A Little About Breathing

rather than simply pointing out flaws, i’ve always been of the opinion that we should present better alternatives. i feel that the exercises i will outline below can lead students to develop a better method of breathing for taido. i find that these exercises 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 (and because providing evidence that the current theory is inadequate is tedious), i will first present my “better alternative” before attempting to nitpick shukumine sensei’s method in a later article.

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.

Some Preliminaries

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.

And now…

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.

Optimizing Energy Balance

I should preface the advice I give in this article by saying that I’m not a doctor or a professional trainer or anything like that. I don’t know your specifics, so I can’t claim that anything I write here will actually work for you. You should probably seek the advice of somebody with a government-sanctioned professional certification before you follow my suggestions.

Having said that, this article is about some simple suggestions regarding ways to improve health and performance by optimizing the body’s energy balance. Since I started off with that broad disclaimer, you may be wondering exactly who am I to be giving health advice. I’ll tell you:

I am somebody who is almost never sick, tired, unhappy, or otherwise “down.” I get up every morning feeling great and continue to feel good all day. I can do things with my body that amaze my friends. In recent months, I have developed the ability to control my weight, body composition, and energy levels to a high degree of accuracy by manipulating the factors I will discuss in this article. I have put this information together by doing a lot of research, some of which I will share with you.

Those credentials may not seem terribly impressive, but I’m not charging you anything for these ideas which, taken together, could do some amazing things for your physical condition and overall health. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, but I think you can benefit by using this article as a practical guideline.

Energy Balance

Though I won’t be addressing it in this article specifically, mental health and positive self-image are at least as important to health and performance as anything you can accomplish by physical means. I am not your counselor, so we will just be looking at the physical side of the equation in what follows. If you don’t see results with these suggestions, it may be a sign that you are not mentally prepared for improved health. Your physical energy balance sits alongside your mental energy balance in the total-health equation.

The human body, though not a machine, can be modeled by a machine when it comes to energy balance. Simply put, energy balance is how our bodies make use of food to move and heal. There are three important factors to consider: fuel, work, and maintenance. I believe that the reason many “diets” and exercise programs fail is because they tend to only address one factor out of the three. Occasionally, one will find a program that makes suggestions for two of these factors, but that usually manifests as a detailed eating plan accompanied by a short note that says “oh yeah – you should also be working out and sleeping well.”

The body needs balance in order to remain healthy, and this can be achieved by learning how to manipulate the three factors to suit your lifestyle and goals.

Work

Since we are all martial artists involved in consistent physical exercise (right?), it makes sense to begin with work. I’m not going to tell you how much you should workout, because I believe that this is determined in part by the lifestyle we each choose to lead. I’m assuming that people reading this practice Taido at least a couple of times a week, which is already much more exercise than the average American gets. That puts us ahead of the curve, but I have some suggestions for getting the most out what time we already devote to physical exercise.

However, it’s important to realize that work is not limited to “working out.” Every physical action or inaction in which the body engages has some gross effect. This includes the way we move and walk, our sleeping position, and everything else we do. We can all benefit by finding ways to do our work with greater efficiency. Efficiency in movement requires mobility, agility, and coordination.

Two Important Attributes

The first thing I want to suggest is more work on balance and dynamic flexibility. These are both hot topics in the fitness industry in America right now, but as opposed to many health trends, they are directly applicable to our performance in Taido.

With regards to balance, I specifically recommend Scott Sonnon’s four corner balance drill as part of your daily routine because it requires no equipment, has incremental levels of difficulty, and improves unilateral balance in positions which resemble kicking techniques. I suggest you add this drill to your warm-up for every practice session. In addition to building balance, studies have shown that challenging our proprioception (the set of senses that make up our collective balance, movement, and position sense) tunes the central nervous system for more efficient performance of difficult physical tasks. In other words, challenging your balance prior to a Taido workout will likely improve your coordination during practice.

