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BREATH OF FRESH AIR: What is advanced martial arts technique?

I’m going to relate an anecdote regarding my professional life, to make a point about advanced martial arts technique. I perform and teach a subspecialty in ophthalmology known as fluorescein angiography of the retina, which is a test using photography of the retina. To understand what I do for a living, go to Forty Years in Retinal Photography,” which is a professional memoir of sorts. I’ve given annual lectures on retinal photography since 1981, and have taught literally thousands of ophthalmic technicians and photographers, the art of retinal photography. One truism I always relate to my course participants is:

“After you’ve been working in retinal photography for two years, you’re going to be as good as your going to get. After that, there’s no such thing as ‘advanced techniques’ in retinal photography.”

During my lectures, it hasn’t been unusual for some course participants to approach me and say, “I’ve been taking your course for 25 years now, and I really enjoy them.” Can anybody spot a discrepancy in logic here? Why are these students still coming to my lectures, if they’ve been working in the field for more than two decades? It says more about their weak state of mind and insecure egos, than it does about the quality of their technique. It reflects poorly on their personalities.

In the martial arts, after you’ve attained black belt level, your physical technique is as good as it’s going to get. Sufficient maturity is implicit in black belt status. One should have a strong foundation in understanding and maturity to make black belt to begin with. The martial arts is riddled with higher dan ranks that have been given for system-driven reasons, that mean nothing related to pure technique.

Higher black belt ranks are awarded for political reaons within the system, not because one’s technique has gotten “more advanced.” Gaining black belt level technique is the same thing as having worked in retinal photography for two years: After that point, you’re as good as you’re going to get. If a black belt feels that his technique needs improvement, then he was prematurely promoted, either because his technique isn’t truly good enough, or because he lacks self-confidence. Either reason is bad. The latter is worse, because the black belt that lacks confidence in himself, is not a true black belt.

In order to have legitimate black belt status, your teacher should have taught you the body mechanics that produce the most power, velocity and fluidity. That goes without saying, although many schools do not meet this basic criterion. Your teacher should have augmented this teaching of correct biomechanics, by nurturing your killer instinct, a prerequisite for a competent martial artist, but an often neglected part of the program.

There is one other element of competent martial arts technique that is often neglected, and that is breath control. You may ask me, “But isn’t breathing automatic, an autonomic function? Isn’t it involuntary and happens when you practice, anyway?” My answer to that is, yes, it’s true, but that isn’t the most efficient way to train. There is a better way to maximize your techniques, with a systematic execution of powerful intake and output of breath when training. The perfect vehicle for practicing breath control, is while practicing forms (kata). This is because forms have a prescribed or dictated sequence of techniques, that segue from one to the next. This allows the martial artist to consciously take in, and expel breath, at the best predetermined points during forms.

The martial artist’s body is a an efficient engine whose ability to function depends greatly on the powerful intake and output of breath. It is not just an aerobic issue, where the martial artist’s ability to be more fresh at the end of a form, is enhanced by powerful breath control. With good conscious breath control, each technique becomes more powerful, because one’s mental and physical focus improves, with the coordination of the expulsion of breath and postive movements. The practice of taking breaths, and expelling breaths at predtermined points in a conscious fashion while doing forms, establishes this systematic breathing in your combat muscle memory for each technique, a surely as automatically contracting your musculature at the very end of a reverse punch.

During the practice of a form, I recommend the conscious intake and expulsion of breath in rythym with the movements. An obvious “positive movement” is the very end of a reverse punch, where one pushes out an impressive expulsion of breath at the conclusion of the punch. There is harmony between the last-instant contraction of the musculoskeletal components involved in the technique, and the fast, powerful expulsion of breath. One should breathe in through the nose wirh a closed mouth, and powerfully expel breath with an audible “HOO!” through the mouth. Let me clarify this. One shouldn’t be shouting the word “Hoo.” This just happens to be the natural whooshing sound that sounds like that, with no input from one’s vocal cords, when one forcefully exhales.

One must practice with a form to determine where to take in and where to put out, but this will become apparent after some experimentation. Don’t be afraid to do it too much in a form, at first. One cannot have too much breathing while executing movement (although one can have too little), just as you cannot have too much diagnostic information in medicine, while doing a test. Eventaully, one’s breathing pattern will match the form, perfectly.

