My Breath as a Weapon

by Marc Winitz

“Everyone was watching and the situation grew tense. At first I was confident. And then a moment a later everything changed. I was hit in the chest and I couldn’t breathe.”

Alright, before you run away this post isn’t about bad breath, how to turn off members of the opposite sex or even a free plug for Altoids. I have been noticing the number of tweets being sent out to “just breathe” lately. Usually tied to some reference to the word “zen”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much of a fan of respiration as the next person. But there is real power to be had in breathing if done correctly. I am talking about zen breathing, not just the regular upper chest version we instinctually do to bring oxygen into the body. This is being in the moment in a very conscious way. Having “Centered Harmony”, one of the 6 Elements. Want to live in the moment as so many people are also talking about this year? You can start by proactively focusing on full body breathing.

Common Situations that Force Poor Breathing

Do you ever experience situations like these?

  • Calming down an irrational and upset child
  • Arguing with a spouse or significant other
  • Dealing with an irate customer
  • Asking someone out on a date
  • Presenting in front of a large group of people
  • Asking your boss for a raise
  • A physical emergency

All of us do. I am pretty confident that regardless of the situation, your body is tense when any of these occur. So much so that your breathing physically and noticeably changes forcing your mind to concentrate on the tension of the situation you are in. That causes a chain reaction making your mind focus on what your body is doing, further distracting you from the situation at hand. In a very tangible way, if you are experiencing any of the above, you are not “centered” enough to be in the moment. The popular blog ZenHabits talks about the “why” of breathing. In this post we will cover how to breath properly.

Notice how the top of your chest tightens when you are in one of the situation mentioned above? That’s because we have a tendency to breathe into the top part of our longs. Being “centered” means you literally breathe into the middle of your body. We are going to spend a little time exploring this more so don’t reach for the Altoids yet.

I’ve seen people literally stop breathing in many of the above examples. Why? Because any particular situation can take control of you at the expense of allowing relaxation in the moment. When you’re tense, you can’t breathe effectively. When you don’t breathe correctly you don’t think or react well causing somewhat of an unbreakable cycle.

Consciously focusing on proper full body breathing helps to solve this problem.

The Beginning of a Journey
Secretly and deep inside we are captivated by the idea of “being a black belt”. The mystique associated with martial arts adeptness is so exotic. Don’t you love the idea of being in control? I do. Most people want to show discipline in the face of challenge and distraction. We even want some measure of physical confidence in the form of personal (and sometimes emotional) security.

I remember as a teenager watching Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” – I was completely mesmerized as to how he could take command of an entire situation: Physically, mentally, and emotionally. He would instinctively “feel” the situation, thoroughly defending himself with a flurry of kicks and punches, all while yelping like a demon and striking fear into his opponents. Those primal screams he made were simply forced exhalations of breathing in a controlled manner. To me it just sounded cool.

Believe it or not you can’t optimally be in control of yourself unless you consciously work on your breathing. Most people always ask if I like “doing” martial arts. I don’t. I enjoy “living” it because I “breathe” it. And that is the difference. I am always “doing it” by being in the moment as much as I can. Concentrating. Focusing. And most importantly I am consciously working on full-body breathing.

At an advanced level doing martial arts doesn’t necessarily mean physical training. That’s simply a vehicle to understand an underlying martial arts principle, like breathing. The purpose of this discussion is to show the concepts and capabilities of the physical art form and describe them to a point where you can apply them in everyday life. And guess what – you are already doing it to some degree, so take a deep breath and keep reading.

A Quick Story – Learning to Breathe
All meaningful journeys involve hard lessons and this was one of the first lessons I really learned on my path to being a black belt. But it had nothing to do with taking a punch. Or even having less than perfect breath control for that matter.

In my early training as a kohai (junior belt) I would try to kick as high as I could. Bruce Lee did it in the movies and I wanted to as well. I was pleased with my progress as I am not very flexible but my kicks kept getting higher and stronger. One day in class during kicking drills a sensei told me to lower my kick to no higher than above the knee. “What does he know” I thought to myself. The word “sensei” is Japanese for “teacher” and roughly translates to “one who has gone before”.

