There are many ways to breathe. I feel that the exercises I will outline below can lead students to develop a better method of breathing for Taido. They lead to a very natural way of breathing while moving that is highly adaptable to Taido technique (adaptation being one of the five tenets of Taido’s philosophy). Because I want to encourage others to experiment with these exercises, I will first present my alternative method before attempting to write an analysis of other breathing methods.
I totally believe that experimentation with various methods leads to far greater mastery than blind acceptance of any established method. So please try the exercises below several times over the course of a couple of weeks. If, after giving them a shot, you can’t figure out how they may be applicable to your Taido practice, feel free to drop me a line.
Now let’s work on developing some better breath skills…
You need to understand one fundamental that contrasts with the manner in which most people normally breathe. Basically, I am going to ask you to exhale actively and inhale passively. Usually when we think about our breath (which is rare for most folks), we begin by taking a deep inhalation into our chests and then letting it fall to exhale. This requires a good bit of energy if you think about it (which is why we don’t naturally breath that way) and doesn’t really incorporate the lower half of the lungs (the larger half) or the diaphragm.
First thing’s first: you have got to start breathing lower into your abdomen before we can do very much else. If you ever notice your breathing when you are very relaxed or after you just wake up on a saturday morning, you will see that you breathe most naturally by expanding (actively, though unconsciously)and contracting (passively) the belly. This brings air deep into the bottom of the lungs and allows more oxygen to be absorbed into your blood. This equals greater efficiency.
Why do we kiai in Taido? The kiai is to remind us to tighten the body, especially the abdomen, and focus our air out in a powerful burst when we strike. Since most strikes include a general bodily contraction, the kiai (exhale) here makes good sense, as we will see later. Anyway, using kiai teaches us to breathe with our bellies when we are doing athletic movements that require our bodies’ optimal output.
Understanding this, we can now “reverse” the emphasis of the breath by focusing on the exhale. In all of the exercises below (except the first one), you will concentrate on removing the air form your lungs by putting pressure (either mechanical or muscular) on your lower abdomen. Inhalation will take place as a natural consequence of the release of this pressure.
preliminary exercise #1
Standing or sitting with good posture (feeling as if your head is filled with helium – spine long and head high. Posture is super-important for your techniques and health. I suggest you spend some time paying close attention to this), fully expand your chest, though not to the point of discomfort. Breathe deeply into the bottom of the lungs by expanding the abdomen (thereby pulling the diaphragm downward). By doing this, air is sucked through the entirety of the lung, from top to bottom. In other words, you are breathing with the entire lung instead of just the top portion of it. If you don’t continually fill and empty the lower lung, it stagnates with stale air that offers no benefit. This is inefficient and could potentially allow greater chances of various infections.
So that is step one. Breathing into the belly. Now the next part is a little more difficult to get the hang of. I want you to reverse your breath. What I mean is this: instead of expanding the belly outward and then letting it fall, I want you to suck the belly in, forcing all the air out of your lungs. Then relax the abdomen and let the vacuum pressure pull air in passively.
preliminary exercise #2
Standing or sitting with good posture, try to squeeze your abdominal muscles as tightly as possible. Feel as if you are going to press your belly button into your spine. Hold this for a few seconds and then relax. When you hold the contraction in your abs, take care not to close the epiglottis (the skin flap in your throat that “caps” the lungs). You want to relax your throat and let your stomach do all the work.
Contract again, and really try to hold a tight tension in your gut. Contract a little tighter and exhale, trying to remove as much air from your lungs as possible. After a few seconds, relax again and let the lungs naturally fill up as the abdomen drops, taking the diaphragm with it. Do this several times and try to feel as if your entire breath is working as a result of your contraction and relaxation of your stomach.
This is actually one hell of an excellent ab workout, if you haven’t already noticed. The interesting thing is that you are working an entirely different set of abdominal muscles here – you inner abdominals (the technical name of which I can’t seem to remember off-hand). These muscles are seldom exercised in most peoples’ daily lives, so they get weak. Our culture is obsessed with the appearance of the outer abdominal muscles (everyone wants the six-pack), but as important as these muscles are, they aren’t nearly as vital as the ones below (behind?) them.
When I teach this in classes, some people have trouble feeling as if they are getting a full inhalation by simply relaxing and releasing the abdominals after contraction. I’ve been doing some thinking about this, and the best explanation is can think of this that these inner abdominals aren’t yet strong enough to contract fully yet. If you can’t contract tightly, there won’t be enough pressure to fill the lungs adequately. This has nothing to do with your overall fitness, it’s just that some folks don’t really develop these muscles enough in their day-to-day experience. The good news is that by practicing this breathing technique, you can strengthen the inner abs to the point that a full contraction and subsequent release is possible.
preliminary exercise #3
If you have trouble experiencing this sitting or standing, I would suggest trying to practice lying down. Relax your spine (and elevate your head a couple of inches to retain the natural curve of your neck) and bend your knees, with you feet about shoulder-width apart. You can put your hands on you stomach if it helps you be aware of your body.
When you make the contraction, tighten your abs enough to actually lift your butt off the floor. You want to feel your hips tilt up towards your head, meanwhile pressing your lower back to the floor. At the same time, you should squeeze your cheeks. Pranayama yoga (which is where this style of breathing originates) teaches that you should bring your belly button and your anus as close together as possible. Of course they don’t actually move any closer together, but the visualization may help you get the hang of this. Finally, remember not to force-hold the breath by closing the glotis, use your muscles.