Dynamic flexibility is flexibility in motion. Since Taido is an art of moving the body, it makes sense that dynamic stretches would be of more use to us than the static stretching I see in most Japanese and American practices. Examples of dynamic stretches Taidoka would find useful would be swing kicks and arm swings in all directions. Since these stretches require fast motion, they should not be done until the body is fairly warm, but in light of numerous recent studies showing that static stretching prior to workouts increases incidence of muscle pulls and strains, it appears that dynamic stretching is the best bet for warm-ups. Static stretching still has a place after practice, but dynamic swings do much more to prepare the body’s tissues for the types of movement Taido demands.

The Basics

My last suggestion regarding work is pay attention to basic attributes and competencies. I’ve already written a long article on improving jumping skills. Someday, I hope to post articles relating to core training and building endurance. Until then, I suggest you incorporate some of the practices from my breathing article into your routine. If you weight train, keep any max-strength cycles short and focus on fast, multi-joint movements like snatches (my personal favorite, but there are a variety of options) for the majority of the year.

Fuel

Next up is fuel. Obviously, this includes food, but let’s also not neglect the air we breathe and the water we drink. Though we don’t have as much control over our supply of water and air as we may like, if we keep our eyes open, we may find opportunities to improve the quality of these kinds of fuel. Since this article is limited to physical factors, I won’t go into thoughts and social programming, but be aware that they do influence you profoundly.

7 Habits

I’ll start off by recommending that you read Dr. John Berardi’s article on the seven habits of highly effective diets. This is one of the bases of my personal approach to making the right food choices for my goals. I agree with Berardi that anyone who can’t meet at least ninety percent compliance with the seven habits is going to have a hard time optimizing their diet to improve their health and performance. Think of these seven habits as a shodan in nutrition and work towards making them part of your life.

I do have one personal tweak to Berardi’s plan that I would suggest to you – eating way more vegetables than fruits. Fruit isn’t necessarily bad for your body, but it is very sweet, and eating lots of fruits during the day can do strange things to your energy systems. Controlling insulin has been shown to be very important to maintaining metabolic balance. Also, many people are highly sensitive to sugar because of the emotional connections they develop to sugary snacks as children. I wouldn’t go so far as to say one should avoid any fruit they like, but be aware of the effect it has on your energy levels. If you notice any weird spikes followed by slight depression later in the day, you may want to look at substituting more vegetables.

Supplements

The other addition I suggest to Berardi’s suggestions is to include a multi-vitamin. Berardi claims that nutritional supplements are inessential if one chooses the right foods. I agree that it should be this way in a perfect world, but in the age of industrialized farming, many foods have significantly lower amounts of nutrients than they used to. I personally follow the Life Extension Foundation’s basic recommendations regarding vitamin supplements and take well in excess of the daily allowance recommended by the government.

In addition to supplementation with a multi-vitamin, I suggest omega 3 fatty acids. Life Extension sells a high-tech fish oil supplement that I recommend, but any fish oil supplement is better than nothing. These fats are not only good for your heart, they help to reduce inflammation caused by putting the body under stress. For people who workout or participate in sports, intake of high-quality fats is vastly important to the recovery process.

On the subject of recovery nutrition, I’ll refer to another article by Berardi about post-workout nutrition. Essentially, Berardi suggests that all athletes should be consuming a high-carbohydrate beverage during and immediately following training. The optimum composition is actually about a 4:1 ratio of carb to protein. This has been shown to do wonderful things for building muscle, preventing soreness, staving off catabolism, and promoting recovery. There is a ton of information regarding post-workout nutrition on T-Nation.

Macro-Nutrient Timing

T-Nation also has tons of articles about nutrient timing. Usually, when the coaches at T-Nation are making a big deal and writing lots of articles about something, it means that they are getting ready to launch a new product. However, you can’t sell the times at which people eat, so there might just be something really important to the concept on this one.

Temporal nutrition is probably the most important diet advice for people wishing to improve their body composition. I am currently slightly over ten percent body-fat, and I really don’t workout that much. Though my coworkers think it’s magic, I can eat tons of food, workout only when I feel like it, and continually improve my body because I understand the concept of nutrient timing. In a nutshell, it goes like this:

  • carbs in the morning
  • fats at night
  • protein all day

Of course, that’s a simplification, and some people require specific ratios of the three macro-nutrients, but as a general guideline, the above is pretty universal. The body can use carbs better in the morning than it can fats. It can use fats better at night than it can carbs. You always need protein to promote healing and recovery from exercise. And sadly for those of us who love pasta with cream sauce, the body reacts to meals that are high in both carbohydrate and fat by lowering metabolism and hoarding fat. This is why Berardi and others advocate sticking to two basic meal templates: P+C and P+F.

