According to Survival Topics, you can survive without food for about three to six months. You can live without water for two to ten days. Without air, however, the average person will die, or at least suffer severe brain damage, in three to five minutes. We breathe about 15 to 20 times a minute or 20,000 times a day.  From these findings, it is clear that air and breathing have a very important role in our life, which merits an in-depth analysis.

Correct breathing is important

The brain depends on oxygen to function properly. In a martial arts context, the brain must constantly function at a high level to enable practitioners to focus on their environment and opponents in battle. Without this focus, a martial artist's reaction is slow, and consequently, achieving victory in combat becomes unlikely. Breathing is one of the most important things for maintaining our health. Every cell in our body needs air to produce energy. Without air, cells die or become sick, and these cells can ultimately cause harm to the entire body.

Air is also necessary to have a fast and efficient metabolism, which enables every cell to produce higher amounts of energy. Without sufficient air, cells can still produce energy through an alternative metabolic process that does not require oxygen. However, this process creates lactic acid as a waste product, which slows an athlete down.

Breathing is strongly related to the human body’s natural methods of conserving and manifesting energy. Martial artists should understand the ways in which breathing affects the body so they can incorporate strategies in techniques and movements that fully maximize its benefits.

Breathing theory—how it works

Many organs, body parts, and bodily functions are involved in the breathing process. Understanding how air flows through the body is the first step in understanding breathing. First, air passes through the nose and mouth. The nose filters incoming air, while also heating and moisturizing it.

Next, air passes through the larynx. This body part ensures that food and air each go to separate parts of the body—the stomach and lungs, respectively. After the air passes through the larynx, it flows through the trachea, an airway which is located in front of the esophagus. This airway is a pipe, which is about 12 centimeters long with tiny little hairs. These hairs help to catch any debris that was not filtered by the nose. The debris is redirected to the mouth, where it is swallowed instead of inhaled. At its end, the trachea divides into two smaller pipes (bronchial tubes) which lead the air into the bronchia, a series of progressively smaller tubes. The purpose of this system is to spread the air into smaller sections. Finally, air ends up in the smallest component of the lungs, the alveoli, where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.

The lungs have no muscles. The diaphragm, a large muscle below the rib cage, controls the movement of the lungs. According to Wikipedia, the lungs are connected to the pleura, a serous membrane which folds upon itself and forms two layers. One layer is connected to the ribcage and the other to the lungs. In between the layers is fluid, which comes from the pleura itself. This reduces friction when the ribcage and the lungs expand.

Breathing is a complex process. It is assisted by a variety of different muscles. The diaphragm, one of the most important muscles, performs about 80 percent of the work. It is shaped like a dome and connected to the rib cage. When you inhale, the muscle drops down. This causes the lungs to expand, resulting in the lungs having less air pressure and more room in the chest cavity.

Because the lungs have a lower level of air pressure, they draw in air from the outside. A helpful analogy to understand this air movement is thinking of two bottles connected by a pipe. One bottle represents the lungs, while the other represents outside of the body.. Imagine that both bottles are filled with water to the same level. When one bottle gets bigger (when the lungs expand) the water level will drop in that bottle. When this happens, water will travel from the other bottle (outside) through the pipe to the other bottle. This same flow happens with air when the volume of the lung increases. Air flows into the body when the diaphragm expands the lungs. On the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and goes back to its starting place, pressing air out of the lungs.

The intercostal muscles are also part of the breathing process. The muscles are made up of layers. One is outside of the ribcage, which assists with inhaling. Another is on the inside, which assists with exhaling. Exhaling is also supported by gravity because the weight of the lungs helps these muscles drop as the diaphragm drops.

