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Understanding human breathing and breathing in martial arts

understanding human breathing in martial arts

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A human body needs air, water and food, to survive. Air is most important, followed by water and food. Air is taken by the body from the atmosphere and thrown out from the body into the atmosphere, by a process known as breathing.

In order to understand how breathing is done in martial arts, it is necessary to understand how humans breathe. Let us start with understanding the process of human breathing and then we shall move on to how it relates to martial arts.

Humans breathe to achieve balance

Life is a balance between opposing forces and hence to maintain life, balance is crucial. Male-female, day-night, happiness-sorrow, prosperity-poverty, life-death, and many other dualities are present in Nature. These dualities cannot be eliminated, since each is necessary for the other’s survival. Day cannot exist without night, and night cannot exist without day, and likewise it is with all other dualities. Since the dualities are interdependent upon each other for their respective existences, it becomes imperative that an amicable and a supportive balance is established between them. Thus, Nature is constantly involved in achieving a balance between these dualities. A human being is also a part of Nature and therefore, the human body also constantly strives to achieve a balance in all its varied activities. In medical terminology, this balance of the human body is known as homeostasis, which is extremely important for living a healthy, long, and a meaningful life. This homeostatic balance in the human body is most effectively achieved by breathing, which enables humans to live.

Breathing is critical for homeostatic balance

Breathing balances the body both internally and externally. Internally, it balances the body by moving solid, liquid, and gaseous particles present within the body, from high concentration areas to low concentration areas. Externally, it balances the body by helping to regulate energy and maintaining the body’s centre of gravity in everyday normal activities, by moving the body mass, from high concentration areas to low concentration areas. The objective is to make both the areas have equal concentrations, and thus, make them balanced. This balanced state of the body creates an internal environment that is constant and does not fluctuate. This constantly balanced internal environment of the body is a state of optimal functioning of the human body, and it signifies perfect health. Achieving homeostasis is the ultimate health objective of all living organisms and all medical systems of the world. And breathing is the foundation on which this mansion of perfect balance of the body is built. The following video briefly describes homeostasis.

YourekaScience video “Homeostasis: Balance in the Body”:

Overview of the circulatory system

Breathing revolves around taking in oxygen from the atmosphere and expelling out carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This is a complex process involving each and every part of the human body in varied degrees; nonetheless, the blood, the blood vessels, the heart, the lungs, and cellular respiration of about 30-40 trillion cells of the human body have major involvements.

The heart pumps out blood having oxygen, which is known as oxygenated blood, via tubes known as arteries. Arteries branch out into thinner tubes known as arterioles, which in turn branch out into still thinner tubes known as capillaries. These capillaries surround each cell of the human body. The cells take the oxygen from the blood in the capillaries and give back carbon dioxide. At this moment, the capillaries carry blood that has no oxygen, but has carbon dioxide, which is known as deoxygenated blood. These capillaries join to form thicker tubes known as venules, which in turn connects with still thicker tubes known as veins. The veins carry the deoxygenated blood, having no oxygen but having carbon dioxide, back to the heart. The heart receives this deoxygenated blood and forwards it to the lungs. The lungs take the carbon dioxide and give back oxygen. Now, the blood has no carbon dioxide but has oxygen and becomes oxygenated blood. From the lungs, this oxygenated blood goes back to the heart, which in turn pumps it out to the arteries and this whole cycle goes on repeating.

Arteries and veins both are blood vessels. Arteries carry blood away from the heart and delivers it to all the cells of the body. Veins carry blood from all the cells of the body and delivers it to the heart. Arteries carry blood having oxygen, which gives it a bright red colour. Veins carry blood having carbon dioxide, which gives it a dark red or blackish-red colour. A distinguishing feature between an artery and a vein is that a vein has a one-way valve, but an artery has no valve. Veins have one-way valves, which are like doors opening only one way. So, if blood flows forwards then it cannot flow backwards, as the valves can open only in one direction. Arteries do not need any valves, as the pressure of blood is so much that it can only flow in one way. The following video shows the blood vessels.

BioVFX video “Arteries and Veins”:

The heart

To make the blood move in the blood vessels, a force is required, and this force is generated by a pump, which forces the blood to flow. This pumping station of the blood is the heart. The function of the heart is to pump in deoxygenated blood from the veins, pump out the deoxygenated blood to the lungs, pump in the oxygenated blood from the lungs, and pump out the oxygenated blood to the arteries. This function goes on repeating in a cyclic manner. The following video shows the circulatory system.

GetSchooledNow CA video “Human Circulatory System”:

The lungs

The heart pumps in deoxygenated blood from the entire body and thereafter it pumps out this deoxygenated blood to the lungs. Deoxygenated blood contains carbon dioxide and the lungs take this carbon dioxide from the blood and give it oxygen, thereby making it oxygenated blood. This oxygenated blood is then pumped in from the lungs by the heart and pumped out to the entire body via the arteries. The process by which the lungs take in carbon dioxide and give oxygen to the blood is known as gas exchange or gaseous diffusion. The following videos show the process of gaseous diffusion.

FuseSchool – Global Education video “Diffusion of Gases | Properties of Matter | Chemistry | FuseSchool”:

Lung Foundation Australia video “How Do Your Lungs Work”:

Transportation of oxygen

Each cell of the human body is covered by capillaries and each cell receives oxygen from the blood flowing in these capillaries. The following video shows how the blood transports oxygen in the body.

