Breathing & Muchimi – An Interview with Higaonna Sensei

Translated by: Maurizio Di Stefano and Enda Flannelly

The below interview is from a Japanese text called ‘The truth about Okinawan Karate’. We will be releasing pieces of this interview with Higaonna Sensei over the next few editions.

Breathing is everything

To begin with, perhaps you could explain to us the characteristics that are peculiar to Goju Ryu?

Higaonna: In simple terms, we’re talking about techniques capable of producing hardness and softness through breathing.

So does that mean that the techniques are simply based on breathing?

Higaonna: Exactly. Movement while breathing. It is the harmony between one’s body and one’s breathing.

It is often said that one breathes in quickly and one breathes out slowly...

Higaonna: Indeed. Basically there are 6 ways to breathe: to breathe in quickly and breathe out quickly, to breathe in quickly and breathe out slowly, to breathe in slowly and breathe out quickly, and so on; there are many ways.

And their use depends on the techniques, does it not?

Higaonna: Exactly, it depends on the techniques. The importance of breathing is so great that you can actually say that it is everything. Naturally, such a breathing method is initially undertaken in a conscious way, but training gradually leads to a state in which one becomes unaware of one’s breathing.

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In that case, isn’t it the exact opposite of the Shurite school? Shurite maintains that breathing must be natural.

Higaonna: And so it should be. Our breathing method calls for breathing in through the nose and breathing out through the mouth. And then we have diaphragmatic breathing [eg. “Tanden Kokyu”]. There’s also abdominal breathing. When we breathe out, we do so from the mouth, but we can also breathe out from the nose. When we breathe out, as the mouth opens, the throat closes in a natural way. We carry out our techniques in accordance with this way of breathing, but we don’t show our breathing to our adversary. You don’t hear it. We breathe in silence. At the beginning we focus on it as we practice, but it eventually becomes natural or automatic. But our breathing should not be heard first.

Not showing our breathing means not allowing our movements to be anticipated, isn’t that so?

Higaonna: Exactly. That is why as soon as our adversary breathes out we immediately carry out our techniques. This is why it’s necessary to be able to perceive breathing. We use our breathing to interpret that of our adversary.

Initially we consciously train our breathing, in order to learn to read that of our opponent. Humans determine the conditions for victory or defeat at that moment in which they are breathing out. You cannot attack when you’re breathing in. This is why Goju Ryu teaches us to breathe deeply and in such a conscious manner.

As we get older the way we move changes, and so does the way we breathe. We can stop breathing and apply a given force, or enact that force together with our breathing. But it’s necessary to perceive this in a conscious way. In sanchin we apply a force as we breathe out while saying “Ah”. This is also the case when kicking, given that there are certain kicks that we carry out without breathing and others that call for a release of energy as we breathe out. It can be difficult at the beginning if we can’t perceive all this.

This is also apparently the case with the Chinese chuan fa [kenpo in Japanese]. Its traditional combat techniques call for a link between breathing and the emission of energy: Goju Ryu, therefore, adds to that tradition its own unique brand of study, isn’t that right?

Higaonna: As part of the teachings of the Master Chojun Miyagi, it is stressed that when we breathe the first thing we should perceive is our loin area [“koshi”: a specific term that indicates the pelvis, the hips and the belly in Karate] and our lumbar vertebrae. And also the tanden. The anus is tightened as if we are trying to retract it and we channel our energy to the centre of our body. When we breathe out we do so directly, from the mouth. In this way the speed is increased and power is created.


Higaonna: When we block, we shouldn’t use force. “Muchimi” means that before your adversary attacks you already have to be in control.

Does “Muchimi” not mean elasticity then?

Higaonna: Not only that, it also means that before the blow arrives you must read it and curb it. In this way we can take hold of the opponent’s arm and push him back. If this is done after the opponent has used force, the result is a clash of forces. We must lessen the blow before force has been applied.

The last time also, Master, you said that a difference with Japanese Karate lies in the fact that in the latter, once we have blocked, we let go of the opponent.

Higaonna: This is true. If we push before the blow arrives, the distance between you and your adversary is reduced. This is why the most effective blows are the short ones. In order for them to contain energy our breathing needs to be correct.

In present day Karate, which has now been transformed into a sport, we strike and retract our hand quickly, and therefore the distance between us and our adversary returns to the original one.

Higaonna: As Master Takamiyagi has already said in our discussion [this is a reference to a different chapter in the book], the Masters of old used to teach that once we had blocked we had to pull and get in closer. This, in Okinawa, is called “Kakie”. These days nobody even knows how to write that [laughs]. But also in China this technique was expressed by a sound like “kaki”. And once you had gotten closer, you followed on with a technique called “Kou” (leaning).

By “Kou” we mean close physical contact, isn’t that the case? The hand that takes hold pulls forcefully and the distance between us and our adversary, instead of not changing, is actually reduced!

Higaonna: Exactly. By blocking in this way, we pull the opponent and we attack by following the arm. And this is done at great speed, like a whip. If we follow the arm, it doesn’t matter how our opponent moves, we will find him. In this way, we can attack like this [he strikes the opponent’s neck with a Nukite].

I understand. And this too is based on the theories present in the Chinese Quan Fa, correct? And all of this is what in Okinawa is called “Muchimi”?

Higaonna: Exactly, it is “Muchimi”.

Even the “Sanchin”, when performed in front of a Chinese person, is recognised as “Sanchen”. Apart from Tensho and the Gekisai, which are Kata that were invented in Okinawa, we’re talking about forms that originated in China.

Although it is said that Kururunfa is written in characters that are very Japanese.

I believe that at the basis of Karate not only will you will find China but all of South-east Asia. I say this because there exists techniques in Karate that cannot be found in China. And to get back to those roots is the objective that I have given myself for the future [laughs].