Breath training, in one form or another, is a core component of many martial arts. From the Chinese styles to the Russian ones, almost every martial tradition has a component devoted to the study of breathing. It is understandable that the martial arts placed such a great emphasis on breathing methods when we experience the effect of combat or stressful situations. In this introductory article we look at some of the varied breathing methods and the context in which they are used.
The Nature of breathing
Most people know of breathing for its primary purpose, to bring air into the lungs so that our bodies can absorb oxygen from it, then to push carbon dioxide (a metabolic by product) out of the body. Although the breath can be ‘used’ for many other purposes as we will see in this article, we should not forget this very important primary role. When you really stop to think about it, in spite of all the varied uses for the breathing found in traditions across the world, this main process alone is quite remarkable.
The conscious control of the breathing can create a wide variety of effects in our bodies linked simply to the gaseous exchange. By either starving or flooding our bodies with oxygen we can alter many aspects of our biological process. The now famous master of the cold, Wim Hof, for instance utilizes a type of ‘hyperventilation’ to flood the body with oxygen with remarkable effects. He has proven in a clinical setting that his process enables people to fend off not only freezing temperatures, but also endotoxins and their effects.
Similarly, breathing allows us to control our pain response, as evidenced by the classic advice given to women while giving birth is of course to ‘breath’. This same process of breathing through painful situations or experiences is, of course, useful to the martial artist who may be experiencing painful sensations either in practice, competition or the real fight. It may well be that the deeper breathing occurring in these states of unrest results in a similar hyperoxygenation to that of the Wim Hof Method. Just as that method can keep the pain of ice at bay from our minds, so may a focus on our breathing resulting in a flood of oxygen stave off pain signals.
Outside of this however, many methods from a hugely diverse group of practices have used the breathing for a variety of other purposes.
Breathing and the mind
This link between pain and the breath hints at a very interesting concept; that the breath and the mental state can be closely linked. This should, of course, come as no surprise to most people. Many traditional meditation practices maintain the breath at the very core of their method and the link between the breathing and the mind is well established for the practitioners. The breathing can become a stable process for the mind to constantly return too when it wanders away from the practice. It becomes a legitimate tool, quite unrelated to the gaseous exchange that is its primary role.
Although these adepts will be very conscious of the breath, most people experience changes to their breathing cycle caused by unconscious processes. It is worth observing your breathin, not constantly but simply notice what your breath is doing when you are performing various tasks or under some stress or another. You will note that the breathing can sometimes pause, it can become shallow, it can be deep and slow, or shallow and fast … it really is all over the place when we take the time to observe it!
But this is certainly not something to worry too much about. It is of course also a natural process and the breath will jump here and there as and when it needs to, speeding up and slowing down, pausing and all of the other things it may do. With that said we should not assume that we cannot train ourselves to be naturally more efficient and centred in our breathing methods. Again, traditions throughout the world have delved deeply into this subject. When one of your primary tools for illuminating your practices is breathing, you want to make sure it is working well!
Types of conscious breathing
In order to train the breathing to be efficient when we are not consciously thinking about it, we need to consciously breath in specific ways that help the body to form ‘habitual’ breathing patterns. As I mention above, there are a number of well-known breathing methods that martial artists across the ages have employed. From Miyamoto Musashi to Rickson Gracie, many great names have emphasised the importance of breathing techniques to enable them to perform well in combative encounter. Let’s look at just a few of them
Ok, this may sound a little strange, but conscious natural breathing is a little different to simply breathing naturally. The natural breathing here could perhaps be better defined as a ‘trained Natural Breathing’. For this method we consciously breath with depth and fullness, but without any thought of where the breathing may go or how it is achieved. This type of breathing is the first stage of breath work, simply consciously breathing in and out with awareness and focus. The benefits of this type of work lay in its simplicity. There is no ‘technique’ to follow and no complicated concepts to adhere too. We simply breath, but with depth and focus.
Using the natural breathing method, we learn to breath in such a way as to feel the fullness of our lungs. This is something that we may rarely feel if we do not focus on it deliberately as usually our mind is on other things, the breathing is somewhat erratic, or we may simply not need to breath fully. Over time, the conscious feeling of our own lung capacity penetrates the automatic breathing, when this happens the breathing cycle slows as we breath more deeply. When this occurs it can have an impact on stress levels, relaxation, energy expenditure and a number of other systems around the body.
This, to some, can also be regarded as natural breathing as it is the way we observe humans, who have not been touched by modernity, breath. It is true that our species tends to breath with an extension of the belly during the in breath and a contraction of the belly during the out breath, but the modern pre-occupation with flat stomachs combined with a high degree of stress has disrupted this process.
For many, breathing ‘up’ in the body has become the norm. It is especially a problem for men, who tend to ‘pull in their stomach and push up their chest’ but throughout the modern world we can observe such a condition. Breathing up in the chest is a sign of tension, be that mental or physical and tension and is also invariably a sign of stress. Imagine you have just had some terrible news, that you must do something about it immediately, you will notice the chest start to rise and tighten as the burden begins to weigh on you.
