighting spirit, penetration;
  5. Conscious breathing relaxes, sharpens and soothes the mind.

Author

Punito Michael Aisenpreis: Born in 1958, coach, therapist, researcher and trainer in Munich and Murnau, martial arts and meditation teacher. Fascia therapy since 1981. Shotokan Karate since 1975, currently 4th Dan JKA and DJKB Trainer. Ki Aikido with Koichi Tohei. Regular karate training in Japan. 1994 Founding of the German Society for Myofascial Release e.V. Since 2013 Bodhidharma Karate Dojo Murnau at DJKB. Mail keiko@bodhidharma.de; www.bodhidharma.de.

Comments

  1. I met a Goju Ryu Karateka. He told me to inhale during block and exhale during attack. What shall I say, in Join (Shotokan) this advice was very helpful. Normally I am doing “abnoe Jion”, means, after 75% I am completely out of breath and I get dizzy. But inhaling during block technique, the whole Kata is powerful and smoth.

  2. Avatar for The Dojo Ezra JnBaptiste : October 23, 2020 at 11:34 am

    A great article.

  3. Nice, analytical article! Sterling! Thank you for incorporating my hints: you found a great quote from Andre Bertel! Tamano Toshio, a Gôjû-practitioner states in his book “Miyagi Chôjun no Okinawa Karate ni Karate o manabu” that when you train on your own, “Ibuki” should be inaudible. The making of a sound was initially employed for the teacher to show where to exhale and inhale properly and for checking the correct breathing of the student by ear. Funakoshi Gichin is said to have perceived too loud Ibuki as “vulgar”! As to buddhist and daoist breathing: I asked my Taijiquan teacher and he maintains either is good, you should feel comfortable and most of all it should feel natural. Advanced practitioners prefer daoist breathing in standing meditation, that’s also the easiest way to learn and practice it! Once more thanks a lot for the in-depth-analysis, cheers, Wolf

  4. Dear Andreas, in my experience breathing-in during blocks makes them weaker in execution. When you reach out, you inhale, when you execute the block you exhale. That works also in well in Jion, so it does hot have to become an apnoe excercise. Yoroshiku Punito

    Dear Wolf, thank you for your regards and your articles, great to play it back and forth with you, there is more to come! Yoroshiku Punito

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