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Karate Breathing

(Part 2)

Breathing for Power & Focus

By Aaron Hoopes


Breathing in karate training is seldom given systematic attention. It is hard to tell whether this is due to a belief that it really isn’t that important or an unspoken agreement that karate-ka need to work it out on their own. Whatever the case the fact remains that breathing training is not practiced in most modern karate schools. This is rather unfortunate because breathing is actually fundamental to effective karate training.

The purpose of this article is to explore the two main methods of breathing that are used in karate training. Part 1 of this article is concerned with Abdominal Breathing which is the breathing method used when working on flexibility and building muscle strength. Part 2 of this article is concerned with Reverse Abdominal Breathing which is the breathing method used for the generation of power and focus.


Part 2 - Breathing for Power & Focus

As a general rule, Abdominal Breathing is grounding, peaceful and helps replenish energy reserves within the body. Reverse Abdominal Breathing on the other hand, has more to do with the generation and distribution of power and energy. Abdominal Breathing allows you to gather the energy, while Reverse Abdominal Breathing gives you the means for directing the energy in a specific manner.

Reverse Abdominal Breathing is the breathing method which enables the concentration of force to be focused on a single point in the execution of a technique. In practice Reverse Abdominal Breathing can be much more difficult to master than Abdominal Breathing simply because it reverses the natural flow of the breath. However, regular practice strengthens the abdominal muscles and makes breathing naturally strong and vibrant. It trains the practitioner to focus on the hara during exhalation. Try blowing up a balloon while keeping one hand on your abdomen. As you blow out, your abdomen naturally expands instead of contracting. The same is true if you are trying to push a car that has run out of gas. In order to express the power you are putting into the act, you exhale while pushing out. Reverse Abdominal Breathing is a breathing method which tends to infuse the breather with power.

To practice Reverse Abdominal Breathing start in whichever stance or posture you feel most comfortable. Inhale through your nose. Slowly draw your abdomen in and up. The upper chest will naturally expand as oxygen fills your lungs. As you inhale, contract the muscles of your perineum. The perineum is the area between the anus and the lower edge of the pubis at the front of the pelvis. The central point of the perineum is called the huiyin in Chinese and is also known as the Root Chakra in Yogic traditions. It is the focal point for Reverse Abdominal Breathing. By contracting and pulling up the huiyin you are able to concentrate on the abdominal area. Again, don’t be overanxious and forcefully squeeze the abdomen. Instead, focus on keeping a smooth and relaxed motion. When the lungs are full, exhale through the nose, release the huiyin, and push the abdomen out and down. Repeat for ten cycles of inhalation and exhalation, filling the lungs to maximum capacity and emptying them out completely with each breath. The pressing out and down of the musculature during exhalation has the effect of sinking your weight into your hara and creating Ki energy.

Most martial artists have some idea about the concept of Ki energy. Ki refers to the natural energy of the Universe, which permeates everything. All matter, from the smallest atoms and molecules to the largest planets and stars, is made up of this energy.  It is the vital force of life. It is the source of every existing thing. Ki has many manifestations. Different philosophies and cultures call it by different names. The Indian and Hindu yogis call it Prana. To the Kung Fu and Tai Chi practitioners of China it is known as “Chi or Qi. Ki is your connection to the very flow of the universe and the prime moving force within the human body. Ki cannot be seen or measured, it cannot be touched or captured. It is everywhere yet we have no way to touch it, make it tangible, or even prove its existence. Therefore Ki is a difficult concept to accept. The Western mind likes the tangible, the concrete and the specific. It likes a scientific explanation which defines, dissects, and categorizes. Ki transcends this kind of explanation. It doesn’t fit easily into a strict biomedical framework. It is simply indefinable in those terms.

For martial artists Ki within the body is generated when we train the body to breathe and move in a flowing and dynamic manner. By breathing out while tensing the hara and huyin you create a vast reservoir or Ki which you can use to enhance you techniques. By directing the Ki with your breath, your techniques become much sharper, cleaner and more effective.

            One important thing to be aware of when practicing both Abdominal and Reverse Abdominal Breathing is that you should be breathing in and out through your nose. This is the only method that truly enables your body to process Ki energy effectively. While most people understand the importance of breathing in through the nose – the nose has a series of defense mechanisms that prevent impurities and extremely cold air from entering the body – not everyone is aware that breathing out through the nose requires a deeper understanding of the nature of Ki energy. Practitioners of martial arts, especially karate, need to absorb and process the Ki that they are breathing in order to generate the power and force for the techniques they practice. They also need to be able to retain the Ki within the body until the moment it is needed. Basically, when you inhale you are bringing fresh oxygen and Ki into your body. When you exhale you are expelling carbon dioxide which contains all the toxins and poisons that have built up within the lungs. If you are exhaling through your mouth you are also expelling Ki from the body. However, if you are continuously expelling the Ki you never give it a chance build up into the rich source of energy needed to complete your techniques to their maximum effectiveness. By exhaling through the mouth the Ki energy is simply dissipated back into the world. Breathing out through the nose, however, completes a closed circuit. By exhaling through your nose, the Ki energy, instead of being expelled with the carbon dioxide, is transferred to the hara. With each breath in, more Ki enters the body and circles down to the hara growing stronger and stronger. During this breathing process, the tongue is up, touching the top palate of the mouth just behind the front teeth and the air is expelled from the nose with a slightly audible hiss. There is also a feeling of the abdominal walls contracting down with the exhalation.

Once sufficient Ki has been generated this way you are able to expel the Ki with tremendous force. This is the Kiai where the breath is expelled through the mouth. This is the reason that there are usually only two techniques within each Kata where you Kiai. An important factor of Kata training is that it teaches us to build up sufficient Ki energy and then expel it in one strong technique. If you try to Kiai with every technique, you quickly become fatigued since you are expelling Ki with every breath.

Remember that you need to practice both Abdominal and Reverse Abdominal Breathing techniques in order to create and use the Ki energy effectively. Always start with Abdominal Breathing. It is the best method for getting your body infused with energy and oxygenating your musculature. Once you are ready, use Reverse Abdominal Breathing to enhance your focus and power. Breathe through your nose until you are ready to let it explode out of you with a Kiai.

Regardless of what kind of training you are doing. No matter how intense the workout is…always Remember to Breathe.


Aaron Hoopes teaches Zen Yoga workshops for martial artists of all styles. He began his karate training in New Orleans in 1982 under Sensei Takayuki Mikami. In addition to karate he also began studying Tai Chi with sifu Chien “King” Lam of the Tamashii school. In 1986 he moved to Japan to continue his training at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association. While there he had the opportunity to train with Sensei Nakayama at his private dojo (Hoitsugan). In 1996 he completed the intensive Shanti Yoga instructor training program at the Australian Meditation Institute. In 2002 he founded Zen Yoga, a blend of Tai Chi movement, Shanti Yoga stretching and Qigong breathing. He is the author of Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit and Breathe Smart, as well as the creator of a series of training DVDs and relaxation CDs. His new book Zen Yoga: A Path to Enlightenment through Breathing, Movement, and Meditation is published by martial arts publisher Kodansha International. Website: www.artofzenyoga.com


Also Check out our interview with Sensei Aaron Hoopes under 'Interviews' and Part One of this Series under 'Articles'