06 February 2013

ITF Breathing

I had the time recently to write my promised post on the kinaesthetic value of pattern training (the ITF way), but I decided to postpone this in order to first talk a little about ITF Taekwon-Do's way of breathing, which is one of the important things we practise in the patterns.

Any professional athlete will tell you, breathing will make or break your performance. I am always surprised by beginners (in martial arts or other activities) who actually forget to breath—or rather, who hold their breaths while concentrating on the activity at hand. One's endurance is severely affected by inconsistent breathing, not to mention ones mental focus.

Taekwon-Do, like most Oriental martial arts, make use of abdominal breathing. Abdominal breathing, emphasises deep inhalations during which the abdomen is expanded in order to fill the lungs fully; then tensing the abdomen to help push out the breath better during exhalation. This type of abdominal breathing is the preferred “natural” way of breathing encouraged for normal activities. It is often practised during meditation.

The Chinese character for Ki (i.e. life force)
also translates as "breath"
In Oriental Medicine and those martial arts concerned with Ki (기) development, abdominal breathing, known as “danjeon hoheub” (단전 호흡) in Korean, aims to increase and store Ki at the danjeon—Ki being the “life force”, often also translated as “breath”, “energy” or “spirit”, and the “danjeon” being the body's center, a point below the navel and a few inches inwards where one can supposedly store Ki.

But Breath Control, “hoheub jojeol” (호흡 조절), in ITF Taekwon-Do also involves another type of breathing, usually described as a “short sharp breath”. The ITF Encyclopaedia (Volume 2, p. 31) describes it as follows: “A sharp exhaling of breath at the moment of impact and stopping the breathing during the execution of a movement tense the abdomen to concentrate maximum effort on the delivery of the motion, while a slow inhaling helps the preparation of the next movement.”

The short sharp breath in Taekwon-Do functions in the same way as the kihap or “spirit shout”. Kihap (기합)  directly translated from the Hanja (氣合) means “energy-unite”, but generally, or rather literally, it is understood as a “shout of concentration” (of both mind and body); more esoterically it is understood as a shout during which you project your Ki through your breath. Many martial arts make use of the kihap, particularly as a form of intimidation. According to martial art legends some great masters have such great Ki-skill (기합술), that they could make people faint or turn and flee with only their kihap. Kihap is also sometimes translated from Korean as “a shout of rage” or even “punishment”. Whether one believe in Ki or not, the psychologically disturbing effect of such a “shout of rage” can very well be of value during a fight.

In ITF Taekwon-Do, however, the psychological effect on the opponent is regarded less than the personal physiological effect, and therefore instead of focussing on kihaps we rather emphasise the value of the short sharp breath. General Choi felt that when students do the kihap for certain movements in the patterns they neglected those movements that did not have a kihap. He felt that all movements are equally important and should receive the same amount of focus and determination, so rather than have a kihap on particular techniques, a short sharp breath on every technique (with some exceptions) is better.

The short sharp breath acts somewhat like a sneeze where the whole body is tensed and focussed in that moment, i.e. the moment of impact. Another analogy may be the natural grunt we make when we pick up something heavy. The exhalation or grunt helps to tense and concentrate the core muscles, which stabilises the body's structure and help to ensure a better, stronger technique.

The breathing rhythm of the short sharp breath is similar to that in boxing. As the person in the boxing tutorial below explains “If you want sharp explosive punches, you need sharp explosive breathing.”

An interesting thing about the short sharp breath is that when done properly, one hardly need any conscious in-breath. Because of the tensed abdomen an artificial vacuum is created in the lungs, so that the moment you relax air is automatically drawn into the lungs. The result is that you can have numerous consecutive short sharp exhalations, without once feeling a need to consciously breathe in, as long as you properly relax in between your techniques. This is very valuable for consecutive and fast motion techniques.

Just as in boxing, every punch (or in the case of ITF Taekwon-Do every technique; i.e. punch, kick, block, etc.) is accompanied with one strong, sharp exhalation. One instructor from Northern Korea advised that the exhale should be about two-thirds of the lungs' air, and that at the moment of impact the lips should be closed to help with tensing the muscles. This is the way breathing works for normal motion techniques. Other motions like slow-motion, fast motion, connecting motion and continuous motion work similarly, but with slight adjustments. In the full sine wave motion (relax-rise-fall) the first two-thirds while the body is relaxing and rising may be used for relaxed inhalation, while on the last third of the motion, while the body is "falling", the short sharp exhalation is used. (Notice the similarities with breathing in Tai Chi Chuan.)

The short sharp breath, therefore, not only teaches one to properly tense the body at the moment of impact, it also teaches one to stay relaxed in between such moments. People tend to unnecessary tense their bodies when it is not beneficial to do so. Correct breathing is therefore not only about knowing how and when to be tense, but also how to stay relaxed in between. Grandmaster Rhee Ki Ha explains it in his book This is Taekwon-Do as follows: “as we move we should feel light, relaxed and flowing like water. When we finish a movement [i.e. at the moment of impact] the body should become strong and hard like iron. The breath is how we can achieve this . . .”

Breathing is not only used to help with tensing the core muscles for added power with techniques, the ITF Encyclopaedia also claims that “Through practice, breath stopped in the state of exhaling at the critical moment when a blow is landed against a pressure point on the body can prevent a loss of consciousness and stifle pain.” The idea of controlling pain through breathing is something espoused by some other martial arts as well, for instance Systema. It is well known that proper breathing has a calming effect and can be used to help to endure stress, anxiety, shock, and even helps while giving birth.

In summary, ITF Taekwon-Do encourages abdominal breathing. For combat purposes the abdominal breathing is adjusted to a short sharp breath that helps to focus both body and mind, helps prevent premature fatigue, helps to tense the core muscles at the moment of impact, helps to relax the body during the rest of time, and possibly even help to stifle pain or to endure strikes to pressure points.

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