March 22, 2015

The importance and power of breath in Judo

It took me about three years of training at Judo before I realised that the most important thing I had learnt thus far was not any single technique, not even how to perform Judo on any generic level: what Judo had taught me more than anything else was the importance of breathing.

Breathing is obviously a very natural thing to do. In psychological terms it is controlled by the autonomic nervous system: it is something that we do not have to consciously think about. However, in terms of martial arts it is worthy of study and understanding for a number of reasons. As the name suggests this neural system is responsible for reflex actions, an essential part of self-defence and sport training. A sub-section of the ANS, the sympathetic nervous system is also responsible for the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ dichotomy so much loved by evolutionary psychologists. To complicate the picture further a second sub-section of the ANS is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is considered responsible for ‘rest and digest.’

In fact the two sub-systems do not work against each other, but rather in tandem. Another way of considering the two is fast response and slow response, with the latter perhaps being better re-phrased as ‘considered response.’  In the thick of a contest or Judo bout you may think that the slow response parasympathetic system is precisely what you don’t want, but the point is in a given situation you need to counter your instinctive reaction with a considered response.  Judo training is aimed at getting you to marry up the speed of flight, flight or freeze decisions with the wisdom and thoughtfulness of a person with a resting heart rate.

Popular psychology books currently make great reference to the duel-aspect of our thinking process, suggesting that the part of the brain that reacts quickly, the reflex part, is common to all mammals. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘monkey’ or ‘chimp’ brain. Whilst this quick reaction process can be vital in processing the need for fight, flight or freeze, it can, because it has short-circuited the thought process lead to terribly wrong decisions is certain circumstances.

Breathing, the control of oxygen to the brain, heart and body is the one part of the ANS that is, in fact, controllable. If we can control our breathing, we control our heart rate, we control our blood flow and we can think clearer. So, when you are angry and want to lash out, it really is useful to count slowly to ten. This allows for the proper regulation of oxygen and puts the ‘monkey’ brain at ease while you consider the consequences of acting out your anger.

So why have I written a potted description of the ANS on a Judo blog?

Because hyperventilation is a real danger to the thought process and although heavy breathing as the result of a physically demanding Judo session or contest is not usually hyperventilation, nevertheless the disruption to the neurological system can be catastrophic in a fight. Once you control your breathing during aerobic action, the thought process becomes clearer. In my own experience once I discovered this, it felt as if the thought process during Judo was slowing down. In fact it was speeding up, becoming clearer. The thousand and one options in my head were reduced to the considerably fewer real ones that were physically in front of me.

This clearer thinking is vital in Judo. A pupil of mine recently said that he was aware of a number of ways to turn over an opponent on all fours. Yet when it came to randori he froze because he could not select the appropriate technique.  In conjunction with technical training it is my job to teach my pupil how to select a technique and this can only be done when he starts to martial his thoughts through the control of his breathing. Once the breathing is under control an analytical process will take place: where am I in relation to the other person; does he have his arms tucked in tightly, or are they above his head; is he cross-gripping his collar; has he balled up or is he loose. These questions need to be answered before an attack is put in. Yet, obviously time is critical, so how do we get the speed of the sympathetic nervous system, the monkey brain that just wants to dive in, to be tempered with the more thoughtful parasympathetic system?  One simple answer is uchikomi:  Drills that emphasise a quick response to a given situation. Alternating the scenario regularly teaches the quick response to the minute differences encountered. Done regularly this training will ensure that breathing remains steady and controlled. Another favourite of mine is getting pupils to speak whilst they are engaged in hold-downs, usually the simple counting to ten in Japanese.

There are other non-Judo-specific ways of developing controlled breathing. I use a number of yoga techniques to teach my own pupils and I also regularly use simple meditation techniques, such as introducing mokusu at the end of training sessions.

There are very real life-learning lessons to be taught in Judo and control of breathing is highly significant. I have written only a little here in this blog. Hyperventilation can, in real fighting terms cause horrendous problems. Over-reaction caused by irregular breathing can result in a self-defence situation being turned into a charge of assault or worse. Equally, a more relaxed response can prove to be literally fatal.

On a practical level, when the heart rate rises, physical skills become affected. As the fight, flight or freeze system kicks in blood flow re-routes, peripheral vision and hearing deteriorate.  Fine motor skills decrease, followed by complex motor skills; gross motor skills remain in good tact, however.

This latter piece of information is relevant to those that have to use physical intervention skills. If your training is not regular and you do not have to use the skills very often, many locking techniques will not work for you: you need to concentrate on techniques that use gross motor skills – large muscle movement.

There are further implications for Judo within the subject of breathing: the power that is generated in a technique can be greatly increased when aligned with outward breath and an opponent will not be able to respond to your attack when he is inhaling.

After the penny dropped for me regarding the importance of breathing in both Judo and potentially violent situations, I quickly understood that the next most important lesson of Judo was mai-ai. More about that another time.

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