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Aikido breathing article

Page history last edited by PBworks 18 years, 2 months ago

I don't know where this came from either...

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 one’s 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 one’s hara

–the location of one’s spirit (source of Ki) and one’s center

of mass, located about two inches below the navel. One’s

awareness radiates outward from the hara, bestowing

equanimity, stability, and freedom from doubt and anxiety.

The hara is also the one’s 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 one’s

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 one’s physical and mental

awareness in the hara. During Misogi breathing, the

practitioner comfortably sits seiza (on one’s 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 one’s peace, freedom, and

power, i.e., one’s 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 one’s 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 CNS’s 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

body’s reaction to automatic systems, can control his

central nervous systems’ response to an attack, and has

learned voluntary control over unconscious bodily


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

CNS’s breathing center. Furthermore, the Aikidoka can

dampen reflex responses or learn to reconfigure emotional

reactions to events, which always seem to accompany the

CNS’s 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 Aikidoka’s 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 body changes.

James Losser

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