It was my turn to spar a senior student at a class one day. I was very confident in myself. A bit cocky really. My kicks were pretty decent (if you knew how inflexible I was/am that’s saying something). I was in good physical condition and I had been recently promoted to a higher belt rank. The senpai (senior student, or mentor) I was fighting was smaller than me. We performed a rei (bow) to each other and we assumed fighting positions. I was bigger in size and thought I would win the match. All I could think about was scoring with a full round house kick to his head. Oh, the glory if I could connect. For a fleeting moment I was Bruce Lee. Yep.

I stalked my sparring partner and barked out some martial arts noises “a la” any bad audio track dubbed into a 1970’s Hong Kong fight movie. The rate of my breathing increased dramatically. I was breathing only into the top of my lungs. I moved into position waiting for the right moment trying to intimidate him with verbal yelps and menacing body movements. The senpai was calm and simply stared at my upper body. He never really engaged my eyes. All of the sudden he exploded, leaping at me unexpectedly with a flurry of kicks and punches. Startled, I barely jumped out of the way. My heart raced as I breathed heavily. Trying to react to the situation and defend myself I started a head kick but my breathing was forced and uneven. Just as I took the first step to do the head kick he caught my foot with his, redirecting my attention downward as he kicked into my shin. I felt pain. And then the full force of his fist right against my chest as he knocked the wind out of me. In one moment he took control of the situation and scored a full point. He was centered and I was dejected.

After I stepped out of the ring the sensei approached me. “You were going to try and use roundhouse to kick towards his head, weren’t you?” he stated disapprovingly. “Yes sir”, I answered sheepishly” while I attempted to regain my breath. “Next time you’re in the ring, don’t focus on anything, it’s all a distraction. Relax your body and breathe from the bottom of your stomach filling your lungs all the way to the top. And never kick above the knee as there is no need. That’s how a black belt wins,” he said.

Breathing is Second Nature – What’s the Lesson?
All zen activity, including martial arts training, revolves around breathing correctly. It is central to everything else that is studied. It is how:

  • Tremendous physical power can be generated in any activity
  • Deep concentration in a distracting environment is maintained
  • A relaxed mind, a critical element to having control of a situation, occurs.


A Simple Full Body Breathing Technique – 3 Steps
Most people breathe and fill only the top part of their lungs. While this maintains normal respiration (important) it is not effective to control breathing when you need to. But bringing air into the center of your body stabilizes you physically and mentally.

Here are three simple steps you can practice to improve your breathing so that you can focus in any situation:

  1. Breathe air through your mouth focusing on filling the bottom of your lungs first. Think of how milk is poured into a glass, filling from up from the bottom to the top. Try and visualize the air coming into your lungs in the same way.
  2. Count slowly to yourself “one, two, three…” all the way to eight as you inhale. You want to see your stomach expand out as you breath in.
  3. Once your lungs are full press your stomach in (like you are sucking it in to make yourself look thinner) as you exhale, forcing all the air out of your lungs. It’s fine if your breath makes a loud sound on exhalation, which shows you getting all the air out of your lungs. The air should exit you lungs from the top down. Count to eight as you exhale. The air should come out slowly and constantly.

Congratulations, you’ve done it. Your first full body breath. And you are on you way to being in better control of yourself during any of the situations mentioned above.

What About Those Primal Screams?
So what is it with those primal yelps you here in martial arts movies? It’s the air being forced out rapidly through a deep full body breath. The noise is that end is a technique that forces all of the air out of your body. It’s also supposed to scare the opponent. Technically speaking there is no need for you to do the yelping to get the benefit of full body breathing.

You can practice this technique anytime. In fact a good way to do it is just while you are at home. Try the technique for no more than a minute at a time. At first this won’t be easy. You can do this initially while you are at rest, and then during periods of exercise. It is an excellent way to get your breath back after intense physical exercise. Over time you will develop a greater lung capacity. Purposefully focusing on your breathing also leads to a calm mind, but we will save that for another post.

Now, the next time someone tells you your breath is a weapon, take that as a complement. Or you can fantasize about being Bruce Lee while eating a chili dog. Altoid anyone?

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