Once oxygen enters a cell, the chemical process that creates energy initiates. Glucose and oxygen are converted into water and carbon dioxide, producing 686 kilocalories of energy. In this reaction, air and sugar (which are gained through food and water) are converted into energy, producing water and carbon dioxide as waste products. If cells do not have enough oxygen for this reaction, they will utilize an alternative energy pathway called anaerobic fermentation. In this process, which is much less efficient, cells do not require oxygen. This fact is important to note in martial arts training or any type of exercise, because if the body is forced to use anaerobic fermentation, cells will produce lactic acid as a byproduct. This acid negatively affects physical performance, often times slowing an athlete down and tiring them out quicker.  Air is a crucial key for supplying the body with energy—not just for energy but also for endurance.

Theory of oxygen absorption—abdominal breathing

The theory behind abdominal breathing is quite simple. As previously discussed, the human body has different muscles for breathing. These muscles, located near the lungs, consume some of the oxygen they help to bring in. The idea behind abdominal breathing is to use the organs and muscles of the breathing system as efficiently as possible so that more of the incoming air supply is available for the rest of the body. This is best accomplished by using the diaphragm to breathe instead of the intercostal muscles.

According to Authentic Breathing Resources and the Root of Chinese Qigong—Secrets for Health, Longevity, and Enlightenment by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, there are many organs just below the diaphragm, which includes the liver, spleen, kidneys, and stomach. Whenever the diaphragm drops, it essentially has a massaging effect on these organs, enhancing the production of fluids, hormones, and Qi (氣) circulation in these organs. Through efficient breathing using the diaphragm, the organs ultimately function better and more efficiently, benefiting the overall health of the body. Through deeper breathing, the diaphragm moves and massages the organs more effectively.

Another benefit of deep breathing is activating more of the lower lung areas, which are often underutilized by normal, average people. Deep breathing activates more alveoli such that more air can be captured for use in energy production. The rate of breathing slows down because your body gains more oxygen from longer, deeper breaths as opposed to quicker, shallow breaths. With an increased air supply and slower breathing, the body is able to relax. When the body is more relaxed, it requires less energy to function.

Deep breathing initiates a cycle of energy conservation that is beneficial for both martial arts and health. Deep abdominal breathing results in more energy, contributing to longer endurance. The body's muscles can take advantage of an efficient and increased oxygen supply without having to switch to anaerobic fermentation. Energetically, abdominal breathing is beneficial because you move the abdomen. This means that more fat is converted into Qi, which can be used in training or combat. This effect is especially pronounced in reverse abdominal breathing, which will be discussed later on.

Normal abdominal breathing

With each inhale, the diaphragm drops down and the abdomen pushes out. The Huiyin (會陰), located between the anus and the testicles (essentially the perineum), also pushes out. With each exhale, the abdomen withdraws and the diaphragm moves back up to push air out. The Huiyin also gently pulls in.

This breathing technique is mostly used for relaxation purposes and is a very natural and familiar way to breathe. Babies naturally breathe abdominally. However, most people develop the habit of breathing more and more with their ribcage as they grow older.

Reverse abdominal breathing

Reverse abdominal breathing is the opposite of normal abdominal breathing. With each inhale, the Huiyin and abdomen draw in. With each exhale, the Huiyin and abdomen push out. This breathing method helps to lead and build Qi more efficiently. Reverse abdominal breathing occurs naturally quite often, such as when laughing or crying. Reverse abdominal breathing also helps to energize muscles to a higher level, so it is also naturally used when power or strength is needed, such as, for example, when pushing heavy objects.

Breathing as a strategy

According to the Root of Chinese Qigong, by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming breath and Qi are closely related, breathing can be used to manipulate Qi. During each inhale, Qi is led to the body’s center: the Dantian (丹田). With each exhale, Qi is led to the skin. When crying, the body will naturally inhale longer than exhale. As a result, more energy is led to the center than the skin. This explains why it is common to feel cold when crying. Laughing hard causes the exhale to be longer than the inhale, manifesting the Qi outward. This is why laughing creates sensations of heat. Sleeping is another example of the body naturally regulating the breath. During sleep, the body leads energy to the center by inhaling longer, which is why the body temperature drops.

