You are midway through a few rigorous Aikido exercises,
and you realize that your face is turning red because you have been holding your breath
the entire time. As regular cleaning of machine elements is required to keep an engine
functioning smoothly, breath is an important, essential part of any sustained bodily
movement. Most marital artists will tell you that you are most powerful when you exhale or
kiai a shout delivered for the purpose of focusing all of ones energy
into a single movement. Olympic track and field coaches instruct their sprint athletes to
hold their breath when they assume the set position in the starting blocks, roughly one
second before the gun goes off, and continue holding it until they are several steps out
of the starting blocks, thereby producing an effect tantamount to a silent kiai.
Either way, many martial artists and athletic experts consider breath control an integral
part of any reflective, explosive movement.
In humans, breath control is initiated and
maintained by the central nervous system (CNS). First, the CNS must produce a rhythm for
the periodic cycle of contraction and relaxation of respiratory muscles. Second, the CNS
must adapt and adjust this rhythm so that the appropriate inhalation and exhalation of the
lung is maintained for proper blood gas (dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide) homeostasis.
Third, the CNS must integrate respiratory movements with other body movements such as
speech, swallowing, postural changes, and locomotion.
To produce rhythmic respiratory action, the
CNS operates by utilizing aggregates of motoneurons nerves that connect directly to
and stimulate muscles. Motoneurons responsible for the breathing mechanism originate at
the brainstem (rear side of the lower head and upper neck) and extend to the lumbar (lower
back) regions of the spinal cord; motoneurons carry an excitatory signal from the
brainstem, down the spine, to respiratory muscles, which contract upon stimulation. The
minimum neural circuitry necessary for the pattern generation of rhythmic breathing is
contained within the pons and medulla, located within the brainstem. In mammals, rhythmic
contraction of the respiratory muscles continues to function even after the cerebrum and
cerebellum have been removed. The cerebrum controls higher cognitive function, such as
thought, logic, emotion, and memory, and the cerebellum is responsible for the regulation
and coordination of complex voluntary muscular movement as well as the maintenance of
posture and balance. Thus, the brainstem alone is responsible for rhythmic generation of
your breath patterns; moreover, breathing patterns can persist even if the rest of the
brain is clinically dead. However, simple rhythmic breathing is not conducive to survival
in a dynamic world, and the CNS must adjust breathing patterns to adapt to changing
internal and external environments.
When you engage in strenuous exercise, your
tissues require increasing amounts of oxygen to maintain heightened activity levels. The
CNS must determine how much to increase breathing rate to adequately supply the body with
oxygen, while expelling used up oxygen in the form of carbon dioxide. To determine the
adequacy of ventilation and to optimize the effort expended in breathing, the CNS depends
upon feedback from chemoreceptors. Chemoreceptors are molecules on the surface of cells in
the body that respond to specific chemicals or molecules, such as oxygen, and their
essential function in breathing is to provide information to the brainstem about the
status of respiratory gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide) so that optimal activity levels
can be maintained. If chemoreceptors found in major blood vessels detect
increased levels of carbon dioxide or decreased levels of oxygen, they send this
information to the brainstem. The brainstem then sends signals to the respiratory muscles
to increase the tempo and depth of breathing. The major respiratory muscles that make
breathing possible are the diaphragm, which separates the abdominal (stomach) and thoracic
(chest) cavities, and the intercostal muscle groups, which are located between the ribs.
Normal breathing is accomplished by contracting the dome-shaped diaphragm downward into a
flat shape. This contraction increases the volume of the thoracic cavity and lowers the
pressure inside the lungs. Since air prefers low pressure to high-pressure environments,
air is sucked in through the nostrils, travels down the windpipe, and enters the lungs
(i.e., inhalation). We exhale by relaxing the diaphragm a primarily passive
process into its original dome shape, which decreases the volume of the thoracic
cavity and raises the pressure inside the lungs, thereby, pushing the air inside the lungs
to a lower pressure outside the lungs. During heavy breathing the intercostal muscle
groups are engaged, in addition to a deeper diaphragm contraction, which lifts the rib
cage up and outward, further increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity and drawing more
air into the lungs. In addition, muscle groups in the throat and neck may be contracted or
relaxed to decelerate or accelerate forced airflow created by the respiratory muscles.
