We have seen that mind and body are intertwined. Just as the mind moves the body,
the body can move the mind. The key aspect of physiologic control of the mind is
breath control. Respiration is truly the mirror of the psycho-physiologic state.
While many people have developed a proverbial "poker face" with little clues to
their emotions portrayed as facial expressions, their true mental state is always
reflected in their breathing pattern. Anger is characterized by rapid breaths with
forced exhalations. Anxiety is demonstrated by an erratic, fitful breathing pattern
with breaths taken from high in the chest. While respiration reflects your emotional
and physiologic state, it can also be utilized to change the state within seconds.
In the Western world we have been taught to breathe from high in the chest. This
stems from the Western ideal of proper posture characterized by a puffed out chest
with the stomach sucked in. Take a moment and assume this position. Notice how much
energy is expended maintaining this posture. Hold this position for any length of
time and soon you will notice how much tension is present. Maintain this position
for fifteen to twenty minutes and fatigue will soon follow. While the martial arts
teaches us to breathe from the abdomen, with states of tension, fear and anxiety,
most students soon revert back to the shallow thoracic (chest) breaths which serve
only to perpetuate sub-optimal states. In order to fully comprehend proper breath
control, the mechanics of respiration must be understood.
The diaphragm is the primary muscle of respiration. This is the large, flat muscle
separating the abdominal from the chest cavities. The diaphragm contracts thus lengthening
the chest cavity creating a vacuum which draws air into the lungs. The secondary
or so called accessory muscles of respiration include the intercostal muscles (between
the ribs), and to a lesser extent, the neck muscles. The accessory muscles function
to increase the anterior-posterior diameter of the chest cavity as well as to lift
and spread the rib cage.
With good "Western" posture we use our accessory musculature to lift the chest.
Using the accessory muscles without proper use of the diaphragm serves to keep air
high in the chest and does not expand the lungs to their capacity. A normal thoracic
breath draws only 500 to 700 cc of air in the average adult. This results in less
efficient oxygen delivery to your circulatory system and subsequently less potential
for physical action. On the other hand, a deep, abdominal breath typically draws
2500cc to 3000cc of air, expanding the entire lungs for optimal oxygen delivery.
With this background we can now approach the process of proper respiration. Normal,
quiet respiration uses only the diaphragm. This is what is termed abdominal breathing.
The chest is kept completely still and the accessory muscles are not utilized. This
is the proper way to breathe. It is the way infants normally breathe before they
become conditioned and are taught "proper posture." It is the way a cat or other
predatory animal breathes when stealthily stalking game.
Breathing should be accomplished by allowing the abdomen to inflate like a balloon
creating the sensation of air being pulled deep into the lower body. When you have
reached a maximum comfortable breath, press the air even further down towards the
pelvis by tensing the abdomen slightly. Expiration is then accomplished in a gradual,
controlled manner. Keeping slight tension in the abdominal muscles, the air is slowly
released. The accessory muscles should come into play only when winded, contracting
only after a full diaphragmatic breath has been accomplished. The accessory muscles
are then utilized to expand and lift the chest to more fully inflate the very top
portions of the lungs.
All breathing should be done through the nose with the exception of when vocalizing
as when a martial artist performs a kiai. Nose breathing is most efficient for oxygen
delivery and preserves the moisture of the airways. This becomes extremely important
when involved in lengthy, dehydrating workouts.
Benefits of Proper Respiration
Proper respiration has four major benefits for the martial artist. First, through
a neuro-physiologic feedback loop, it keeps the mind calm and "grounded." Just try
to become extremely angry or hysterical while taking slow, deep, abdominal breaths.
It simply cannot be done. In competitive or confrontational situations, some athletes
become so anxious and hyperactive that they are bouncing off the walls. This is
the sympathetic nervous system in action. An activated sympathetic nervous system
releases a flood of adrenaline resulting in the "fight or flight" response. The
adrenaline surge is taxing on both the body and the mind wasting enormous energy
Deep, abdominal breathing with slight tension in the abdomen dampens the sympathetic
response in favor of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous
system fosters relaxation, lowering of the pulse, slowing of respiration and conservation
of energy. You are then able to respond to a threat appropriately rather than reacting
anxiously. The preservation of energy reserves with parasympathetic system dominance
becomes very important in endurance activities.
Secondly, proper breathing allows superior oxygen exchange in the lungs resulting
in improved muscle performance during activity requiring maximal effort. Third,
keeping the breath low in the abdomen automatically keeps your center of gravity
low for improved balance. The fourth and probably the most important quality of
proper respiration is its ability to assist in keeping the mind focused on the present
moment. This will be discussed in detail in Chapter Three.
Developing the habit of diaphragmatic breathing takes considerable practice. It
has taken years to condition your breathing to your current pattern so don't expect
miraculous changes overnight. It will take time to condition your body back to the
normal respiration that it knew as an infant, but it will be well worth the effort.
Summary of the Benefits of Proper Respiration
Calms the mind by calming the body
Allows superior oxygen exchange
Lowers the center of gravity for better balance
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