Why Natural Breathing is Smart Breathing

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.


  1. Staying relax and using your muscle memory is the best course of action in any fighting situation. You shouldn’t think about breathing, maybe that’s what’s meant by breathing naturally.

  2. About breathing out when receiving a strike – when I trained in Yoshinkan Aikido, we were taught to cultivate the habit of exhaling when taking a break fall. If we took one hard, while we were exhaling, it would be harder to have the wind knocked out of you.

    Also, in my short experience with taijiquan, it’s all been natural breathing. The movments of the form works your body like a bellows. You inhale and exhale when it’s appropriate to do so.

  3. In the practice of Tae Kwon Do, the martial arts instructor must teach control of the body, the mind and breathing. When these three aspects harmonize together in training, this is the proper practice of martial arts. If we look closely at the martial arts, we must understand that the Ki (air or life-force energy) will internally unite the body and mind. We cannot properly advance the mental aspect of control without mental training, but if we only focus on mental training, our physical progress will be slow. Therefore, we need to maintain the balance of these areas to be true to the martial arts.

  4. Mark, how do you harmonize these aspects together in training?

  5. I’m with you: we must, at some point, sever breathing from movement. It’s a point of freedom…I want my breath to be free from being strongly linked.

    But that’s not for beginners. Beginners need to learn to coordinate motion and breath, extending and deepening each, before separating them. You’re good.

    Of course, all breathing is natural…even the frozen breath reflex on a fear-reactive inhale is natural in the sense that it is built into our nervous system, as an infant, to protect our head from floppy and hitting the floor.

    Some of our development then is to move through layers and levels of sophisticating and refining “natural,” developing attention and expanding awareness of breathing and motion.

    What Is The Key? Breathing describes a way of focusing on physical, anatomical structure. It’s just basics though…to gather fundamental experiences breathing. Some other methods of breathing are merely extensions of sophistications of it.

    Naturally, sitting here typing (the process of engaging in vast digital landscapes) encourages frozen breath, so Type-and-Breathe Method emphasizes exhaling. Long, long exhales.

  6. interesting point about the breathing and it is something that every student needs to learn, however the principle that exhaling during a strike increases power is still true. It is simply a shame that many people only learn one type of breathing at the basic level and then try to do an advanced movement with such a basic core movement. Every style has a way to breath which supports the attacks and defence of those movements.

    Did it ever occur to you that the problem was not the timing of the breath but simply that the Wing Chun breathing was inefficient when used with Tai Chi movements. Your breathing was natural for Wing Chun but was not natural for Tai Chi.

    Coincidentally, Wing Chun uses the principle of free movement such that the movement of one limb should not be limited by the movements or position of any other part of the body. So you would have eventually gotten past the exhale while punching limitation anyway, since every style eventually teaches to strike the ribs when the opponent is inhaling because it is easier to break the ribs. You can also learn to breath with the lower dantien and the back which removes the ribs/arm movement limitations.

  7. The habit of breathing out with every strike betrays a lack of skill, in any style. That it increases striking power (some of the time) is a lucky coincidence, and should not IMO be allowed to serve as an excuse.

    Regarding the principles of Wing Chun…have you heard this old joke before?

    Q: If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?
    A: Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t mean it is one.

    Declaring that the function of the limbs should not be limited by the position of the body does not make it so. Looking at the Wing Chun forms, and the kuen kuit, it is clear that the arms must be supported one way or another by the body, specifically the stance and the waist.

  8. The vocal component of taiji, alluded to in the Dao de-jing and recorded in the historical records is now one of the most obscure aspects of the true art. This relates to out and in breath and the harmony of voice and breath and used to form an integral part of taiji qigong.

    Now that this is lost in so many transmissions it is no wonder that breath is a point of confusion.

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