As Natural as Breathing
Polish Your Performance with Proper Breathing Techniques
When you’re in the do-jahng, sparring or practicing a form, chances are you’ve got the usual questions and worries running in the back of your mind: Am I keeping my hands high enough to protect my head? Am I doing this kick correctly? Yet, despite that constant stream of self-inquiry, most of us forget to ask a very basic, important question:
Am I breathing the right way?
Breathing is a vital function of which we usually only become aware when our body is under some sort of physical stress, during exercise for example. But proper breathing technique is proven to enhance and improve athletic performance.
Grand Mater G.K. Lee, 9th Degree Black Belt and member of both the ATA Founders’ and Masters’ Councils, says,
“One of the most common mistakes I see students make with breathing is that they hold their breath for too long, and/or they breath too shallow and quickly. When active or nervous, it’s easy to start breathing short and fast. We have to be consistent with our breaths and focus on how we are breathing to do it correctly.”
Fast and shallow respiration is usually caused by adrenaline, which, among other things, raises your heart rate. While the “fight or flight” response certainly has its benefits, it saps mental and physical energy rapidly, making you tired and more distracted. The habit of holding your breath causes similar problems- you can’t generate a proper ki-hap and an accompanying power burst, if you don’t have enough air in your lungs.
Some research on breathing in martial arts suggests that one common factor in poor breathing is Western expectations of posture, which center the act of breathing in the chest. This makes it harder to draw deep breath. Sr. Master Sean Smith, 7th Degree Black Belt of All-Star Martial Arts in Little Rock, Ark. agrees with the idea saying, “Western ideas of proper posture de-emphasize the importance of the diaphragm.” But Smith cautions against blaming Western posture, as it’s better to look for a solution than an excuse.
Lee recommends two basic steps to improve breathing: calm down and breathe deeply. “We must re-focus on breathing deeply using our lower abdominal muscles, “ he says, “inhaling through our nose and exhaling through our mouth.” This kind of breathing helps adjust a part of our body called the autonomic nervous system, which regulates unconscious functions such as breathing and heart rate. It’s composed of two sub-systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system stimulates the “fight or flight” response while the parasympathetic system controls more restful processes, like digestion.
When we get anxious or hyperactive, the sympathetic system releases adrenaline, resulting in those fast, shallow breaths that drain and distract us. If we follow Lee’s advice to calm down and breathe deeply, we activate the parasympathetic system instead, which helps us conserve all that energy instead of losing it.
For those with experience in controlling their breathing, it doesn’t take much to calm down. Smith says, “Proper breathing before a performance or speaking in public is now second nature to me because I practice it so much. Before I test, midterm or compete, I take just a short moment before I begin my performance and slow down my breathing. “
But for those of us lacking training and practice, Lee suggests Dan Jeon breathing exercises. “This,” he says, “is where you spend the same amount of time on all three parts of breathing- breathing in, holding and breathing out. This all takes place through your nose in this exercise. For example: take five seconds to breathe in, hold your breath for five seconds, and take five seconds to breathe out. By practicing this, you will be more prepared to breathe properly when you are stressed physically and/or mentally. Before any major event such as testing, competition, or demonstrations, you should exercise four or five times. This will help your heart rate slow down and you will be able to perform better.”
With better breathing, you can get a better ki-hap, which gives you more power. Proper lower-abdomen breathing can also help with balance. Smith says, “Breathing with your diaphragm….lower[s] your center of gravity because you are not expanding your chest, which is high on your body. Also, breathing with your diaphragm causes less movement in your body, therefore helping with balance when you are training.”
Author: Eric Monson | Photography: Ashlea Lisefski | Originally published in Vol. 22 no. 1 of the ATA World Magazine. Updated Nov. 14, 2017.