Of course, mixing them up a little is not a problem, but a P+C meal should be less than fifteen percent fat, and a P+F meal should be less than fifteen percent carb, for the most part. This may seem difficult to do at first, but that’s because we are socially conditioned to eat three big meals each day. This isn’t biologically sound eating – it’s designed to fit around our jobs. However, if we make a small lifestyle change and begin eating several snacks every day, it’s quite easy to adhere to the nutrient-timing guidelines. I eat about eight times a day, and each meal is small enough that I can eat it in a few minutes and get back to work.

Some examples of good P+C meals are an egg mixed in a bowl of oatmeal or a smoothie with fruit and protein powder. High-protein foods such as tuna, chicken, or eggs can be added to just about anything. For P+F meals, I’ll typically make an omelet or have some cottage cheese. Unfortunately, the Guinness milkshake (about 1000 calories of alcohol, sugar, and fat) doesn’t figure in very well at any time of the day.

I know some people really love eating full meals, and I do too. My best suggestion is to eat this way for most of the week and then have two or three days where you go lighter on the snacks and eat a larger dinner. This allows you to make an occasion out of nights out with your friends, etc. Once a week, I go shopping and cook something creative for myself and a few of my friends. It’s something I enjoy, and it makes it a lot easier to stick to small meals for most of the week.

Recovery

Finally, we come to recovery, or bodily maintenance. I’ve written a little about supplementation for recovery and post-workout recovery nutrition above, but there’s a lot more to it. Actually, I would argue that recovery is the most overlooked component of the energy balance equation. To get started, check out this T-Nation article with some general tips.

Sleep

I think the most obvious aspect of recovery is sleep. Most people claim to understand the importance of quality sleep, yet most people don’t seem to get enough of it. Dr. Joe Mercola has some tips for improving your quality of sleep, and Steve Pavlina wrote a series of articles about polyphasic sleep, which some people may find interesting too. Incidentally, I’ve had a good deal of success with biphasic and triphasic sleep patterns in the past.

Unfortunately, I work in a situation that doesn’t allow me arrange my sleep schedule in the manner I feel is optimal for my health. I think most people in the modern world have a similar problem. As a compromise to getting most of my sleep at night so I can keep a large chunk of time open for my job, I’ve started taking afternoon naps. I nap right after work, usually about an hour after having a high-protein snack. I sleep for thirty to forty minutes. Then, I get up and do a brief (ten-minute) workout (“movement session” would be more precise) to increase my circulation and boost my motivation. I find that this allows me to sleep about two hours less each night without fatigue, and that time directly translates to productive work on projects such as Taido/Blog.

One cool thing about taking a short nap is that, by waking before entering deep sleep, one avoids any kind of groggy feeling upon waking. I set a timer for about thirty-five minutes to be sure I awake during REM sleep, which means I can remember my dreams and write them down for later inspiration. I’ve been doing this pretty consistently for a couple of years now, and during summers, I tend to sleep less than five hours each night – about six in the winter. I wake up at sunrise each day, take a nap upon returning form work, and go to bed whenever I happen to get sleepy later, which is almost never before midnight.

Some people have trouble falling asleep, but I believe this is because they try to force themselves to sleep when they don’t need to. Eight hours is really excessive for most people unless they’ve been under a lot of physical or mental stress. Another reason people may have difficulty falling asleep is that their minds are too excited by television, internet, or any of the other high-density information streams most of us access each day. It’s important to limit our dependence on these things for entertainment, lest we find ourselves over-stimulated.

Meditation

One strategy for reducing mental stress and turning our minds down a couple of notches is meditation. Meditation does not make you go blind or turn you into a vegan. I can’t teach you how to meditate, but if you want to learn meditation on the cheap, my recommendation is the “chaotic meditation.” This technique is excellent because it mobilizes the tension in the body in order to release emotional stress. I feel this is easier and more effective than seated meditation for most people.

