Nothing is more important than the breath. And while it is an involuntary function, it is also one that can be manipulated and used to enhance meditation, martial arts, and more. Whether using the breath for additional power when striking, for a more centered relaxed state when meditating, or even to project your voice to the back of the auditorium, breath is important.
Breathing exercises and techniques can be used to develop better use of the breath, but I think it is crucial not to make things complicated. I’ve been teaching a class on this subject for years now, and I am always amazed at how technical such a primal and fundamental function can become. People often come to the class having had some prior experience working with their breath and usually ask about “the right way” to breathe, such as, “Should I do alternate nostril breathing?” While I understand the different methods have their various purposes, I think a basic practice that unites your body, breath, and mind has the most beneficial outcome. I don’t believe that there is any need for any legalistic adherence to particular dogmas either. Do what works, and I’ve found that the simplest is best.
Anxiety and Stress Relief
Almost none of the people that come to my breath class are martial artists looking for more power, or musicians looking to set their inner muse free. Most of my students come looking for solutions or methods to alleviate the effects of anxiety and stress. In the past, it was a small percentage of the students, and now it is fast becoming the majority. If I was a betting man, I would bet that many people are reading this piece right now for that very reason. If so, give the following exercise a try.
Abdominal breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, is a technique I teach, and it is easy to learn. How do you do it? Here are the steps.
Lay down on the floor, and place a book, or similar object, on your abdomen. If you don’t have a book, you can use your hands (one on top of the other).
Inhale and push your stomach up.
Exhale and let your stomach fall.
The object (or hands) will “ride” your abdomen as it rises and falls with your breath.
Count from 1 to 5 for your inhale and 1 to 5 for your exhale. Strive to keep both the inhale and exhale the same duration.
After you do the exercise for a five-count, you can add more numbers. In my class, I like to take the count up to 7 and then 9, which almost always elicits an audible gasp from the students. Take it slow, and do several repetitions. You should feel that you’re breathing deeper and feel your abdomen expand, rather than your chest, as you breathe. Once learned, you don’t need to repeat the process above unless you think you need to reinforce the method. It should be like riding a bike.
Another version of the same exercise can be done standing. Do everything the same as above, but instead of laying down, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and place your hands just below your navel. The process is pretty easy, and one just has to remember that whether you do either of the techniques above, the goal is to focus on your breath and to breathe slowly and deeply.
After doing a repetition of about ten breaths, one will usually experience a calmer state. While an exercise can’t eliminate anxiety or stress, it may help in coping with their effects. Over time, and with the incorporation of other strategies, it may be possible to lessen their impact both in terms of severity and duration. Give it a try.
Breath control and abdominal breathing have always been stressed in all of my martial arts studies. The kiai is probably the most well-known technique for using the breath in martial arts, but it is not the only method. In the Chinese martial arts that I have studied, an exhale at the moment of striking was taught. In judo, deep breathing, whether standing searching for a throw, or on the ground grappling, was stressed to keep from gassing out.
While I was always told to “Breathe from my diaphragm,” I was never instructed how to do it. Teaching the method was never part of the curriculum. The technique that I provided above was one I learned when I studied voice. It’s not an issue now, since I know how to do it, but it was always incredibly frustrating in my lessons to be admonished to breathe through my diaphragm, and not shown how. It was like being told to punch, but not instructed how to make a fist.
The best time to teach breathing is in the beginning when students are learning stances, falls (Ukemi), proper bone alignment, etc. Proper breathing will improve a student’s technique, and help them with other related practices such as meditation.
The breath, when incorporated with a simple and deliberate task, such as counting, can be very calming and centering. When I am searching for a state of calm focus, I sit and breathe, as described previously, often for a count of ten breaths, thinking only of the number and the act of breathing. I have found that it helps me to feel present, in the moment, and in a better state of mind to deal with whatever the day is throwing at me.
If you want to start a daily practice but think that you don’t have the time, note, it is not a half-hour or an hour, it is ten breaths. You can always do more, but I would start with ten. As with everything I have ever learned, how often you do something is more important than how long. A short, but consistent, practice each day is a good start.
Breathing is something we are all doing all the time, and yet using it for the improvement and enhancement of our lives often seems elusive. It doesn’t need to be. Start now. Review the exercise above, and breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.