Breathing is the underlying rhythm that dictates your flow in combat. Generally, breathing in is considered as a moment of weakness when you are just gathering your strength, while holding your breath in up to the moment when you exhale into your strike are your moments of strength. This is why in kirikaeshi it is important to try and complete your set of 9 sayumen strikes then returning to uchima into a shomen-taiatari within one breath. Running out of breath and inhaling mid-set cuts the connection in your successive strikes, but inhaling after the impact of taiatari maintains the momentum of the drill. It is then important to know when to breathe and how to breathe to properly execute strikes. For our case, however, let us focus on proper breathing as this also leads to a fundamental technique in posture and stability called the brace. Let’s get right to it!
This short breathing exercise, Mobility & Stability by JTSstrength.com, is a good place to start understanding the role of breathing in getting into a good braced position. The exercise starts at the 1:00 minute mark and lasts up to around 3:48. Dr. Quinn’s explanation revolves mainly within the context of a loaded lift, but the importance of a quality inhale and exhale into the braced position is relevant in all explosive movements that require mobility and stability. I suggest you listen to it a few times while trying it out lying down to isolate the breathing and bracing without the added elements of posture and stance into the mix. After you familiarize yourself with it I encourage you to try it later on in a basic standing position, in static kamae, and lastly with some footwork put into the mix.
So first, breathing in. Begin by breathing in deeply through your nose. What’s important here is “we want that 360 degrees of expansion”. It should feel like you are breathing into the back of your ribs down to the entirety of the bottom rung. Try to fill the left and right evenly. If you find that the left and right spaces do not fill equally try to notice how the air is flowing through your nasal passages into your lungs. In my case, I find that when they do not fill up evenly it is because I am unconsciously breathing in through only one nostril, usually my right, and I have to deliberately breathe in through my left to fill up the left cavity in the same capacity. It also makes a big difference to breathe upwards into your sinuses, flaring it slightly, allowing the action to pull you into a taller posture while letting the inflow expand strongly into you like filling a water balloon up to near bursting. Doing all of this consistently becomes harder when you take into account fatigue, the slight sniffles, physical biases, or whatnot. It will take a while to be able to actively recognize and control how you intake air and manage this actively during training, but all I can say is prepare to make weird scrunched up faces, burp a lot and practice until you become comfortable with it.
Once you’ve built up the pressure from completely expanding your chest cavity, breathe out through your mouth in a controlled manner, “like you are blowing up a balloon”. As your lungs empty, it should feel like your ribs are getting pulled down into a brace. This torso position is a quick and dirty way to get into a Braced Neutral Spine, which is fundamental in all stable dynamic compound movements. At this stage what’s important is that you compress at more or less the same pace from all sides of your rib cage, taking particular note of the compression on the last rung at the lower back. This becomes diagnostic of whether you did fill both sides equally. If one side has gotten into full tension but the other is still hasn’t, then it means it just felt like you filled your chest cavity equally but you actually didn’t. The bad in continuing in this position is that you will be applying uneven tension in your brace, causing an imbalance in your stance and stability (stable but not neutral). So before engagements, take your time with big deep breaths and long moments of exhalation when you have sufficient time to recover and regain composure. Being able to get into a proper neutral brace before rei, or whether I was still flustered and desperately setting my brace up, is usually indicative of my performance during the activity that comes next.
Why the need for the brace though? Our bodies are built smart and will adjust as necessary into a stable position even if you began a movement in an unstable state. Unfortunately, in almost all cases, this usually shifts you into an inferior and, more importantly, dangerous position. For example if you try to perform fumikomi in an unbraced spine, your spine will still attempt to find stability to allow you to execute the movement. What results is either it will bend backwards at the lower back, or most commonly it will bend forward at the upper back (**side note this is usually an issue on muscle control or mobility). What makes this problematic is that structurally the spine was built to withstand immense forces vertically, thus the vertical arrangement of discs. However it cannot cope with the same forces laterally, which is why weightlifters who snatch from a faulty brace risk slipped discs. Of course in the case of kendo even at the worst of scenarios these forces are minor compared to lifting 3 times your body weight. Yet the benefits of the increased and imposed mobility and efficiency (by forcing you to rotate at the hip and shoulder joints and not bend/“reach” with your spine) within a proper braced position is significant and what makes it necessary in executing proper waza. This, in addition to the safety in executing healthy and balanced movement, will also always look effortlessly cool which is what matters the most (please don’t take my word for it).
So back to the brace! If you have engaged into your brace successfully then succeeding breaths within a brace should be short and sharp, inhaling into the tension. The challenge then moving forward would be being able to keep this tension throughout a particular set of activity. The key here is muscle endurance, not strength, as well as being able to manage faults in the brace to prevent it from deteriorating or collapsing. You screw up in an overeager strike. You attempt to counter attack in a bad position. The dynamic nature of engagement will always alter the quality of your brace, and I find that these short breaths can be used to manage minor faults within it by letting the air fill up the space where there is less tension so that I can reset into an equal brace as I exhale. Being able to keep composure, adjust, and recover into a good brace will enable you to keep a solid kamae allowing you to re-engage and apply pressure from a position of strength.
None of these are hard rules as methodologies will vary from person to person and their level of proficiency. Ultimately I think what matters is that in practicing breathing actively you’ll be able to develop a familiarity with the quality of your brace and kamae wherein you can diagnose yourself and effectively adjust in any given situation. So just try out what works for you, keep calm, burp a lot, and breathe into the brace.