Baths

If meditation seems a little woo-woo for you, try this: take a bath about thirty minutes before bed every night. It’s the cultural norm here in Japan, and it really helps relax the body. In addition, for some people, it can be the only chance they have all day to be totally alone for fifteen minutes. Making a habit of a nightly bath can be a great help in allowing your mind and body to recover from the day. Especially on days that you exercise, a hot bath can help stimulate muscle repair and reduce delayed-onset soreness.

Massage

Massages and other types of bodywork are also great for physical recovery. I get a massage every week, and it helps my body establish a stress-floor for relaxation on the other six days. An experienced massage therapist or bodyworker can also help to alert you to chronic stress adaptations and work on releasing stored tension. Anyone involved in strenuous sport activity should consider massage a necessary compensation for their high-stress physical work.

Compensation Recovery

Compensation isn’t just for sports though. As I wrote above, everything we do with our bodies is work – even just sitting still. As a result, we need to compensate for the habits of motions and immobility we ingrain each day. If you sit in a chair at work for hours at a time, don’t go home and sit on the sofa right away. Take a walk and move around a bit. Since most of us have less-than-ideal posture for most of the day, it’s good to take up activities such as yoga which emphasize proper alignment of the spine. If joining a yoga class is too much of a time commitment, as least take a few minutes each day stand up and stretch your back and limbs. You’ll find yourself more comfortable and productive for it.

My favorite method of active recovery and movement compensation is Warrior Wellness, available from RMAX. I’m writing a separate review for this product because I like it so much. In fact, I do this routine everyday, and the carryover into my Taido practice and overall ease of movement has been really fantastic.

General Recommendations

So that covers fuel, work, and maintenance in terms of energy balance. I believe that anyone who follows even just a few of these suggestions will find themselves feeling healthier and more energetic within a week’s time. The more of these habits you can adopt, the better control you’ll be able to exercise over your body’s appearance and performance.

If you try out any of the above advice, you may want to give some serious consideration to a few more suggestions.

  • drink only clean water.
  • avoid artificial sweeteners.
  • avoid using a microwave to cook your foods.
  • seek out high-quality whole foods and ethically-produced meats.

doing these things requires time and money in excess of what most people are prepared to spend, but the health benefits of incorporating some of them when possible is worth the effort. I suggest you read Dr. Mercola’s advice on healthy eating and check his health blog regularly. Making a commitment to your health is a difficult thing to do in modern society, but those of us who aren’t satisfied with the notion of a 75-year life-span see it as necessity.

Even it you don’t want to go health-crazy, understanding and applying the idea of energy balance will at least help you to look good naked. These are principles which I’ve been using for a a while now, and I’m super-hot, so I can vouch for their effectiveness. If nothing else, adopt at least five of Berardi’s seven habits and see if you don’t notice enough improvement to give them all a try. If you like what happens to your body at that point, come back to this article for more ideas on optimizing your energy balance for increased health and performance.

Asking the Right Questions

There is a saying I’ve heard in various forms that goes like this: do not do what the master did; seek what he sought. The wisdom here is very applicable to us in Taido.

Who’s the Master?

Who’s the baddest mo-fo low-down this side of town? Well, that would be the Shogun of Harlem, but in our case the master was Shukumine. I don’t feel that’s the end of the story though, because I think the entire point of practice is to attain mastery for ourselves.

I know it’s taboo in martial arts to aim for mastery. We’re supposed to “follow the path” without thinking of the goal. Goal fixation and the lust of results are sure ways to stultify our development. But I’m talking about something different. Mastery is not a result at which we will someday arrive; it’s a process we live. I believe that thoughtful practice of Taido is one means by which one can choose to live the path of mastery.

To live on “the path,” we have to have some goal, even in the knowledge that our goals may change. Without a goal, there is no path, it’s only a long, narrow field. Paths, by definition, exist for traveling between your current location/state and something else. Understanding our goals allows us to move on the path in one direction or another – otherwise, we just drift back and forth with no purpose and no meaning.