I would suggest practicing this several times a day if you can. Just lie down and exhale and hold. After about five seconds, simply let your hips fall and your belly relax. If you don’t feel you’ve had an adequate inhalation, you can breathe normally once or twice before the next repetition. Do this five to ten times in a set, and then rest. If you do this a couple times a day for a couple of weeks, I believe you will notice some changes in your breathing and posture even without consciously attempting to improve them.
So that is the basic breath. Squeeze the inner abs to exhale. Relax and release to inhale.
Now let’s go over some further explorations.
exploratory exercise #1
Standing with your feet apart (about fudodachi-width) and your back straight but relaxed, I want you to allow your body to simply drop forward, bending at the waist. Provided your glottis is relaxed, you will find that this motion naturally expels much of the air from your lungs by compressing your trunk. In this case, you don’t have to contract the muscles at all – gravity is exhaling for you. Next, I want you to bend backwards (as in our warm-up calisthenics) a little beyond straight while staying very relaxed. Notice what happens. If you make an effort not to interfere with your breathing, you will find that your lungs “magically” fill up as you open upward and back.
Try this several times, slowly at first, and then at varying speeds. Think as if your midsection is an accordion or bellows. Your breathing should require no effort, instead occurring as a mechanical byproduct of your motion. Try to keep your spine elongated and your lungs fully expanded as you do this to feel the full effects.
exploratory exercise #2
Now we’re ready for the half-backroll. Same thing as before, only this time, you are actually using your abdominals to lift your legs overhead, so the feeling of “auto-breathing” should be even more pronounced.
Sit with your knees bent and roll backwards, careful not to put any stress on your neck. When your feet reach the floor, stop. Then roll back to the original position. If you relax, you will notice the air being expelled as you compress your abdomen by folding your legs overhead. When you release this compression, you will inhale.
When you roll back forward, try not to rock forward from your shoulders to your hips, but rather to relax the spine while using your back muscles to shift the hips forward. You should feel as if each vertebra touches the floor in turn until you are lying flat. As you relax into this supine position, your lungs should mechanically fill with air as the back straightens. Sit up and try again.
exploratory exercise #3
When you have mastered the backward portion of the exercise, you can add a second out/in to the exercise. You do this by rolling forward (to a position akin to a a hamstring stretch) instead of lying down. Doing this requires using the abs, so again, you can really feel how the mechanism operates. So the way this works is that, from sitting with your legs straight out, you: lay back (inhale), pull your legs over your head (exhale), roll your legs back to the front (inhale), bring the upper body with them and allow it to collapse as far forward as your flexibility allows (exhale). Repeat.
exploratory exercise #4
After you get comfortable with this, you can try the same exercise with front rolls. Tighten into a ball and exhale. Roll and then open into a squat or standing and inhale. All of your front and back rolls and flips are obvious contenders for practice along these lines.
exploratory exercise #5
When you are starting to feel sensitive to your breath and want to feel something a little freaky, revisit the standing version. Same as before, drop forward and let gravity passively empty your lungs. This time, instead of leaning straight back, I want you to roll back across either side (like half a trunk rotation) until you are leaning back. If you are really in tune with your breath and totally relaxed, you will be able to feel one lung filling before the other one. This is because the side to which you are rolling is compressed, but the other side expands. When you reach the fully-back position, both sides will be expanded.
Drop forward again, and this time roll up the other side. Practice this several times, alternating sides. Then reverse the direction: after exhaling forward, lean straight back and breath in. Then roll down one side and feel the air expel from first one lung, then the other. Lean back and inhale, and do the opposite side. By this point, if you are able to “feel the magic,” you should be pretty excited.
Though I won’t go into them here, there are also plenty of Tantric practices that work on this same principle. Of course, I wouldn’t know anything about it personally, but I have heard that sexual stamina and pleasure can both be greatly enhanced by integrating breathing with, uh… Motion. Feel free to explore this aspect of Taido with your partner.
Aside from the mysterious lesson number 23 of Master Chun’s “chinanju” (see Remo Williams for more), there are plenty of Taido techniques that can benefit from this kind of practice. In fact, the more you look into it, i’m confident that you will find an expansion/contraction (or even out/in/out) chain in every technique you can think of. Furthermore, you will almost always find that punches and kicks connect with the target on a contraction (hello kiai).
Exploratory Exercises Ad Infinitum
Ebigeri is a pretty easy place to see a contraction, expansion, contraction. Shajo/manji and mawashi geri are obvious examples in which one side is compressed differently from the other, which relates to the final exercise I outlined above. Of course, our techniques are a lot more complicated than the exercises presented here, so it’s going to be tough to try and make it through a jissen match without having to breathe actively, but if you practice integrating your breath and motion, you will find your endurance and energy increasing (see Tantra, above) without a doubt.
Now here’s where you can really try this concept out in Taido to get started: seimei no hokei. Anyone remember the correct breathing for that? I doubt it OK, so maybe you do – if so, congrats). Who cares? Practice seimei no hokei and note the points at which your body tries to breathe for you. Now for the black belts, do the same with tentai no hokei – tentai is a killer, endurance-wise, but using the tengi do do some of the work for you can really help out.
You have to breathe all the time to stay alive, so it follows that practice breathing will improve your quality of life. Feeling healthy? Good. Now go have a beer.