Letters: Breathing

23 July 2005

A question about breathing: I got the barking out part no problem, but I cannot do this when punching in really fast combos. There tends to be no sound. What are your views as to how to breathe when one is punching at high speeds?  (Simon Lau, Malaysia)

One of the things is that your breathing mustn’t be timed to your arm movement, but to the body movements which are producing the shots. And it’s that movement of the body including the rectus, the obliques, the diaphragm and muscles of the pelvis (all those muscles that support ‘core stability’) that produces the basis and dynamics of the shot.

I use the term ‘barking’ not in a superficial way, but because it was something I observed in one of my dogs. Not only was there a vicious intent in what he was doing, and the breathing reflected that emotion, but his whole body moved when he barked, and the frequency of the barking increased as the threat got closer. And it isn’t a bark in the ‘woof woof’ sense, it’s just a term I use to encapsulate the impression I gained from the dog barking, of his effort and the emotional content of that effort. Just as you might use the word ‘stop’ if you saw a child crossing the road, while at the same time gesturing to stop, the breathing seems to qualify your intentions. Subconsciously you are evaluating the requirements of the situation and forming an impression of needed response. The action that results from this impression is inseparable from the breathing that supports it.

Because the scenario in combat is rapidly and randomly changing, so must your responses rapidly and randomly change. And this means that the breathing adjusts itself naturally. On the film I’m just making you aware of the way the breathing supports the intent and the subsequent action.

One thing with the breathing is to be able to breathe in broken time and not regular, because your movements will be in broken time. Breathing will reflect not only the intensity of the emotional content, but of the physical content. The breathing is almost suspended when you’re threading a needle, but when you’re making a 140 mph tennis serve, it’s audible, and it’s reflective of the effort needed to make that shot. So the breathing isn’t really something to be concentrating on, but a consequence of what you’re doing. The only thing you’ve really got to make sure of is that you are breathing!

The thing to avoid in breathing, naturally, is val salva, or closing the glottis against the breath. And although that can be used to stabilize the body for huge one-off efforts, it wouldn’t be recommended for sustained efforts of varying intensities and purposes. For striking purposes, the sound of the ‘bark’ will vary according to the duration of the effort. A round kick that digs into his leg will have a longer, almost growling, breath release; but a short head shot is more what you’d call a brief grunt. Needless to say, you don’t go screaming with all your breath in one shot; that’s just plain dumb.

Breathing is also a way of anticipating the impact, and in a way, countering the pain. It stabilizes the jaw, neck muscles and body not only for the impact of your own body hitting something, but of somebody hitting you back. You always hit with the idea of being hit. Not that you want that to happen, but you always do it, even when you’re doing shadow-drilling. You’re not only shadow-drilling to hit, but to evade, and also to be hit.

Going back to your original question, it’s easy to acquire tremendous hand speed, but it tends to be like the tail wagging the dog. It’s the body that has to transfer its momentum, sequentially or simultaneously, into the free limb, and that is the trick. Everything in your whole body fires that hand, like a bullet. And that’s why the body needs to be interconnected. Interconnected strength is far greater than isolated strength. When all of that comes together, the breathing just follows, because it’s part of the total body action.

And that’s the idea of ‘shaking energy’. With rapid shots, you shake—again, like a dog shaking water off itself. Because the strikes are short, then the body movements must be short and, in a sense, oscillatory. Each part of the body has an optimal oscillatory rate, and in a sequential shot the key lies in finding those rates, coordinating them with one another so that the body moves as an interconnected whole with each joint angular change transferring its momentum to the next, and finally, allowing the breathing to reflect the release, impact, and recovery of the total power, so as to be loaded again for the next shot immediately. In the sequential shot, I take the basic principle of throwing a rock, and refine it, concentrating the effort into a very short, explosive release. The other type of shot I will use, when it seems like there’s no space at all, is what I call the ‘nail gun.’ This is a simultaneous release. Using the startle reflex as if I’ve suddenly heard a loud noise, I jump the shot in over a very small range of development. This is also a shot which can be repeated as many times as necessary in a very short time period. The breath in both cases is short and explosive. It is the sound of the release of the ‘bullet’. And it’s got to reflect that vicious, destructive intent. That’s very, very important.

One of the big problems when people do martial arts, be it karate, kung fu or whatever, is that because some of the hand forms are extremely intricate or technical, there becomes a disassociation between what you’re doing with your hands and what you should be doing with your body. The head and the body must lead the action. Fast hand speed is ok when you’re seeking simply to close the gap and cover yourself, while you overwhelm your opponent with light shots, so as to open him up for something much more substantial. But that kind of speed is no use to you unless you have power, even in those so-called ‘light’ shots. They must be only relatively light. They should still cut him, break his nose, stun him. And their cumulative effect might even put him away.

But to get that kind of power in fast shots, the shots have to come from the body. And that means, you have to be able to breathe because it’s the breath that unites the action and physiologically supports the effort. Remember, a 100 meter runner will essentially, for much of the race, suspend the breath, but he can only run for ten seconds like that. What about the next ten seconds, and the next? You have to get the breathing right for the rate of work you’re doing in the fight; and the fight’s not predictable. You’d be gambling too much to put it all in ten seconds. If you’re holding your breath to do your fast shots, you will sooner or later run out of air and you’ll be gasping for breath. Wouldn’t it make more sense to use the breathing to support the effort, and then gradually increase the rate of work? That’s why you do the intense interval training, or anaerobic threshold training, where you’re not completely going into the anaerobic zone. You’re just on the edge of it, and gradually pushing it back a little bit more so your body learns to deal with the lactic acid. In this way you can raise the rate of work you can do, and keep doing it, for the whole duration of the fight. You’re always trying to put the guy into a zone he’s never been in before, and you have been. But never do it the other way around, especially from a cardiovascular point of view!

But remember: in a fight, the breathing is not something to be concentrated on. That distracts from what you’ve got to do, which is fucking hit him.

Any thing you do, there’s a problem sometimes when people take tips or advice, that the person tends to focus on that aspect of their problem at the expense of the rest. That’s why you must understand the principle and process, you must take it onboard, but then you should forget it. Entrust your unconscious mind to take care of it. If you really then are working at a reflex, behavioural level, these processes take place anyway. Your training should be taking you back to this point, and if it doesn’t, then you’re going the wrong way.

All of my rationale and talk on the videos is to take you back to that natural state that you’ve evolved to behave in. Don’t get caught up in the detail.