by Aaron Hoopes
Whenever I teach one of my Zen Shotokan seminars I always have the students breathe in and out through the nose. The first question always asked is; “Why are we breathing in and out through the nose?” This is a valid question and I’d like to address it here. Before I do that, I’d like to explain a little bit about Ki energy and how it relates to breathing.
Most Shotokan karate-ka have some idea about the concept of Ki energy. Ki refers to the natural energy of the Universe, which permeates everything. All matter, from the smallest atoms and molecules to the largest planets and stars, is made up of this energy. It is the vital force of life. It is the source of every existing thing. Ki has many manifestations. Different philosophies and cultures call it by different names. Metaphysical science calls it “vital force.” Friedrich Mesmer called it “animal magnetism.” The Indian and Hindu yogis call it “Prana.” To the Kung Fu and Tai Chi practitioners of China it is known as “Chi.” Naturally, in each manifestation the Ki is viewed and defined differently, but basically it is the same thing. It is the power which enables us to think, move, breathe, and live – the power that makes gravity act like gravity. It is what makes electricity electric. It is the link between our perception of the inner and outer worlds. It is our connection to the very flow of the universe and the prime moving force within the human body. Ki is not breath, it is the power that makes it possible for us to breathe. Ki is not simply “energy,” it is what gives energy the power to be energy. Ki is the power behind movement and thought…and it is everywhere. It is in the oxygen we breathe and the blood that flows through us.
It is difficult to define Ki concretely. It cannot be seen or measured, it cannot be touched or captured. It is everywhere yet we have no way to touch it, make it tangible, or even prove its existence. Therefore Ki is a difficult concept to accept. The Western mind likes the tangible, the concrete and the specific. It likes a scientific explanation which defines, dissects, and categorizes. Ki transcends this kind of explanation. It doesn’t fit easily into a strict biomedical framework. It is simply indefinable in those terms.
But we, as Shotokan karate-ka, have a good understanding of Ki simply because we can feel it when we are training. It is the power we generate when we execute a strong technique. The body is working as one complete unit and the force generated is considerable.
Ki within the body is like power in a rechargeable battery. Occasionally it needs to be replenished. The Ki of the universe is inexhaustible, yet the body needs fresh Ki to maintain its vitality. When you are exchanging the Ki within you with the Ki of the universe, you feel healthy and vigorous. By energizing the body with Ki it is revitalized naturally, enabling it to fight off illness and maintain good health. The true secret to replenishing Ki resides in our breathing.
Proper breathing practice enables us to gather sufficient Ki for our techniques. Breathing in and out through the nose is the only method that enables the body to process Ki energy effectively. Most people understand the importance of breathing in through the nose. The nose has a series of defense mechanisms that prevent impurities and extremely cold air from entering the body. Breathing out through the nose, however, requires a deeper understanding of the nature of Ki energy. Practitioners of martial arts, especially Shotokan karate, need to absorb and process the Ki that they are breathing in order to generate the power and force for the techniques they practice. They also need to be able to retain the Ki within the body until the moment it is needed. Basically, when we inhale we are bringing fresh oxygen and Ki into our body. When we exhale through the mouth we are expelling carbon dioxide which contains all the toxins and poisons that have built up within the lungs. We are also expelling Ki from the body. But if we are continuously expelling the Ki we never give it a chance build up into the rich source of energy needed to complete our techniques to their maximum effectiveness. By exhaling through the mouth the Ki energy is simply dissipated back into the world. Breathing out through the nose, however, completes a closed circuit. By exhaling through the nose, the Ki energy, instead of being expelled with the carbon dioxide, is transferred to the hara, located about three finger widths below the umbilicus. With each breath in, more Ki enters the body and circles down to the hara growing stronger and stronger. During this breathing process, the tongue is up, touching the top palate of the mouth just behind the front teeth and the air is expelled from the nose with a slightly audible hiss. There is also a feeling of the abdominal walls contracting down with the exhalation.
Once sufficient Ki has been generated this way we are able to expel the Ki with tremendous force. Of course, this is known as the Kiai where the breath is expelled through the mouth. This is a very important factor of Shotokan training. The Kiai teaches us to build up sufficient Ki energy and then expel it in one strong technique. This is what makes the Kiai technique of any Kata so dynamic. If we were to try to Kiai with every technique, we would quickly become fatigued since we are expelling Ki with every breath. Try doing a Kata such as Bassai-dai and Kiai at the end of each technique. You will quickly run low on energy.
Shotokan Kata are excellent for practicing Ki breathing. Hangetsu, especially, is a Kata that emphasizes breathing techniques. The Kiai points in Hangetsu release all of the energy you build up during the other parts of the Kata. Remember that Ki is a subtle, invisible force that requires much patience and long years of practice to understand. The ability to relax and breathe effectively will benefit your training in building Ki. When your mind and body are working together in a relaxed manner and you are breathing properly, a tremendous amount of energy is able to flow through your being. The key is not to force it, just slow down, relax and breathe through the nose.
Sensei Aaron Hoopes began his karate training in New Orleans in 1982 under Sensei Takayuki Mikami. In addition to karate he also began studying Tai Chi with sifu Chien Lam of the Tamashii school. In 1986 he moved to Japan to continue his training at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association. He had the opportunity to train with Sensei Nakayama at his private dojo (Hoitsugan). In 1994 he moved to Australia and began studying Shanti Yoga at the Australian Meditation Institute. He completed the intensive instructor training course in 1996. Throughout his travels he has had the opportunity to train in many diverse styles, including Tong Lung (Praying Mantis) Kung Fu, Wing Chun, Shorinji Kenpo, Iyengar Yoga and Shaolin White Crane Qigong.
He is the founder of Zen Yoga, a blend of Tai Chi movement, Shanti Yoga stretching and Qigong breathing. He is the author of three books. Website: www.artofzenyoga.com