Breathing is obviously important when doing Karate, as it is in everyday life. If you do not breathe, you do not live. Although it is obvious that we must breathe, how we breathe can change significantly. And the way we breathe, in turn, can significantly impact how we do things.

There are those instructors who will try to convince people that there is only one correct way to breathe for each particular movement or technique. There are others who will tell you to simply breathe naturally all the time. My view lies somewhere in the middle.

Inhaling/Breathing in
This portion of the breathing cycle often provides a lighter feeling when timed with the execution of a technique. When the lungs are filled with more air, the density of the body is lowered. Also, lightness may result from the muscles of the torso being stretched and thus more difficult to tighten. Try breathing in while relaxing the muscles of the torso (especially the chest) and compare this to breathing in while tightening these muscles. Relaxation of these muscles should better facilitate the inhalation.

Exhaling/Breathing out
Timing the execution of a technique with this part of the breathing cycle gives a heavier feeling. As the lungs force out the air, the overall density of the body is raised. With the muscles of the torso less stretched, they can more easily be tightened. Timing the tension of other muscles of the upper body with the tension of the muscles involved in the exhalation process is probably more natural than as with inhaling.

Holding/Not Breathing
Depending on the condition of the body/lungs at the time the breath is held, this could provide for a lighter or heavier feeling. As noted above, however, the timing of the tension of the torso muscles can influence the ability for other muscle groups to coordinate their tensions. Thus, not only is the condition of the lungs important, but the timing of the change of air flow as well.

Combining Breathing Types
Try performing a block/counter combination, such as ageuke/gyakuzuki, using the following breathing patters:
• Inhale/exhale
• Inhale/inhale
• Inhale/hold
• Continuous inhale

Repeat; beginning each combination with an exhalation, then using combinations with holding. How do these breathing patterns change the feeling of your technique, if at all, when you use different patters?

Experiment with incomplete breaths. For example, the inhale/inhale combination must either include an exhale in between the inhales or consist of two smaller inhales with a slight pause in between. Please note that this type of practice can lead to hyperventilation if done to excess.

It should be noted that there really is no one correct way to breathe when performing a given technique. There are sometimes ways that are better for certain situations. But you can never really be wrong, unless you hold your breath and keep holding…

Most Shotokan practitioners familiar with the kata Hangetsu have probably already thought about the breathing pattern for the opening moves. Should we breathe in and out on each technique? Or in on the blocks and out on the punches? I was first taught to breathe completely in-and-out on each and every technique throughout most of the kata. Then, when training with Nakayama Sensei in Japan, he told us to breathe in on the blocks and out on the punches. (He also told us to hold our breath during two of the moves, which I had never before considered as acceptable.) After years of training both of these ways and others, I would say that each way can work well, if done with the correct state of mind.

The difference in power between one type of breathing pattern and another may be substantial for some people. It may be minimal for others. Sometimes, it should be noted that psychology does play a part.

For example, the timing of arm tensions with the tension of the torso more naturally occurs while exhaling, connecting the torso and the arm through the muscles of the shoulder area. If you desire arm tension when punching, timing the culmination of breath and punch may be a good idea. But what about when kicking? The tension of the leg should not be effected by the tension of the torso and vise versa. This point was touched upon in previous articles on alignment and relaxation/tension. The muscles involved in tension are those situated between the point(s) of support (where the feet touch the floor) and the point of contact (through the striking appendage). Thus, the timing of the breath in relation to the execution of such a kick should not be that important, unless a follow-up technique is being considered, as the muscles between the points of contact at the floor and target only encompass the legs and hip area. If there is any perceived benefit in timing the kick with the exhalation, it must be primarily psychological.

I believe it is possible to breathe various ways when doing Karate. There is no one correct way for any technique. There may, however, be some ways that are better than others, at least for certain situations. As always, I advocate experimentation and individual thinking.

For more on breathing in kata, try to get your hands on a copy of Advanced Karate-do, by Elmar Schmeisser.

For more on tension timings, see my series of articles on the subject.

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published March 2000)