Furthermore, muscles of the abdominal wall (external abdominal oblique, internal abdominal
oblique, transversus abdominis, and rectus abdominous) may be contracted, stabilizing the
spine during heavy lifting or sudden, explosive movement.
With the scientific understanding of
breathing outlined, we can better appreciate, from a Western point of view, the importance
of breathing in Aikido. Aikido ("Ai" = blending, joining; "Ki" =
internal, life energy; "Do" = way, path) training requires a holistic retraining
of the of the mind and a complete reconfiguration of the muscles in the body is necessary;
one must learn to deconstruct their present conceptual system and unlearn all previously
learned and conditioned responses. Technique alone is not sufficient in Aikido; the
psychophysiological state of the Aikidoka is more important than the mechanics of
movement. Aikido proficiency requires one to extend Ki, and the Aikidoka must be in
a centered state of being to successfully do so. Aikido techniques should be
executed through ones hara the location of ones spirit (source of
Ki) and ones center of mass, located about two inches below the navel. Ones
awareness radiates outward from the hara, bestowing equanimity, stability, and
freedom from doubt and anxiety. The hara is also the ones physical center
from which all major muscle groups symmetrically radiate. Fundamental Aikido skills teach
one to begin movement from the hara and allow this initial movement to flow outward
into ones surroundings. Once aware of your centered physical state, you may
begin to enter a centered mental state of being. When you are centered
physically and mentally, you can effectively extend Ki. Thus, a centered
state of being requires both a physical and a mental transformation.
To extend Ki, one must center
both the physical and the mental organism. In Japanese culture, breath joins the mind and
the body, and breathing techniques are used to attain a centered state. In Aikido,
Misogi (literally, "ritual purification") breathing focuses ones physical
and mental awareness in the hara. During Misogi breathing, the practitioner
comfortably sits seiza (on ones knees) or cross-legged, with spine erect. He slowly
draws breath in through the nostrils and to the hara, and then he takes a moment to
focus all of his awareness in the hara. Slowly, he releases his breath from the hara
and out through his mouth, while visualizing all tension, negative emotion, and illness
leaving his body with the expelled breath. After many repetitions, the practitioner will
begin to relax and feel revitalized; an experienced practitioner will quickly enter a
trance-like, hypnotic state, and, among other experiences, he will "see" a
thick, cleansing fog being drawn into the nostrils and a murky cloud exiting the mouth.
Therefore, breath is ones peace, freedom, and power, i.e., ones centered
state. This centered state resembles accounts of the physical and mental state of
great athletes at the height of achievement, sometimes referred to as "entering the zone"
in athletics. Similarities between being centered and entering the zone are
thoughtless, reflexive action, heightened awareness of oneself and ones
surroundings, time dilation, merged peripheral and focused vision, and diminution of
physiological reflex mechanisms.
With the physical and the mental state centered,
the Aikidoka can now extend Ki in the execution of his techniques. First, the
Aikidoka must reflexively react to an attack, and, to successfully do so, he must be aware
of the automatic system regulating breathing patterns in the body. Second, the Aikidoka
must enter and remain in a centered state of being, and, to successfully do so, he
must become familiar with and eventually learn to control the CNSs response to
increased demands of oxygen required to sustain heightened activity levels. Third, he must
learn voluntary control over muscles involved in breathing to produce efficient breathing
and coordinated, effective movement.