Since different ways of breathing create different effects in the body, a martial artist can strategically utilize specific breathing techniques for different purposes. For example, to neutralize an attack, inhaling can help a combatant take in and absorb the incoming energy and lead it elsewhere. When a fighter exhales during an offensive technique, he can manifest more power. If  he wants to manifest even more power he can use the sound “ha,” which you use while laughing, this will lead the energy even more efficient to the surface. Or you can use the sound “hen,” which comes from crying, to lead the energy faster inward.

You can further apply breathing strategy to energize the muscles during times of great need. People who lift heavy objects naturally employ this breathing technique; they hold the breath to maintain tension during the movement.

Day-to-day and martial arts breathing

The main purpose of day-to-day breathing is to supply the body with enough oxygen to operate smoothly. Normally, people are not consciously aware of how they breathe. As a result you will find that people take quick and shallow breaths, which leads to tension, stress and an unbalanced mind. They would be better served by taking deep elongated breaths, which will relax the body and result in higher states of focus that can be utilized in all aspects of life.

One of the goals for breathing in martial arts is to generate as much power as possible. Martial arts’ breathing emphasizes deep, smooth, and controlled breathing, leading to a relaxed yet energetically efficient state for training and combat. Deeper breathing also helps expand the lungs' capacity and consequently allows the body to bring in more oxygen with each breath. Through specific lung conditioning exercises it is possible to focus on increasing the capacity of the lung in specific areas, allowing for more efficient breathing and greater levels of relaxation.

How to practice martial arts breathing

Correct breathing in martial arts requires practice. As previously discussed, the greater the capacity of the lungs, the more energy the body can produce. To increase the capacity of the lungs, breathe deeply to utilize the entire lung. Relax one side of the lungs and tense the other to focus on specific areas. You can do so by lifting your arm over your head or by shifting your shoulder forward or backward. This will cause the air to be led into the relaxed part of the lungs when you breathe.

Another important skill to practice is leading Qi with each breath. Four Gates Breathing is a traditional martial arts technique for practicing this skill. In Four Gates Breathing, first inhale deeply, and then exhale while imagining that you are pushing a heavy object with your hands and pressing your heels through the floor. It is important to stay physically relaxed. This causes Qi to flow through your arms and legs, but it won’t consume the energy the way tensed muscles do. Continued practice will build up your nerves' sensitivity, and eventually this technique should create an electric, tingling sensation through your limbs. It is possible to accomplish this without breathing, but using breathing to lead Qi makes this process much easier.

After mastering breathing through the four gates (the four limbs), the next step is to add the fifth gate – the Baihui (百會) (located on top of the head). While following the normal Four Gates Breathing procedure, focus your mind on the third eye and the Baihui to lead Qi out through these locations when you exhale. Fixing your gaze firmly into the distance also helps Qi flow and raises your spirit.

Grand Circulation is another common martial arts breathing technique. In Grand Circulation, practitioners increase mental involvement to lead and manipulate Qi more consciously. Grand Circulation uses the Mingmen (命門) gate, located in the spine between L3 and L4. It opens the Mingmen by shifting the hips forward to open up the lower spine while using the mind to lead Qi up the spine.  This portion of the movement should coincide with each inhale. During each exhale, the mind leads Qi out through the arms and legs. Once the Qi reaches the fingers and toes, one cycle of Grand Circulation is complete, and it can then be repeated as needed. The purpose of Grand Circulation is to energize a practitioner’s muscles to generate more power.

Breathing is deeply interrelated with the energy that flows throughout the body. Regulation of breathing leads to regulation of energy. Martial artists can use breathing to harness the power of Qi to enhance and improve their training. In a fight, the right exhale at the right time can generate explosive power. The right inhale at the right time can allow a martial artist to properly redirect and control an opponent's energy.

Though often overlooked, breathing has a vitally important role in our lives. Correct breathing can lead to increased calmness and relaxation, which facilitates greater focus and endurance. For martial artists, success in combat depends largely on high levels of energy and concentration, so proper breathing is absolutely essential.