Kokyu — How to breathe naturally, technically and harmonise with your opponent

what is kokyu?

Kokyu is the Japanese word for breathing.

For breathing as an action, there are three basics:

  1. Breathing in
  2. holding your breath
  3. and breathing out. 

The question is how that works in case of Martial Arts. To explain this, I will add the concept of In and Yo (Japanese pronunciation) or Yin and Yang (Chinese pronunciation).

in and yo

Breathing in is a In (Yin) state. A necessary but dangerous state.

You are vulnerable for attack while breathing in. Breathing in is therefore an expression of weakness, or an opening in your guard. If you can see the breathing of your opponent, it is easier to see when he is going to attack. Use these inevitable In (Yin) states to your advantage.

Harmonise with your opponent to attack when the opponent enters – or is made to enter – an In (Yin) state. Like this Tanto Dori shown above. As Ukemi raises his arm to attack from above, he breathes in and enters an In state. At that time, before the knife comes down, attack in your "Yo" state.

Logically, hide your own breathing. You don't want to be the opponent taken advantage of.

Holding your breath and breathing out are both Yo (Yang) states. These states are attached to power and being able to exert force. Use these states when you execute a technique.

natural kokyu

Usually, you do not breathe in a forced way, you breathe naturally. If you push something you usually hold your breath and exhale as you stop pushing. That is not a matter of training, it occurs naturally.

If you are surprised you tend to inhale quickly and exhale long and relaxed when you feel relieved. It depends on circumstance how you breathe, but the best is to observe natural responses.

For example, Yokoyama Kancho mentioned in his book that your breathing becomes very shallow when doing tiny work. 

Say you're reparing a watch or a clock with tiny parts. You need to slow down and make your breathing shallow so your hands become really still.

technical kokyu

As you execute techniques, you shouldn’t make any other sound then the necessary or unavoidable.

If you practice movement enough that your body makes it its own, the breathing should naturally follow. Any avoidable motion or sound caused by breathing should be avoided in order to not telegraph anything to your opponent.

However, it is easier said than done. And you still did not get your 'answer' to how to breathe in Karate, right? Well yes and no. But I understand that you might be looking for a more practical approach.

Think basic Gyakuzuki: 



In to Neutral.


half breathing

It's simple. Logic.

Take Pinan Godan's opening sequence for example. This one 👇

Do it on 1 breath. But not a long one — they're 2 moves, executed in succession. 

No matter if your rhythm is an ultra quick one-two...

...or a one—two: use "half-breathing".

Use 1 breath for 2 moves. Soto Uke uses the first half, Gyakuzuki your second half.

That's it. The rest is practise.

Apply this to:

  • Kette Junzuki
  • Kushanku Soto Uke, Renzuki
  • Wanshu Gedan Barai, Gyakuzuki


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