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About breathing


Oxygen is highest on the list of substances needed to support human life, followed by water, then food. People may live weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without breathing. People must breathe constantly and breathing patterns change depending on the situation, such difficulty breathing during high-stress situations. Breathing is the only body function that can be controlled both consciously or unconsciously (heart rate and blood pressure may be controlled indirectly by breathing). Martial arts students learn to take conscious control of their breathing to improve their physical performance and physical and mental well-being.

Natural, reflexive breathing

Lungs do not move under their own power. They are inflated and deflated by the diaphragm, chest muscles, and movement of the rib cage. In natural breathing, the diaphragm drops and the abdomen expands during inhalation, and the diaphragm rises and the abdomen contracts during exhalation.

Natural breathing is instinctive, rhythmic, and through the nose. It automatically maintains a very specific gas ratio of O2 to CO2 in the bloodstream; only 2% O2 but 6.5% CO2. Each breath contains 10 times more oxygen and 200 times less carbon dioxide than we need.

It is possible to breathe too much. When we breathe normally, hemoglobin, the principal carrier of oxygen in the body, remains 98% oxygen (O2) saturated. When we breathe too quickly (hyperventilation), we increase O2 saturation slightly but lose too much CO2, which is essential for O2 utilization. When the level of CO2 decreases too much, the hemoglobin does not release O2 to the tissues (the Bohr Effect), which causes O2 starvation. The simple remedy is to breathe into a paper bag so exhaled CO2 is re-breathed and the CO2 level in the bloodstream is restored.

Dysfunctional breathing

Even though breathing is a natural, reflexive behavior, many people have developed poor breathing habits and no longer know how to breathe correctly. The body tries to compensate for bad breathing by using temporary defense mechanisms, which may lead to dysfunctional breathing patterns. The six dysfunctional breathing patterns are hyperventilatory, clavicular, thoracic, paradoxical, periodic, and hypoxic. These patterns may occur individually or in combination.
  • Hyperventilatory. A rapid-breath pattern (averaging 20 breaths/minute) that uses the intercostals muscles and limited diaphragm movement. It is predominantly thoracic (see below) in nature. Caused by poorly managed anxiety, it presents itself as very shallow, very rapid breathing, and is compounded by sputtered sighs (periodic) and gasps (clavicular). Symptoms are panic, anxiety, and shock. The body uses this type of breathing when it is attacked to gain more oxygen for the fight-or-flight syndrome.
  • Clavicular. In this pattern, the collarbones and chest raise while drawing the abdomen inward and upward, when it should be drawn downward and outward. To compensate for less air being inhaled, the person may inhale through the mouth in to try to get more oxygen in the lungs. Using accessory muscles to breathe consumes more oxygen than it provides, so the person fatigues quickly.
  • Thoracic. These are “chest-breathers” who breathe by lifting the rib cage up and out using the intercostal muscles with little abdominal movement. The is a common breathing pattern used by people who are not physically fit. With thoracic breathing, the upper lungs get air but the lower lobes, which receive the greatest blood volume, don’t get sufficient air. People with this breathing pattern tend to be aggressive and fatigue quickly. During physical exertion, they may get a "stitch in the side" due to cramps in the overworked intercostal muscles.
  • Paradoxical. In this breathing pattern, the abdomen contracts during inhalation and expands on exhalation; the opposite of normal. Many beginning students use this type of "reverse breathing."  It is characterized by clavicle or thoracic inhale followed by hypoxic breath retention and periodic sighs. People who breathe this way fatigue quickly.
  • Periodic. This pattern is characterized by rapid-shallow breathing followed by a holding of breath and a heavy sigh. It’s an overreaction to CO2 concentrations in the bloodstream. This panting flushes the CO2 from the bloodstream, which causes the brain to shut down respiration until the CO2 level rises to an appropriate gas mixture. The, following the sigh, it then restarts the shallow, rapid breathing without intervention. This pattern may be created through sustained anxiety or by post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  • Hypoxic. This pattern is characterized by holding the breath during exertion. This raises intrathoracic pressure, which may cause fainting, increase in blood pressure, and hypoxia (lack of oxygen). People exhibit the pattern when doing some strenuous, such as lifting a heavyweight or performing push-ups. 
These dysfunctional breathing patterns reduce oxygen delivery to the lungs and stress the breathing muscles, resulting in heavy breathing and fatigue, which leads to even more heavy breathing and fatigue. To counter these dysfunctional breathing patterns, people must relearn the proper, reflexive breathing of their childhood.

  • Hoopes, A. (2002). Breathing Training For Martial Artists. Shotokan Karate Magazine. (Issue 72); Generating Ki through Breathing. Shotokan Karate Magazine. (Issue 73); Stillness Training, The Basis of all Movement. Shotokan Karate Magazine. (Issue 72).
  • Sonnon, S. (2001). Oxygen Debt Does NOT Equal 'Cardio Training. Dvizheniye Journal July/August 2001. Available:

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