We all have reasons for practicing Taido. Looking how and why we have these goals for ourselves can be a difficult process, depending on how deeply we choose to dig into out fundamental motivations. Whatever we find, we can get more out of our Taido practice by comparing our goals with those of our art’s creator. By doing so, we can “seek what the master sought” in light of our own personalities and situations in life.

What did he seek?

Shukumine’s life centered around trying to answer certain questions about how a person could respond practically and creatively to the various situations that arise in combat and in life. How he answered these questions for himself will offer us few clues as to how he achieved his mastery. Doing thousands of repetitions of kushanku and bassai kata will not improve our concepts of Taido, nor will learning to pilot submarines, nor will fighting many larger opponents.

What, specifically, did Shukumine seek? The 5jokun should give us some clues. As I’ve written in a previous article, the principles show calm awareness, synergy of mind and body, skillful use of our bodies, judgment, and adaptability/creativity as valued attributes. In order to seek what Shukumine sought, we should apply our practice to developing these highest ideals he held.

Doing 10,000 sengi will not teach us what Taido is. It will make us very good at mimicking the outward form of Taido, but to understand what Taido is, we must seek Taido’s values. If we seek these values in any action, then we are to a greater or lesser degree applying Taido to what we do. Application is a much better study method than mimicry is.

How can we find mastery in Taido?

Things that will help us understand Taido better include thinking about the design of the hokei we practice, imagining ways to move in 3-space, and applying our creativity to meeting the challenges we face in life. Asking similar questions to those asked by Shukumine will put us on the path to achieving his level of mastery.

Here are just a few examples of questions we should be asking ourselves as we practice Taido:

  • How can I develop the values expressed in the 5jokun?
  • What was Shukumine trying to accomplish?
  • How would I go about seeking that for myself?

There are lots of other important questions too, but the most important thing is to ask them of ourselves, and not get caught up in how others have answered them. My answers are already written ad nauseam on this site, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to change. Einstein said that “the most important thing is to keep having questions.” Let’s ask high-quality questions about Taido so we can find our own mastery through the process of seeking.

Technique and Principle

Most martial arts (of which I am aware) are essentially technique-based. By this, I mean that they were synthesized from groups of existing movements.

Demonstration: Many martial arts use the exact same mechanics for deploying a front kick. It would be ridiculous to assume that each art’s creator independently designed a kick that looks exactly like every other front kick in the world. Obviously, the art was built around existing components (such as the front kick), perhaps with a couple of new movements as well.

We see this kind of thing very clearly in the history of Okinawan Karate. For example, a young man would study under several different masters and learn their techniques. After many years, the young man would be older and have grown proficient in many kinds of techniques. He would continue to practice those that worked for him and discard the ones he found ineffective. Eventually, younger students may come seeking instruction in his system.

However, he didn’t create the techniques in his system; he simply grouped them together. Over time, the teacher may discover principles that explain why some techniques happen to be more effective than others in certain situations. The principles are identified after the fact. They are descriptive rather than prescriptive.

This is not true of all arts. Taido is an exception, but it is not the only one. Principle-based arts begin with ideas about what sorts of movements may be effective for whatever objective. Techniques are built form these principles. For example, the individual techniques of Aikido come out of the principle of meeting and joining with the force of an attack. The techniques of Brazilian Jiu Jutsu arose from applying the principles of leverage and position. Taido techniques arise from the five movements, unsoku/unshin, etc.

Knowing principles, it’s possible to improve any existing technique. It’s also possible to create new techniques. Students practicing technique-based arts can apply principle-based thinking with good results. Students practicing principle-based arts may need to apply technique-based thinking in order to prefect skills, especially early in their training.

Though some arts are built on technique, and others are built on principle, it’s actually the educational model employed (rather than the art itself) that makes the biggest difference. Technique-based instruction can be very effective for beginners. In such a curriculum, each technique is taught and practiced as an independent movement to be mastered on its own. Routines are strings of individual movements with a few transitions. It’s possible to refine the outward appearance of a hokei or kata to a very high degree using technique-based methods alone.

