Blending Breath by Simona A. Balan (Shodan test September 2018)
The dojo fell silent, all eyes widening as Sawa Sensei entered deeply and stopped the yokomen-uchi not with a powerful kiai, but with a full, soft, disarming inhale. O'Sensei, he said, would teach to inhale in that first moment of contact with uke, drawing uke in like into a vortex. Uke naturally exhales when attacking. That exhale is a gift of energy. If nage accepts the gift by inhaling as uke exhales, there is no conflict. It's aiki.
Jason Yim Sensei's face clearly showed he had no escape when pulled into Sawa Sensei's inhale vortex. It makes a big difference, he confirmed.
Four and a half years into my aikido practice, I find myself enthralled by this concept. Since I'm usually the smallest person on the mat, fear is often there with me, ready to make me retreat, defensive. My instinct, especially when a bigger uke attacks, is to hold my breath, bracing for impact. It takes conscious thought and effort to exhale or kiai when meeting a strike.
Inhaling when blending with the strike seems almost contradictory, like the last thing my body would want to do. Yet I give it a try, and, somehow, it feels alright. The inhale feels like an invitation, which empties the mind of fear. I find it easier to then take uke's balance and pin or throw. It's as if the inhale lifts uke on top of a wave crest, from where the only way to go is down. This makes me realize that I often forget to inhale during a technique, so how can I keep exhaling without replenishing my breath?
Breath obviously plays a critical role in aikido. The term "kokyu," which translates to "breath," comes up in nearly every aikido class. We often also encounter the term "kokyu ryoku" or "breath power," and I've been told that eventually the whole body behaves like a breath during aikido techniques, expanding and contracting, drawing in and projecting out, like a wave of energy.
Yet, after many years of practicing yoga and more recently aikido, one thing has become clear to me: I don't really know how to breathe. I use a mere fraction of my breath's potential, of its ability to promote healing and affect muscular contraction and relaxation. I sometimes get glimpses of the deeper treasures hidden in the seemingly simple act of breathing. I believe the breath is key to finding power within oneself beyond physical strength.
I know that's something I need to work on: letting the breath flow instead of holding it and bracing for impact. Just a few months earlier I had this revelation. Whenever we practiced rolling into a slap during warmup line drills, I'd watch everyone else stick to the ground after the slap, only to find myself partly bouncing back up. However hard I'd try, I couldn't remain in the right shape like everyone else. I thought my core was too tight, causing me to curl back up. But then, one day, I realized I was holding my breath. Even when I kiai'ed, I'd still hold on to some breath, as if afraid to let it go in that moment of impact. That lingering breath propelled me back up, just as it does when diving under water. To stay down, I had to exhale fully. Now that I do, I always stick to the ground, just like everyone else. This small observation made a huge difference for me, showing me just how much our practice depends on proper breathing.
Now I wonder about the blending breath. I've seen my sensei and sempai effectively meet strikes with powerful kiais. And now I've seen Sawa Sensei do so with an inhale. That might sound like the breath is unimportant because either way works, yet I'm sure there's great precision in how they use their breath.
There are many ways of breathing, some more effective than others. During normal, relaxed breathing, the abdomen expands when inhaling and deflates when exhaling. That's because on the inhale the diaphragm, the main respiratory muscle, contracts and domes downwards. This expands the thoracic cavity, lowering the pressure inside the lungs to invite airflow in. The downward movement of the diaphragm also causes the abdomen to expand. If the abdomen is held tight, the body compensates by expanding the upper thoracic cavity using the accessory muscles of the neck and shoulders (this is a common cause of chronic neck and shoulder tension).
Reverse breathing, or Taoist breathing, is an advanced practice in yoga and internal martial arts. In reverse breathing, the practitioner contracts the abdomen on the inhale, compressing the abdominal organs. This builds up energy that's then released by expanding the abdomen during the exhale. When purposefully developed during mind-body practice, reverse breathing is believed to help activate and extend ki, deepen meditative states, and promote healing.
Next time I train with Sawa Sensei I’d like to ask him whether he expands or contracts his abdomen during the blending inhale. It may seem like a minuscule detail, but it might make a world of difference. I think I’m finally beginning to understand what Kim Sensei meant when I was struggling to complete a technique, feeling so overpowered, and he said, showing me his pinky: “The difference between my technique and yours is this big.” I guess the art truly lies in the details.