TED-Ed video “Oxygen’s surprisingly complex journey through your body – Enda Butler”:

Cellular respiration

All these actions of breathing, the lungs, the heart, the blood vessels, the gut, the brain, and more, are performed only to provide oxygen to each and every cell of the human body. A cell receives oxygen from the blood flowing in a capillary. The cell uses that oxygen in a multi-step biochemical process, where the food present in the gut (stomach and intestines) is broken down to create energy, in the form of Adenosine TriPhosphate (ATP). This process of creating energy from food and oxygen is known as cellular respiration. The following video shows the process of cellular respiration.

Science ABC video “Cellular Respiration: How Do Cell Get Energy?”:

Diaphragmatic breathing

Breathing is a complex process and primarily the lungs are used. However, the most natural way to breathe is known as diaphragmatic breathing, or abdominal breathing, or belly breathing. Here, the chest muscles are almost at rest and the diaphragm is used to respire. This is the normal breathing pattern in humans, which is most evident in newborn babies. The following videos show the diaphragm and diaphragmatic breathing.

sohambliss video “3D view of diaphragm”:

2D & 3D Animation and Explainer Videos video “3D Medical Mechanics of breathing L v 1 0”:

Nemours video “How to Practice Belly Breathing – Nemours Children’s Health System”:

Breathing in martial arts

In martial arts, all techniques, movements and power are controlled by breathing. Generally, martial artists perform diaphragmatic/ abdominal/ belly breathing, so that cellular respiration takes place, cells produce more ATP, which makes the martial artist perform the techniques more energetically in a homeostatic condition of the body. Normally, air is inhaled by the nose and exhaled by the mouth. The following video shows breathing in Karate.

Okinawa Karate Masters video “Karate Breathing Technique | a Master Controls everything with breathing | Ageshio Japan”:

Energy centers and breathing

In martial arts, breathing is connected with spiritual philosophy, which specifies energy centers in the body. This type of breathing may be called as “energy breathing”. For example, Indian martial arts focus on “Chakra” breathing, Japanese martial arts focus on “Tanden or Hara” breathing, while Chinese martial arts focus on “Dantian” breathing. Energy breathing is a closely guarded secret and practical knowledge is not publicly available.

What is energy breathing?

Theoretically, the process consists of inhaling the air only through the nose. Then the air instead of going into the trachea and the lungs, goes to the esophagus and the digestive organs. The air is swallowed into the esophagus (the food pipe) instead of the trachea (the wind pipe). This air travels in the digestive tract consisting of the stomach, the intestines, and the anus. This digestive abdominal area contains the energy sites of the lower Chakras/ Tanden/ Hara/ lower Dantian. The air from the digestive tract diffuses to the energy centers and makes them activated, which helps the martial artist to retain homeostatic balance of the body, and thereby overcome difficult situations of combat. A distinctive sign of energy breathing is seen when a martial artist breathes in only through the nose and keeps the mouth closed during the entire fight. Many martial arts movie stars keep the mouth closed to act as if they are performing energy breathing. The following video of a movie shows a Wing Chun actor acting out this type of breathing by keeping the mouth closed.

FIGHTING CINEMA video “The Final Battle: Donnie Yen vs. Scott Adkins in IP MAN 4: The Finale (2019)”:

How can air travel in the digestive tract?

In the throat, there are two parallel pipes and their openings are very close to each other. One is a wind pipe (known as trachea) and the other is a food pipe (known as esophagus). Air travels in the trachea and food travels in the esophagus. If air, accidentally or purposefully, travels in the esophagus, then aerophagia occurs, which may result in bloating, belching, or similar discomforts. However, if food accidentally travels in the trachea then the flow of air is blocked and choking takes place. Choking is an emergency and is life-threatening; hence if choking takes place then help from local medical emergency services should be immediately sought.

To prevent choking, the esophagus has a sphincter, a ringlike muscle, known as upper esophageal sphincter; and just behind the trachea there is a structure known as the epiglottis. When food is swallowed, the upper esophageal sphincter opens and simultaneously, the epiglottis falls like a lid on the trachea. This ensures that food will enter only the esophagus and not the trachea. This is triggered automatically during the act of swallowing, when the tongue pushes the chewed bolus of food to the back of the throat. The following video shows these two pipes and how they open and close.

Catalyst University video “Anatomy & Physiology of the Esophagus”:

Theoretically, for Chakras/ Tanden/ Hara/ lower Dantian breathing, the air has to travel not in the trachea but in the esophagus. So, the air needs to be swallowed, in order to make the trachea close and the esophagus to open. How the inhaled nasal air is swallowed, and how this swallowed air travels in a peristalsis motion down the esophagus to the stomach, how discomforts like bloating or belching are avoided, how the air passes through all the involuntary sphincters present in the digestive tract, how the air travels to the small intestines, the large intestines, the anus, and how the air from the digestive tract diffuses to the energy centers, is a closely guarded secret knowledge and is not publicly available.

It should to be noted that the practical knowledge of this type of breathing is not publicly available; thus, one should not rely on theoretical knowledge. One should not attempt to perform such breathing, because like all practical arts, martial arts cannot be learnt from theoretical sources like words, diagrams, or videos. Therefore, it is reasonable to completely avoid this type of Chakras/ Tanden/ Hara/ lower Dantian breathing.


Martial artists learn, teach, and utilize both thoracic (lungs) and diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing, so that the nerves are calmed and the body receives optimum amount of oxygen, which enables them to perform the various techniques effectively. Breathing is a movement, and movement follows intention, which in turn follows the mind. So, keeping the mind relaxed is a prime requisite of breathing. Taking deep breaths by the nose, by using both the lungs and the abdomen, and visualising that it is travelling to all the cells of the body in a calm manner, can relax and revitalize both the body and the mind. The following video shows this kind of movement-intention-mind breathing.

Shaolin Temple Europe 歐洲少林寺 video “Qi Gong Breathing: 7 Minutes to calm body and mind”:


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