However, advanced students need to know principles. A routine learned exclusively as a string of techniques will ultimately be hollow because the students will just be mimicking the instructor’s movements. A child can do this, and monkeys have been taught to mimic karate-like kicks for TV shows. However, these methods (monkey-see-monkey-do instruction) cannot teach improvisation, strategy, or anything that doesn’t look exactly like the model.

Of course, some people manage to become very skilled through technique-based practice. We call these people “talented.” They manage (often unconsciously) to extrapolate the principles from the techniques and apply them. These people are not normal.

Normal people in a technique-based system usually don’t ever become very good. They may learn the syllabus and start wearing black belts. They may even place highly in a forms competition. But they never become great. Not unless they learn principles as well.

Students tend to burn out. After practicing for years and attaining reasonable skill in a variety of techniques, they begin to intuit that, despite the perfect angle at which they hold their fingers in kamae, they still just don’t “get it.” This too can be unconscious, and the student simply loses interest because he doesn’t feel that he is learning anymore. It’s extremely frustrating to spend countless hours perfecting something only to find out that you still don’t understand how it works.

Most people are not talented at martial arts. I’m not. We need to consciously study and apply the principles that make the techniques work. Then we can use our developed skills effectively. In order to study and apply the principles, someone has to teach them to us.

It would be ridiculous to take a class full of raw beginners, sit them down with notebooks, and begin to lecture about the principles of any particular martial art. I’ve tried teaching new students with strictly principle-based methods, and the results were not what I had hoped. New students respond well to the watch, try, then correct method. Too much talking breeds confusion and boredom.

At the initial stages of learning, the technique-based approach is superior. Principle can be discussed, but it cannot be absorbed without direct experience from extensive practice of technique. Even if the principles are the basis of the techniques (as they are in Taido), technique is the basis of practice.

Still, at some point, principle has to be introduced. Otherwise, only the talented students stand a chance.

There needs to be some balance between technique-based and principle-based instruction, and that balance will shift over the training career of each student. This is not an easy thing to achieve because it’s probably not possible to use one or the other method exclusively – it’s more of a continuum. Beginners need lots of technique practice (though knowing why a technique is performed a certain way can be beneficial). Those students with more experience can learn a great deal by studying the principles.

How is your practice? Do you pontificate to no end but barely break a sweat? Or do you do countless repetitions, only to have to ask later , “what’s next?” These are extremes, but we all tend to lean to one or the other side at various times.

If you’re feeling stuck, look at your practice and try the opposite approach for a while. Who knows? You may even learn something.

A Rough Definition

Note: This article makes use of some Japanese characters. If they look like gibberish on your computer, try changing your browser’s text encoding and installing the appropriate language packs. If that doesn’t work, you will just have to use your imagination.

What is Taido?

People often ask me what Taido is. I find this very frustrating. Taido is many things to many people, but it’s certainly not something that can be summed up in a couple of sentences. I’m not even going to try to write an explanation that will satisfy people who don’t already practice Taido.

Instead, I want to work out a kind of definition of the word “Taido.” It’s been done before, but not well (in English anyway). I think everyone who practices Taido for a while makes their own definitions. Perhaps my rough definition can help others define Taido for themselves, or possibly give some new ideas to those who already have their own functional definitions of Taido.

Here’s my thoughts on the meaning of Taido.

躰道 = 躰 + 道 : That’s where the typical definition begins. I think it would serve us better to back up a little first. Before we start dissecting the word “Taido,” let’s take a look at what me mean by “definition.” It may seem like a fruitless mental exercise, but I think it’s important to figure out exactly what we aim to achieve by defining our art.

I’ve argued before that what we do in actual practice is the de facto definition of what our art is – we can’t claim that Taido includes things we don’t practice. Taido only includes what our practice of Taido includes. Thus, though some hokei include ritualized motions that resemble joint manipulations, we cannot say that taido includes kansetsuwaza, because 99% of the students have never practiced applying them.