The kiai is used in some arts at certain points of forms, to add power and focus to the technique, at the point in the form where the kiai is shouted. May I suggest that this is nothing but the intermittent example of the type of expuslion of breath that I’m talking about. The difference between what I’m advocating and the kiai is, the kiai is voiced as certain words with the vocal cords involved. The expulsion of breath I’m talking about, is not a product of vocal cord action. It is just air being propelled out of one’s mouth. My contention is that this sort of controlled, violent expulsion of breath, should be used throughout the form, where it will add power, and physical and mental focus to every key technique.

It is not necessary to make distinct sounds as one does with a kiai. The naturally produced “HOO!” as one forcefully forces breath out, is enough to gain the benefits I’ve described. There is nothing mystical in what I’m advocating, as there sometimes is associated with the traditional kiai. Powerful breath control to maximize technique, is purely a phsiological issue. This constant and consistent use of breath control, will improve your form overall, and make every technique maximized for speed and power. This is finishing power I’m talking about.

Every technique in a form will improve in velocity and power, if the proper coordination of the intake and expulsion of breath is refined, in rythm with the movements. Breath discipline is a basic part of martial arts practice, but often neglected. The melding of breath control and physical movement in forms, is basic, yet advanced. Later.



Having taught martial arts for many years has given me the opportunity to observe people in all kinds of situations. Stress, fear, exhilaration, fatigue … and if I really do my job, calm.

Both myself and my martial art brother Scott attained black belt ranking in a very traditional school, one where only a small handful of hundreds of students had attained that rank. I mean maybe 1 or 2 before us.

We both got there the same way: dedication, unending hours of hard training, focus, and the willingness to hit and hurt, and be hit and hurt. I’d agree that once we reached our black belt levels we were for all intents and purposes trained. Our technique was as good as it was going to get. My further experience showed me where the growth areas were.

First, I agree with Brother Scott: breathing is central. Like Tai Chi, Chi Gung, etc. or not, go for the mystical Chi thing or not, there is intense ceaseless focus on breathing, and for good reason. The karate systems have simplified it to a kiai. Chinese martial arts have the “Hup” and “Waa” sounds. We learned to focus breath and if it was a “HOO!” dammit, it was a real “HOO!”!

Side note: Brother Scott and I were trained to be silent during our kung fu forms, only natural breathing sounds emitted, not scripted ‘hups’ and ‘hoos’. I recall the first time we saw kung fu forms done by other schools during our ‘travels’ together. The first several times the practitioner hup’ed and hoo’ed we looked at each other in surprise. As I recall there was some barely surpressed laughter after a few more. A VERY angry look from the local sifu settled us down, I think, but frankly it sounded ridiculous. Not the real sound of focused power, just the fake sound of weak kung fu.

Second: Experience brings calm and focus. What does grow after attaining black belt rank is the experience of “seen that, blocked that, delivered the counter”. Breathing builds calm. You grow calm, face impassive during the fiercest attack by your opponent or enemy. You watch, you parry. And then, when you see the opening you breath in and STRIKE your opponent down with a blow. Calmly, accompanied by a strong focused expulsion of breath to maximize power.

Incidentally, I’m convinced that this calm and experience-based ‘wisdom’ is the core of most ‘mystical’ and ‘advance’ Chinese martial arts technique. Why sticky hands? Not because you have a magical power … you’ve got so much experience that you can actually get that close and tie up your opponent with confidence. Block and punch with one move? If you see it coming a mile away, it ain’t that hard, trust me.

One last story: My journey to my kung fu instructor status began when my teacher, Dr. Richard M. Chin, decided to train me for competition. I was allowed to use exactly two attacking techniques: right hand reverse punch, right leg front kick. NOTHING else. No matter what openings or other options I thought I saw I only got to use those two techniques.

I was dismayed and wanted to use my back fist, lunge punch, side kick. No. 100 pushups awaited me for every attempt to do so, and probably a round or two with some of the more brutal senior students. We took discipline pretty seriously.

Thousands and thousands of punches later Dr. Chin’s prediction came true, “By the time you’re done, you’ll be able to hit anyone with a reverse punch anytime, anywhere, standing on your head, laying on your back. No matter”. He was right. Even though I was not yet black belt, that technique became fully developed, as Brother Scott cites. And, when I used it I had the calm patient feeling that it was just a matter of time before I would find the exact moment to pump a devastating right hand blow into my opponent.

Fully developed physical technique, proper breathing, experience-based calm. That is what I would call martial arts mastery.






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