I spend a lot of time writing about the more philosophical aspects of budo, but there is a concrete area that I believe is close to universal in the martial arts.
So you’ve decided to learn a martial art, and by some cosmic mischance you end up in my dojo. You’ll probably be disappointed when I tell tell you that the only things I really teach are how to walk and how to breath. This is ridiculous, since everyone over the age of 18 months can do both, and by the time you wander into my dojo you’ve probably got 20+ years of experience doing them, right?
You probably think you’re pretty good at both. I beg to differ. You’re probably lousy at them. Breathing and walking are the foundations of all movement in the martial arts, but almost nobody spends enough time practicing them. The only people I know who spend time practicing breathing correctly are wind musicians and vocalists. I don’t know anybody who practices walking properly. Everyone just assumes that they walk and breathe properly because they do both all day long.
The truth is that most of us have no clue how to breathe properly, and we walk like gorillas with leg cramps. Good breathing is fundamental to everything we do, and yet most of us have no idea how to do it. Ask a tuba player or flautist how to breath and you will get a simple but valuable education. Breath comes from moving the diaphragm but I can’t tell you how many martial artists I see breathing by moving their shoulders up and down or flexing their chests. That’s bad technique, and if you can’t breathe properly you wind up out of breath and unable to do much of anything. You certainly won’t be able to coordinate and integrate your body into a single unit. It will stay a disparate bunch of parts until you learn to breath.
You can’t really be balanced if you’re not breathing properly. And if you’re not balanced, you’re not walking and moving properly. And if you you’re not walking and moving properly, you won’t be able to do anything that is taught in the dojo.
Musicians spend a lot of time working on proper breathing. I teach students to understand what proper breathing feels like by having them lie on the floor on their backs. In this position you cannot breathe with your shoulders or your chest. You have to breathe with your diaphragm. Lying on their backs, students can put their hands on the stomachs and really know what it feels like to breath properly from the diaphragm. Then they can get up and practice replicating the experience while standing. At first they have to feel with their hands if they are using their diaphragm and stomach properly, and after awhile they will know the feeling well enough to recognize it without sticking their hands on their bellies. To check for shoulder breathing they can look in a mirror. If they see their shoulders move when they breathe, they know they are doing it wrong.
It takes quite a while for this method of breathing to become habitual. After decades of bad breathing habits, proper breathing does not come naturally. The body will default to whatever habits it has developed over the years, so it will take conscious intervention to correct and ultimately change the habits. Initially someone learning to breathe won’t notice they are breathing wrong except in class when it is consciously called to their attention. Over time, as they become more familiar with the exercise and comfortable with the feeling, they will start to notice outside of practice when they aren’t breathing properly and self-correct. Eventually proper breathing will become their default breathing method.
That’s a lot of work just to learn a different way of breathing than the one that has served just fine since you were born. So why bother? First, diaphragmatic breathing is more efficient than chest breathing or shoulder breathing. Your lungs expand more so you can take in more oxygen with each breath. Second, diaphragmatic breathing keeps the body together in a single unit. To breathe from your shoulders or chest you have to loosen the connections between your shoulders and chest to the muscles in your back and abdomen so they can float up and out to let your lungs expand and take in oxygen. In doing so you are shifting your balance up and out. Breathing from your diaphragm doesn’t involve shifting chunks of your body around. Your stomach is built to expand and contract without changing your balance or rearranging big pieces of you around.
Once you can breathe properly, you’ll be able to relax into your body more effectively. When you stop throwing your chest and shoulders around with each breath you can learn to connect with the ground through your legs and feet. As I said above, you can’t really be balanced if you’re not breathing properly. And if you’re not balanced, you’re not walking and moving properly. And if you you’re not walking and moving properly, you won’t be able to do anything else that is taught in the dojo.
So now you’ve learned to breathe properly, and hopefully we’ve got you standing still in a nice, relaxed, stable posture. Now it’s time for the tough part: learning to walk. Just because you can get from place to place without falling over every third step does not mean you are good at walking. Breathing can be done while lying down and standing still. Walking requires coordinating everything you’ve learned about breathing while actually moving your whole body. This is tougher than it sounds, and since even the Mayo Clinic has a page about it, I’ve discovered I’m not the only one concerned about this.
The basic walking method for naked house apes like us is to extend a foot and then fall forward onto it. Watch a toddler who has just learned how to walk and this becomes very clear. They really are falling forward and catching themselves with every step. This is fine if you are 18 months old and just figuring out how to get around on 2 legs, but if you want to do anything more than that you’ll need to refine the technique a bit.
The two basic walking movements in the arts I do are ayumiashi and suriashi (roughly walking feet and sliding feet). Both of them require moving as a connected whole without throwing your balance into the air with each step. Start with the balanced, relaxed posture you have when breathing properly. Your head is up (the Tai Chi guys describe it as feeling like it is hanging from a thread, which is such a good description that I’m stealing it).Your back is straight and relaxed, your shoulders are not slumped forward and your back isn’t pulled into an excessive arch. Everything sits naturally above your hips and your hips sit comfortably atop your legs without any tension required to stay there.
Now move your leg forward driving it from the hips and without swinging your hips forward. You’re hips should stay under your shoulders. Shoulders and hips should stay square and not rock from side to side or swing forward from right to left with each step. Your foot should not be so far forward that your weight comes crashing down on it. The transfer of weight should be smooth as the foot rolls from heel to toe. This is ayumiashi, regular walking, and just like breathing, it can take a bit of practice to make consistent even when you’re not thinking about it.
Suriashi is a sliding foot movement where the ball of the foot never comes more than a hair’s breadth off the floor (I was going to talk about the thickness of a sheet of rice paper, but that’s been done). This is not normal walking. This method of walking has an important place in training and learning to move for budo though. To manage it, bend your knees slightly, sink your hips a little and extend your right foot forward a bit. This time, instead of reaching out with the front foot as in ayumiashi, drive your whole body forward as one unit by pushing with the left leg and the ball and toes of the left foot while keeping your body stable and balance over the right leg. Do this all the way across the room. No do it with the left foot forward.
Now, since I know you were holding your breath while you focused on doing the movements properly, try doing them while breathing. Once you can breath properly and walk correctly you’ll be ready to start learning budo. When you move and breath well your body becomes a single whole, with every part of you supporting every other part in accomplishing whatever you set out to do. If you aren’t breathing and walking well, you aren’t balanced and you don’t have a solid platform upon which to build techniques. Instead you have a base like a pile of sand. You can’t learn to do anything budo related until you have a solid foundation that doesn’t rock like a sailboat in high seas.
Now that you now longer move like a pregnant musk ox we can start doing fun stuff like swinging swords and sticks and throwing people. None of these work when you are off balance and huffing to get a breath. All of them require a body and breath that are fully integrated and working to support each other. If any part of the body or breath are out of whack it will be readily apparent to your teacher, and eventually to you to.