“Your shoulders aren’t over your hips.”
“Don’t forget to breathe.”
As martial artists we chase strong, powerful techniques, and we strive to use our muscles effectively. Many of us spend time in the gym lifting weights and doing physical conditioning. I do squats and curls and sit-ups and push-ups. For all that, I can’t think of any time I’ve heard someone say “Use more muscle.” Instead we hear people talk about things like relaxation and kokyuroku 呼吸力 (breath power).
Muscle is great, but no muscle works in isolation. Weight training often is about isolating specific muscles to develop them. Budo is about integrating muscles and bone and sinew, and that all comes back to how you stand and how you breathe. What we’re doing in the dojo, whether it’s kata training or randori, is movement. All that movement, though, starts in stillness.
Standing there, doing nothing, what are you doing? You’re standing and breathing. So obvious it feels foolish to say, but most of us don’t do a very good job of doing nothing. Standing still is difficult to do right. I was surprised as a beginning judo student to learn that one of the skills on the first rank test I ever took was standing still. Oh, it got a neat Japanese name, shizen hontai, but that just breaks down to “natural, basic body.”
It didn’t take too much practice to be balanced and relaxed enough to pass the shinzen hontai item on that 6th kyu test. What experience keeps teaching me is how important everything on the 6th kyu test is. If it’s on the first test you take, it’s because that will be essential to everything you do after that test. I’m still working to get shizen hontai right. What passed on the 6th kyu test, however, failed to be good enough for me not long after the test.
That natural, basic body is the body with no unnecessary tension; no muscles tensing when they aren’t needed. Everything as natural and loose as a small child. Small children fall down and bounce back up in part because they are so loose and natural. They don’t tense up or freeze when they start to fall. They just go with it. Getting back to something like that natural state without unnecessary tension is part of shizen hontai.
Unnecessary tension impacts how you breathe. If you carry stress and tension in your shoulders or chest it constricts how well you can expand your chest and take in air. Babies have incredible lung power, as anyone who was holding an infant when they started screaming can attest. A large part of that is the fact that there is no tension inhibiting their breathing, so they use all of their lung capacity.
To breathe well you have to use all of your natural capacity. At this moment, I’m doing two things in particular that inhibit that natural capacity. The first is my lousy posture while sitting at the computer. My shoulders are slumped forward, my chin is sticking out, my back is slouching. To use all of my natural capacity I have to free my body to work at its best. That means I have to sit up straight and let my shoulders fall back instead of rounding them forward. This opens my chest and stomach so my lungs can expand to their full capacity.
The second thing I’m doing wrong is carrying all the tension from a lousy day at work in my shoulders and chest. I drain the tension out of my shoulders and they settle down where they belong, instead of being up near my ears. My chest and back are tight and constricted from sitting in front of a computer all day. Not getting enough activity to loosen the muscles won’t allow my breathing to flow naturally. Those tense muscles fight to keep my chest tight and restricted, preventing me from taking a full breath. When I get rid of the unnecessary tension and breathe using my diaphragm to expand my lungs and pull air into my lungs to their fullest, I get the best breath I can take, allowing my lungs to function at their optimum exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen.
Good breathing circles around and impacts how you stand. You can’t stand properly if you’re breathing wrong. If you’re breathing with your shoulders instead of your diaphragm you are throwing your balance back and forth with every breath. It’s a small thing, but I’ve seen people take advantage of poor breathing in judo regularly. Breathe from your diaphragm and your balance remains stable. You can drop your weight through your hips to the floor and let your body’s natural structure carry your weight for you. Instead of having to work at staying balanced, you just are.
Pick a technique that you are working to polish. Try doing it with your shoulders up by your ears, your back slouched and your chin stuck out, then correct your posture and try it again. Much easier to do right, isn’t it? After that, try doing the technique while exhaling. Quite possibly the most common mistake I see is people forgetting to breathe. Now that you’re breathing, take a moment and make sure you're doing it right, and then do the technique again while exhaling properly. It sounds easy. Stand and breathe, then do a technique. It becomes difficult when you add “properly” in front of “stand” and “breathe.” Standing and breathing are very complex activities to do correctly. Moreover, when we are learning anything new, the first thing we tend to do is hold our breath while we concentrate on the new stuff. I’ve done it, and every student I’ve ever had has done it. The more you practice good breathing and good standing, the less likely you will be to forget about those things when you have to focus on other things - like good technique.
It really doesn’t matter which budo you are doing. Koryu. Gendai. Western. Eastern. Good budo always comes back to how you breathe and how you stand. If these two elements aren’t right, nothing is. Take a moment and let yourself be aware of your body, of how you’re breathing and how you are sitting and standing. You don’t need a teacher to tell you when you are slouching or breathing with your shoulders. These are things you should figure out and start fixing on your own.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for editorial support.