Belly breathing is the antidote to this and is a technique that I associate with ‘relaxation’ and release. As the breath flows in, the volume of air entering the body and the resultant inflation of the lungs pushes or pressurises the body cavity. By allowing the belly to expand as the air flows in, we are allowing the body to remain relaxed and avoiding an increase in internal pressure. Then as the air flows out and the belly returns to its previous position, we allow it to flatten in accordance with the reduction in internal pressure. This process means that the body never tenses during natural belly breathing and, combined with the increase oxygenation, allows us to remain relaxed.
This type of breathing can be used in association with the HeavyBody method of training to release and sink. It is one of the keys to unlocking the tissues of the torso so that they can ‘drop’ with gravity and produce a heavy downward force.
Here we find one of the most famous breathing methods. Reverse breathing is found in numerous spiritual and energetic practices, from Yoga to Chi Gong. It is a method found in traditional religious methods and martial arts. As such there are innumerable descriptions of its benefit. Some traditions will talk of it stoking an internal fire, some of it pooling and compressing Qi energy, still others talk of its health benefits for the digestive system or for even reproduction! We will not be going down that road in this article, but that isn’t to say that such benefits do not exist.
Instead, the benefits of reverse breathing for the MartialBody practitioner lay in its deliberate compression of the active centre of the body. I have discussed this area in detail here, and the addition of reverse breathing is one of the foundational developmental methods for this area of the body.
Reverse breathing is (as the name suggests) the reverse of belly breathing. As the breathing comes in the belly actually pulls inward, without the chest raising, then as the breath flows out the belly extends. This is not a particularly easy thing to do and take some time training to begin to get right. Invariably when we initially train reverse breathing, we will raise our chest and shoulders. But this is an error, and it takes consistent and focused practice to avoid.
This process of sucking the belly inwards as the interior of the body is pressurised by an influx of air creates an interesting effect. It bolsters and re-inforces the body by tensioning the tissues of the abdomen. This mild, repeated tension, over time, will begin to develop something akin to a corset around the centre of the body. The tissues become more controllable and thicker as we become more and more aware of their existance. You may look at an adept of this type of breathing and note how their mid-section looks mildly thicker than most people. This is a result of constant work on this method.
Of course, for a ConnectedBody it is vital that our midsection can adequately connect the upper and lower halves of the body. Reverse Breathing is a very useful tool in this aim to connect ourselves together.
Task Specific Breathing
The breathing is very adaptable and can be used for a wide variety of purposes as we have seen. But as I mention in the introduction, ultimately it is there to give our tissues a reliable supply of oxygen. If the supply of oxygen is not forthcoming, then the cells cannot rid themselves of the waste products of metabolism efficiently and begin to run out of steam. Muscle fatigue is the most obvious example of this, and any athlete will tell you that an incorrect breathing pattern can be the difference between performing well or performing poorly.
As such there are many tricks that have been developed to overcome the load of a specific task so that we can overcome its effects. Adepts around the world figured out that they can optimise the breathing to perform better, for longer. Perhaps the best methods I have seen in this area have come from the Russian Martial Arts. They use breath optimisation techniques to deal with a variety of situations from prolonged isometric holds to the effect of heavy and penetrating strikes. Those interested in these techniques should seek out some of the material released by Vladimir Vasiliev or the excellent UK instructor Rob Poyton.
In a nutshell, we can adapt the breathing techniques dependant on circumstance in order to relieve some of the load on our bodies as we work on various tasks. This could take the form of lifting a weight, holding an isometric contraction, moving smoothly through ranges or absorbing strikes. However, these varied breathing methods can also help us to get oxygen when we are in poor positions. A simple exercise you can try is a leg raise, like those found in the HeavyBody method, where the legs go all the way over the head and touch the floor. Holding this position, you will notice that you are unable to take a full deep breath and that it is very easy to become out of breath in a short period of time. However, when in this position you can utilise a task breathing method called burst breathing. Here, you take small, rapid breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. You will find that although there is some effort in breathing like this you will not be ‘out of breath’ at any point.
In my opinion neglecting the breathing is perhaps one of the greatest errors a serious Martial Artist can make. It informs all other body methods, and should the breathing be erratic or out of sync with our movements it can be disastrous for our performance.
Here I have only outlined very few of the methods of breathing that can be used. There is an enormous body of work on the effects of breathing and breath methods for every conceivable purpose. There is also an enormous body of literature from the scientific community on the subject. As such it is quite easy to lose yourself in a sea of information.
The FluidBody foundations deals with the Breathing as a primary focus and I have selected a few key methods for this course that I believe are most useful for beginners. Check out the course here.
Wim Hoff Method - https://www.wimhofmethod.com/
The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults - paper here
Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress - Paper here
Vladimir Vasiliev Breathing Method - www.russianmartialart.com
Rob Poyton Cutting Edge Systema - https://systemauk.com