This is why I make the claim that taido is currently more sport than martial art (though it can be both, it just isn’t right now) in most schools. If we design our practice to prepare students exclusively for the sport-play aspect of the art, then we are only teaching them a sport. When we practice fighting, Taido is a martial art. When we charge students and turn a profit, Taido is a business. Only if we research, hypothesize, experiment, and adjust will Taido be scientific. Taido that doesn’t address the safety of its training practices is unhealthy. These are just a few examples of how what we do effects what Taido is. I think Taido can be many things, but none of them are automatic; we have to walk our talk.

What we do is what we are. How we define the techniques is what they are. We can’t be what we don’t do. This is an important concept to grok.

躰道 = 躰 + 道 ?

Sorry. Still not quite there. Before we can talk about what Taido “is” now, we need to understand how it came to be and where it came from.

Taido is Shukumine’s response to Japanese martial arts (specifically karate) as they existed at the beginning of the 1960s. What was going on that impelled him to break away from the karate establishment (in which he had already founded his Gensei school and been awarded the highest rank)?

I don’t know the answer to this question, though I’ve heard lots of theories. Apparently one of Shukumine’s big points was that it should be possible for a small person to defeat a larger opponent. Apparently, he attempted to make changes to karate tournament rules that would value technique over domination, but others resisted his ideas. This begs a question: did Shukumine expect that a weak person can overcome stronger opponents in real life, or only within tournament play? How we answer this question makes a big difference in Taido’s efficacy as a martial (fighting) art.

In any event, Shukumine went on to create a martial art that was less about punching and kicking, and more about moving the body. Of course, the foundations for these body movements were present in Genseiryu, but the execution is quite different.

We often say that Taido came from Genseiryu. The common perception among Taidoka seems to be that Taido is a further evolution of Gensei. However, I suspect that they are more like siblings than parent and child. Both arts are founded on very similar principles. If those principles are applied to karate, the result is Genseiryu; if the same principles are allowed to expand beyond the fundamental assumptions of karate, Taido emerges. Of course, this is speculative, but it’s a speculation that seems to be shared by several Taidoka who have experience with Genseiryu. I’ve heard it said that Taido and Gensei are two sides of the same coin, and I think this is more accurate than the idea that Taido “comes from” Gensei.

Whatever the causes, The Japan Taido Association was founded in 1965 – just one year after the Tokyo Olympics. I believe this, too, is significant. ‘64 was Judo’s debut as an Olympic sport, and Shukumine often cited as his greatest dream that Taido would also be in the Olympics one day. It’s probably no accident that Taido tournaments are held on Judo courts.

Of course, the Olympics are a sports event, not a fighting event. And we see in Taido tournaments that there is very little that resembles actual combat to any but the most naive observer. Taido may have the potential to be developed as a martial art, but its current incarnation does not address actual combat. Is Taido’s emphasis on sport move away from Budo, whether consciously or not?

Again, I don’t know. I can’t say what was going on in Shukumine’s mind. These are questions that interest me, and they form a context for the best definition I can make for Taido.

躰道 = 躰 + 道

OK. So we’ve got the groundwork in place. Let’s break things down.

It worked in The Sound of Music, so let’s start with “Do.” Of course, everyone knows 道. It has myriad meanings and uses, but in this context, it refers to a martial art as a cultural artifact to be used by a person in a society. All of the martial arts of Japan are considered such by the Japanese. In the case of Taido, we typically have what might be termed a “martial sport.” Of course, making this claim is to define 道 in light of its complement, 術.

Martial arts that are focused on combative applications are typically referred to as “jutsu” (術). A Do is an art that has been adapted for purposes such as sport, physical education, personal development, etc. This is true of all Japanese budo (武道): Judo, Kendo, Kyudo, Iaido, etc. As conceived by its creator, Taido is most assuredly a 道. Thus, while the principles of Taido can applied to combat, Taido practice does not specifically address fighting.

Some people may complement their training of Taido with “taijutsu” (not to be confused with Bujinkan), but these are separate applications of a similar principle (much like the above discussion of Taido vs. Genseiryu). Shukumine was also skilled at kobudo weapons, but these do not appear in Taido. Would it not be fair to say that, though not included in Taido, weapons training is addressed by Shukumine’s martial theories? Thus, various forms of fighting can be addressed by the principles of Taido, yet this does not mean that Taido addresses fighting.