When a beginning student of Aikido is
attacked, his unconscious bodily reactions will cause his breathing and movement to be
inefficient. His natural breathing pattern will increase in tempo and depth, causing a
greater but inefficient exchange of respiratory gasses. His throat and neck muscles will
contract which protect the soft tissues under the muscle but also lead to restricted
airflow. Muscles in the abdominal area will contract to form a more solid base, but are
often overstimulated, depleting energy reserves. The number and frequency of neural
charges will increase causing his senses to be heightened, but the beginner will become
overwhelmed by sensory input, causing confusion and disorientation. The increase in neural
charges also causes natural reflexes to be enhanced, but can lead to overreaction. All of
these natural responses begin with heightened breathing activity, and are inefficient and
not conducive to sustained movement. On the other hand, the expert Aikidoka is cognizant
of his bodys reaction to automatic systems, can control his central nervous
systems response to an attack, and has learned voluntary control over unconscious
By focusing on the automatic breathing
pattern generated by the CNS, the advancing Aikidoka will become aware of this natural
cycle, and he will soon realize that the natural pattern is often times too rapid for
present activity levels. In addition, one will recognize that the throat and neck muscles
are tensed up, causing airflow to be restricted. Recent neurological studies of the brain
have demonstrated the plasticity of the human brain. In other words, the brain is not
immutably "hardwired," and it may reorganize itself to better serve the organism
and adapt to its changing internal and external environments. Since we have the ability to
retrain our automatic breathing rhythms, we have the ability to customize more efficient
breathing patterns; typically a slower, deeper pace is most suitable. Also, the Aikidoka
will learn to relax muscles involved in breathing that will up open airflow. Thus, the
body will have a more efficient mechanism to supply its tissues with oxygen, while
allowing the body to relax by decreasing the number and intensity of neural impulses
reaching the CNSs breathing center. Furthermore, the Aikidoka can dampen reflex
responses or learn to reconfigure emotional reactions to events, which always seem to
accompany the CNSs response to a changing environment, such as a perceived threat or
an attack. It is plausible that if we can exert control over our automatic breathing
mechanisms, we can exert control over other automatic body responses such as reflex
responses or emotional reactions to stressful situations.
Although we can consciously control our
breathing patterns and other bodily responses, most of our preprogrammed responses are
conducive to our survival. For example, if a man takes an extended series of deep breaths
or holds his breath for too long a duration, the brainstem will take over breathing
patterns, making it impossible to kill yourself by holding your breath. However, these
general, preprogrammed responses, propagated by nature through species, can be altered to
better suit the individual. For example, since biomechanics requires muscle force against
a stationary object to produce bodily movement, muscle contractions must occur; however,
the typical person overexerts himself on simple, preprogrammed movements, such as climbing
stairs, because of a lack of efficient movement. So the Aikidoka strives to have the most
efficient movement with the least amount of muscle contraction, i.e. the strongest, most
supple movement with the least amount of energy expenditure. This means that the
Aikidokas stabilizer muscles, including those around the abdominal area, are
minimally contracted to effectively stabilize a base. The same customized alterations can
be accomplished in breathing, in emotional responses to stressful situations, in
heightening or dampening physiological reflex responses, in heightening perceptual
awareness, and in maintaining relaxed, erect posture which is essential to good airflow
and efficient bodily movement.
In summary, the first step toward
efficient, controlled breathing is awareness; you must concentrate on your current
breathing patterns, and you must believe that you can change your nature because you
can. The second step is optimistic, diligent, and patient practice. Systemic body changes
do not happen overnight, or even in a few months; they happen over the course of many,
concentrated practices. The third and most crucial step is reflection: you must look back
upon your progress and acknowledge your small gains in voluntary control over your
inherent breathing mechanism. In this way, you can fully utilize the fruits of your
endeavors, and you may begin to refine the changes you have made and begin new systemic
James Loeser has his M.S.from
Northwestern University, in Biotechnology - Specializing in Medicinal Chemistry /
Bioinformatics. He is a student of Aikido and a dental student at the University of
Illinois at Chicago.
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