March 11, 2005

Breath Control in Kendo

Originally printed Kendo World Magazine, Vol. 1 Issue 1, 2001.
by Steven Harwood.

So what is different about breathing in kendo? In kendo you are sometimes taught to breathe through your `belly' or to use abdominal breathing a term used widely to denote a method of breathing that utilises the abdominal muscles (largely the diaphragm) in contrast to typical chest-based breathing in which the main respiratory muscles are the intercostal muscles. However, the abdominal breathing taught in kendo is rather different to conventional abdominal breathing. For instance, in conventional abdominal breathing your abdomen swells out when you breathe in and `deflates' when you breathe out. However, in Kendo you are taught always to keep some tension in your lower abdomen with the result that the abdomen never `deflates' during exhalation and some kendo teachers advocate `reverse abdominal breathing' in which the lower abdomen actually swells during exhalation. Kendo's abdominal breathing has aims that go beyond simple respiratory gas exchange and is intrinsically connected with kendo's transfer of emphasis, not only physically but also psychologically, from the upper body to the lower body a holistic transfer of centre downwards.

The traditional oriental link between psychological state and breathing is now well documented and supported by scientific research. When you are in a calm psychological state your breathing is, of course, controlled and regular. It also tends to be deep abdominal breathing. When you are stressed and panicked your breathing will tend to `rise' becoming shallow and rapid, the extreme being hyperventilation. This idea of stability being `low' ("calm down") and excitement being `high' ("temper rises") is present in the West also, but the relationship between psyche and breathing is two-way. Breathing is affected by psychological state but can also effect a change in psychological state. Although breathing usually functions unconsciously it is one of the few such bodily functions that can be adjusted consciously resulting in the concept of breath control. This has long been utilised in the East where meditation technique usually attempts to replicate the breathing pattern of calmness, i.e. abdominal breathing, to attain a calm psychological state.

Indeed, that most Japanese of ascetic training, Zen, posits training of body (posture), breathing and mind as its essential elements. This extended essay will not attempt to explain kendo in terms of Zen Buddhism. I intend to keep the focus for the large part on breath control in actual technique. However, the principles of Kendo as laid down by the All-Japan Kendo Federation stipulate that its aim should be, through training in the techniques of kendo, to change you as a person. Kendo is said to be comprised of three types of training: physical; mental and ethical; it is a path, a michi, which should transform you not only physically but also lead to a different way of being psychologically, this is its stated purpose.

Therefore, as breath control seemed to be an important element in other Japanese ascetic training methods, it seemed to me that it might be equally important in kendo. If it were, then a study of it would reveal much not only about technique, the so-called physical aspect of the art, but also about the psychological content needed to attain the very highest levels. At the same time, if, through the medium of breath control, technique functioned simultaneously on both physical and psychological levels, it would shed light, in very concrete terms, on the oriental concept of mind-body unity, and lend credence to the martial arts' claims to be something more than physical exercise.

Over the next few issues I will examine how abdominal breathing is manifested in kendo starting from basic posture and clothing; footwork, basic striking actions and training patterns such as kiri-kaeshi and kakari-geiko. I will look at the relationship between abdominal breathing and ki-ai (vocalisation). I will consider its role in seme-ai (mutual probing for weaknesses prior to the strike); and look at how it can be taught in kata (form practice). Finally I will look at how some very senior kendo practitioners use it to enhance their training and consider its function at the very top level of the art.

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