When I hear a professional martial arts instructor advising their students to be more natural, I cannot help but feel contempt. Could any help be less helpful?
What is the most natural method for safely evading a knife thrust, while simultaneously positioning oneself for an effortless disarm and throw? How does one naturally reverse a guillotine choke? People who know the answer to these questions don’t need an instructor or a class; for the rest of us, more detailed guidance is appropriate.
With that said, I am a strong advocate of “natural breathing” for martial applications, in contrast to the more exotic approaches advanced in some dojos.
While it may be true that one’s strikes are more powerful during an exhale, and least powerful during the inhale, this fact is subordinate to a higher truth. If your movement and breathing are strongly linked, then your opponent(s) can more easily control them both. Despite your best intentions, this coordination can quickly become a self-imposed suffocation, of the muscles and the brain.
I’ll illustrate with a short story from my own training. When I met my first Taiji instructor–whom we shall call James–I already had years of experience in Wing Chun, Aikido and other martial arts. With this experience, I had developed the habit of breathing out to meet an unavoidable incoming strike.
One day, James and I were working on a close-quarters sticking exercise, and he noticed this subconscious habit to his great amusement. When I started to breathe in, he laughed and hit me. So I let the air out, waited a second or two, and tried to breathe in again. James laughed again, and hit me again. After a few more rounds of fun, I got his point. Until I was willing to abandon this habit, I literally could not breathe without his permission.
Although this was only a training exercise, similar constraints are present in a real fight. We do not always have the luxury of choice when timing our attack and defense.
If we attempt to match the rhythm of our breathing with the unpredictable pace of our opponent’s movement, the most likely results are hyperventilation and auto-asphyxiation. Neither of these is conducive to power, sensitivity, or relaxation.
Since I cannot predict in advance when the opponent will drop their guard, or how many times I will need to punch them in response, I don’t even attempt to coordinate my breathing with the attack. By the same principle, I am very careful about creating defensive space through exhalation, recognizing that a poorly timed breath may be my last.
It seems that the only safe time to exhale decisively with a strike, is after the opponent is already knocked out. Be advised however that that referees frown upon such behavior.