By Phillip Starr
There is a very real and close relationship between breath and balance; loss of one usually results in loss of the other. So, let’s first examine just what we mean by “balance.”
Balance refers to two forms of stability, physical and mental. Physical balance is pretty easy to understand. The body should maintain stability at all times, when standing still and when moving. As martial arts enthusiasts, we practice a variety of exercises that are intended to improve our physical balance and quite a number of the techniques and postures that we employ require a pretty fine sense of physical stability.
The other form of balance (which we usually don’t consider) is mental balance. Just as the body must be stabilized at all times, so the mind must also be steady. Conditions such as extreme fear (which seems to paralyze us), panic, and hysteria are obvious states of mind that involve loss of mental balance. However, the same thing holds true (although to a much lesser degree) for extreme anger, worry, and even joy. Carried to an extreme, they can de-stabilize the mind.
If one has learned the correct form of breathing, which is known as “ breathing”, instability (whether it’s physical or mental) becomes very unlikely. Reverse breathing (discussed in detail in my books MARTIAL MECHANICS and DEVELOPING JIN) fosters a strong physical “root” so that physical balance is greatly enhanced and it also stabilizes the mind.
However, what do most people do if they are suddenly frightened? They gasp for air, right? If a mouse runs across your wife’s foot (or your husband’s sandwich), she’ll likely place one hand on her chest and inhale up high in her chest. That causes an instantaneous “loss of breath (control)” and the end result is mental instability, which immediately leads to a weakness in physical balance. Her knes may become weak and her legs “feel like rubber.” This is loss of mental balance causing loss of physical balance. The two are interrelated. An unexpected thing such as a sudden, unexpected loud noise or anything that may be perceived as danger can cause this to occur. We’ve all heard the expression “paralyzed with fear”, which is an extreme example of this principle.
And when someone slips (on ice, for stance) and loses his physical balance, he becomes very fearful… and the same high, shallow breath often occurs. This is a loss of physical balance causing a loss of mental balance.
But note that there is a common denominator in both cases (loss of physical balance causing loss of mental balance, and sudden loss of mental stability causing a loss of physical balance…and that is the BREATH. In both kinds of situations, the breathing is high and shallow, usually coming in gasps.
However, in both types of situations, if the breath is dropped to the lower abdomen and a strong “reverse breath” is performed, loss of balance needn’t happen. Reverse breathing enhances physical and mental stability…when you begin to lose your physical balance or if mental balance is starting to slip, execute a strong reverse breath and maintain your overall stability!
Many years ago, a study was made regarding hysteria and it was found that in most cases, the brain releases a certain chemical that actually fosters hysteria. However, it was also found that deep, abdominal breathing prevents this from occurring! It is largely impossible to become hysterical if one is breathing deeply from the abdomen (as it is done in reverse breathing).
So there’s more to breathing than just making your techniques more powerful. And the masters of the past knew it. That’s another reason why they focused so hard on proper breathing (and taught their students to do the same). But breathing isn’t particularly exciting to practice (as are kicks and punches) and consequently, many (breathing) exercises were tossed by the wayside and forgotten. Some schools openly taught breathing as a method of enhancing balance (such as those that emphasize certain kata such as Sanchin), while others taught (physical) balancing exercises (because great physical balance cannot be maintained unless one’s breathing is correct) as a way of teaching proper breathing to their (unknowing) students. The schools of Shorin-ryu were known for this. A number of schools did both (breathing exercises and balance routines).
Use this information to augment and upgrade your daily practice. You’ll find it more than a little useful.