Yoga for Karate
I attended my first yoga class a couple weeks back and I have to say I’m really getting into it. I started to find a reason for why I like it and its not obvious, other than it seems to mesh well with my personality. Admittedly, I was skeptical and I guess a little ignorant of yoga before I began. How can moving so slowly, breathing, and holding an awkward (or so I thought) pose improve flexibility, tone muscles, strengthen lungs, harden bone, and foster concentration? Wow. Was I ever way off base.
Holding some of the poses we do in yoga is at times more difficult than aspects of karate, hands down. I’m far too amateur to explain it, but there’s something beautiful about yoga. Its expression of the mind and body. It’s meditation in motion. I’ve heard kata referred to in much the same way.
From talking with the yoga instructor and a good friend of mine who’s also very much into yoga, karate, and Buddhist philosophy, it seems that there are a whole network of connections between yoga, karate, meditation, and Buddhism. And its not a simple one.
Yoga and karate focus on the movement of hips, proper posture, and breathing, among others. Let’s look at a few similarities and differences.
Breath is used in karate and yoga to coordinate muscles and encourage the flow of blood. Just as you can twist your body more in yoga when you exhale, exhalation is the focus of karate at the moment of impact. Exhalation during execution of a technique and on impact of a technique, such as a punch or kick, hardens the body but makes it more limber at the same time. When the body is free of air for that instant there is more freedom of motion.
Breathing is a key element of both. The breathing pattern, however, is starkly different. If both yoga and karate are practiced in tandem, they will contribute equally to improved breathing. The slow breathing in yoga builds diaphrammatic strength. In “The East” there is a culture of breathing from the diaphram while in “The West” we tend to breath from our bellies or our chest. Diaphrammatic breathing is linked to deep breathing and allows the lungs to fill more completely, delivering more oxygen to the brain. The slow breathing of yoga is not always as deep but always focuses on diaphrammatic breathing. Breathing from the belly or chest does not strengthen the lungs and diaphram, potentially leading to breathing problems and perpetuating problems you may already have.
Let me indulge in a little personal story for a moment: before I can remember, I had breathing problems. My parents said I always had a bit of “wheez” when breathing and even took medication for it (it was not diagnosed as asthma, which I still maintain was an error). When I was 7 I got pneumonia. This put any improvements to my breathing back by a couple years. Throughout high school I couldn’t play sports because I got winded so quick and as a result “sucked” and never got picked in gym class :) When I was 19 I got pneumonia again. Also this added up to a really sub-par set of lungs (and associated scar tissue). When I entered grad school at 21, I had a really hard time breathing but soon after a friend recommended I try karate class. Things changed.
My karate instructors and my friend taught me to control my breathing. In the 3 years since then my breathing has improved significantly. I still tend to breath from my chest (you can notice this by observing how much the chest rises when you breath) but when I have difficulty breathing, I focus my attention on it and begin breathing from my diaphram. Within a few minutes I feel much better.
Posture and Poses
There are also similarities in some of the poses of yoga and karate. Consider the sun salutation of yoga and the beginning of kanku dai. These both look skyward and focus very keenly on inhalation and exhalation at very precise positions throughout the movement. The breathing is timed at nearly the same rate. In sun salutation, you inhale as you raise the arms and exhale as you lean back. You exhale as you bend forward and touch your toes. In kanku dai, you inhale as you bring your arms up and exhale as you form the sun shape. With a short inhale, you then exhale quickly as you perform the two jodan shuto-ukes.
Second, consider the warrior II pose in yoga and zenkutsu dachi in karate. These are obviously very similar and serve many of the same purposes. Both strengthen the quadracep muscles and tone the thighs and hips. However they have different purposes, which can be said for most comparable stances.
In zenkutsu dachi, the front knee is directly over the big toe of the same foot. This deep stance allows the back leg to launch forward more quickly, letting the karateka move forward faster. Also, the back leg is very slightly bend to held that leg spring forward.
In yoga, the warrior pose positions the knee directly over the heel of the same foot. This places more of the body’s weight on the foot rather than the knee in zenkutsu dachi. The purpose is not to move forward, but to tone muscles. Noticing these differences is important to understand the similarities. Both arts have this stance as a way to strengthen the lower body and promote a balanced frame.
More specifically, there are versions of the warrior stance. Warrior I stands with the hips facing forward and the back foot perpendicular to the front foot. This pose stretches the hip and hamstring muscles and strengthens the quadracep muscles. It is also said to strengthen bone in both legs and the hips. Warrior II stands with hips facing the side, much as a karateka would do when punching with the leading hand (kizami-tsuki).
But yoga is just like slow, very deliberate karate. Karate is just a different tool to reach the same goal: self improvement and self awareness.
Hips, HIPS, HIIIIPS!
If you asked most karate instructors what they would rank number one on the list of things to master in karate, I’m convinced they would say hip movement. In karate, all power comes from hip rotation. Quick movement and closing distances between competitors is a combination of hip movement and leg strength. Much of the self defense aspects of escaping holds, throwing “enemies”, and other motions are centered on the hips of the karateka.
Yogis know this too. Alignment of hips is crucial to avoiding back strain, targeting muscles, and proper breathing. When it comes to alignment, lets compare the tree pose to the set-up for yoko-geri keage. For both, one foot is off the ground and rested on the inner thigh of the opposite leg (albeit in different orientations, but that’s due to the application). The foot on the ground, the hips, the shoulders, and the head are all in alignment to create most stability.
How Similar are Yoga and Karate, really?
From my study of these, they are very similar. For me, I practice karate to further my understanding of myself, to learn more acute focus and to develop introspection. Yoga aims for these goals as well.