Controlling your breath

Last week I took part in shiai practice at Columbia University. After the practice one of the students asked how he can manage his breathing during shiai. I thought this would be a good topic for a post!

I think most kenshi will be out of breath at one stage or another in shiai, it's a hectic situation with both parties trying their best to take ippon. There is no time to catch your breath, but if we practice controlling it in advance, we might have an advantage.

Increase lung capacity. 

Probably the easiest way to do this is to engage in regular exercise. Kendo is of course a great source of cardiovascular exercise and over time, our lung capacity will definitely increase naturally through the development of our kendo. 

Depending on your interests outside of kendo, activities including walking, running, swimming or cycling can also be of great benefit to our breathing (and over all health / fitness). Lifting weights, cross-fit and any activity that increases your heart rate, Yoga and other similar forms of exercise that focus on maintaining balance through the core, and keeping breathing steady. All of these activities can help to up your lung capacity.

Next lets take a look at how, when and where to breath during kendo practice.


I learned this breathing technique when taking singing lessons in my teens. As it turns out, it was very adaptable to kendo and other activities. The principal of breathing in through the nose, deep into the lungs, and out through the mouth should work for every activity. The amount of time you hold the breath will vary. 

Breathe in through your nose, try to take a short, sharp but deep breath. Breathe down into the bottom of you lungs, into your stomach and diaphragm. Hold it there for a few seconds, and breathe out slowly, pushing the air out completely from your lungs. Take another breath in trough your nose and repeat. 

Older and more detailed post on this topic - Breathing


When I first began learning kendo, I was told to focus on breathing during Kata practice. My teachers said that you should try to do each kata in one breath.

I apply this from the beginning of Kata, taking a breath before each set begins. Before taking kamae, inhale sharply through the nose. Move forward to meet your partner and let out some of your breath as you kiai "Ya!" or "Toh!". Either hold, or slowly exhale the rest of your breath as you return to your starting position. The moment you raise your bokken to chundan-no-kamae is when you should take your next breath, in preparation for the next kata.

Inhale in the moment before taking your kamae.
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I struggled initially to do the full kata in one breath. While building your lung capacity, it is ok to breathe normally after you kiai. Just make sure you try and hold your breath longer each time you practice.

For keiko, ji-geiko and shiai, I breathe before bowing to my opponent. I hold that breath through sonkyo and depending on the situation, let it out as my first kiai or use it for my first strike.


One of my favorite teachers in Japan gave me this piece of invaluable advice. "Never breathe past issoku-itto-no-maai". 

He said that during any practice, kihon pracitce or ji-geiko, we should start at a distance where our shinai does not touch our opponents (similar to the distance at the beginning of shiai). This is a safe distance, where we can breathe, settle our kamae and begin to engage our opponent. As we move closer and start to feel out our opponents kensen, we can kiai to show our spirit, but once we move closer to striking distance we should be holding our breath in order to strike. 

If we manage a successful strike and move past our opponent, we should turn at a distance where our shinai do not cross, giving us time to breathe again or attack as the opponent chases us. 

I have found this to be extremely beneficial, it gives me a sense of focus, and when I do it right I feel that my seme is more effective. 

I also try to watch for the moment an opponent breathes, this is a great time to strike or upset their kamae.

Issoku-itto-no-maai - We shouldn't breathe past this point, except to strike.
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Putting it together

If we take the 3 points above and put them together: 

  1. We should breathe in sharply through our nose and hold the breath deep in our lungs. 
  2. Breathe before you cross swords with your opponent and Kiai once to show your spirit. You can continue to kiai while making seme and closing in on you opponent. 
  3. Hold your breath once you enter striking distance, only using it as you strike, or if you step back out to distance. 
  4. Let your breath out as you strike and pass your opponent, when turning, turn at a safe distance to breathe again, or reengage your opponent as they turn.

As we engage our opponents kensen, begin to manage your breath.
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Putting it into practice

Very simply, during your basic kihon practice, try to follow the above steps. As your breathing gets better, try to perform multiple strikes in one breath. Breathe, kiai, make seme, strike, turn, make seme again and strike.

For those who already have this accomplished, try to practice it during waza keiko. Doing three or four debana men with total focus between each, don't do lazy zanshin, keep mind contact with your opponent and make it feel real.

Similar exercise - Grading orientated uchikomi geiko


If we practice breathing like this, we should be able to manage our breath better in shiai. Of course shiai is often very hectic and we will find ourselves in situations where we have to breathe. So long as we take quick breaths in through our nose, and try to control our breath we should be ok!

Feel free to leave comments with your methods or ideas!
Thanks for reading!