躰 = 身 + 体

身 (mi or shin) refers to the internal body, e.g. that which is encased by the skin. This includes the internal systems: nerves, muscles, fascia, organs, bones. All of the non-visible aspects of the body are included in shin. Without getting metaphysical, it could also be argued that this is where the “self” lives, so the mind and spirit (but not necessarily soul) are sometimes included in Mi.

体 (karada or tai) refers to the external body, e.g. the visible shape and movement of the body. The torso, head, and limbs are obvious parts of karada. However, the movements of those parts are also included, as are all visible aspects of the body. Karada is our (at least physical, but possibly other as well) effect on our environment.

For some reason, I feel like making a nautical analogy. This is odd because I don’t really like boats, and know very little about them. Anyway, Mi would include the engines and controls, the internal structure, and the driver. Karada would include the sails and rudders, the hull, and possibly the wake it creates.

Shukumine conceived Taido as a martial art that would combine positive effects on naiko ( meaning the internal organs and life-sustaining systems) and gaiko (which refers to the external conditions of attack and defense). In other words, Taido is supposed to be an effective martial art (however we decide to define that) that is also healthy for its practitioners.

We can now see that Taido’s 躰 refers to uniting the internal systems with the external form in a single purpose, whether that purpose be defending ourselves from attack, or simply living out our lives. Therefore, 躰道 is a way for bringing both aspects of the body (the seeable and the unseeable) inline with the intention of the practitioner.

And that’s my current best effort at defining it.

To Be is To Do

Personally, I enjoy Taido in many ways. I feel it is healthy, fun and, challenging, so practicing makes me a better person. Part of me likes to think that my practice would prove useful should I have a need to defend myself from attack. But I have to admit that I feel most Taido students would be ill-prepared for such an application. Of course, that’s OK for most of us – we mostly live in affluent countries where violence is not much of an issue. In such a case, I’m glad that Taido training still has plenty to offer.

Maybe you have a different way of looking at things. I think everyone who does Taido for any length of time subconsciously develops a definition of some sort. A lot of us have given it some serious thought, and this affects the way we practice.

Whatever we think Taido “is,” whatever we believe it is “for,” Taido is not perfect, nor was its creator. Taido isn’t “finished,” either. It’s up to each of us to define Taido anew for ourselves and adapt it to our own circumstances. That’s 道 (Do). We can practice the Jutsu (fighting techniques), the sport (tournament Taido), or whatever. Applying these ideas where we need them is what Taido is about.

So Taido is what we do with it. What do you do with Taido?

Post Script

I was recently reminded by a friend of some­thing that I had neglected to include in this arti­cle originally.

The char­ac­ter for “tai” (躰) is prob­a­bly not the uber-special word we are often taught to think it is. While the break­down above is not tech­ni­cally incor­rect, it’s very likely a revi­sion­ist definition.

In fact, the char­ac­ter we use for “tai” in Taido orig­i­nally referred sim­ply to the body. In mod­ern times, that char­ac­ter is no longer used; it has been replaced by the sim­pler form 体 “karada.”

Looking at it this way, Taido is very sim­ply “the way of the body,” and a lot of the more com­pli­cated ways to define it are sim­ply big talk. This is why I spend so much time in the arti­cle above dis­cussing def­i­n­i­tion in terms of func­tion and doing/being.

Still, one has to assume that Shukumine had some rea­son for using the older char­ac­ter in the name of his art. Perhaps it was because of the “deeper” con­no­ta­tion hid­den in the com­po­si­tion of the kanji. Perhaps it was sim­ply because he wanted to sound smart (and his writ­ing style does have a lit­tle of that con­sciously over-complicated feel). Maybe he chose that char­ac­ter just to be con­trary (lest we for­get that much of what he taught does in fact cen­ter around and include ram­pant contradiction).

For what­ever rea­son, in nam­ing Taido, Shukumine left us with yet one more rid­dle. But, as with all rid­dles, once the con­fu­sion sub­sides, there is a dead sim­ple answer. In this case, the most accu­rate def­i­n­i­tion of Taido’s “tai” as a word is sim­ply “body.”