After almost 40 years of practicing abdominal breathing, I can say with 100% confidence that a persistent, protracted study of abdominal breathing will bring huge benefits to any martial artist—regardless of what their goals are.
So, the following is meant only as a very brief overview of a few facets of abdominal breathing, based upon a combination of associated scientific research and my (www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009132148739) experiences.
First things first, what then is abdominal breathing?
Simply, it is where the abdomen is fully utilized in the moving of the diaphragm—which means, the abdomen expands as you breathe in and contracts to its resting position as you exhale. Or, to put it another way, it is virtually the opposite method of breathing to that employed by most adult humans even though as infants we all breathe abdominally and it is the method employed (as far as I know) by every land mammal on the planet.
Onto the benefits…
A large body of research has demonstrated that our typical negative reactions to potential stressors can be reduced through abdominal breathing.
It does this by enervating and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which then triggers a massive release of endorphins which causes tremendous calm and a sense of well-being, as well as an increase in emotional disengagement.14
Beyond these inherent effects of abdominal breathing on the PNS, additional effects arise when the abdominal breathing is deliberately slowed and paced.
Control of the pace and duration of the breath brings changes in the individual’s heartbeat in terms of its frequency and smoothness during every inhalation and exhalation, which in turn leads to reduced emotional arousal and blood pressure, as well as—as with the PNS—a general sense of peace and well-being.12
And even though during prolonged, intense martial arts training is impossible to always maintain a slow, regulated breathing pattern, it is considered likely these positive effects will persist to some degree beyond the sessions in which it is practiced—even though the duration of this has not yet been researched, so far as I know.13
Additionally, these enhancements of the heart’s beating produces an “energized and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making.”15
That these phenomena (when taken as a description of “mindfulness”) are genuine is reflected in the increased attention paid to them by the military over the last decade as part of their attempt to not only reduce the level of stress felt by soldiers prior and during combat, but also as a way of alleviating PTSD.16
And if the above advantages weren’t enough to make any martial artist—or anybody else—immediately start breathing abdominally, there may yet be additional reasons to do it…
As well as providing the ability to remain calm but alert during times of stress, I know not only from personal experience but from the testimony of others that eventually abdominal breathing produces significantly increased levels of physical energy and physical endurance.
Hold on though, that doesn’t seem right given that as described above abdominal breathing both suppresses the “flight or fight” reaction and activates the PNS and its orders to “rest and digest”.17
Surely, the last thing that should happen then should be for energy levels to increase? This is the reason why it has been noted that, “it would be dysfunctional to have PNS predominance during times requiring high energy and arousal, such as when under threat or attack.”18
What then is happening? Do the increased oxygen levels that abdominal breathing presumably brings and the aforementioned changes in the heart beat, serve to not only nullify the energy-dampening effects of the PNS, but also leave enough left over to boost the individual’s energy beyond normal levels?
It would be fascinating to know what is actually going on!
For some martial artists who experience these elevated energy levels part of the explanation—as well as the source of yet more benefits—might be found in the variations in abdominal breathing they practice.
A potential deficiency of the studies I have seen is that they do not address the differences between “normal” abdominal breathing and the variations on it such as the one that specifically focuses on the part of the abdomen that sits roughly in the pelvis—a variation I shall very imaginatively refer to here as low abdominal breathing.
Low abdominal breathing involves not only a greater movement of the muscles in the lower abdomen, but also a decrease in the movement of the upper abdomen–except during high demand, physical exertion.
So, while I have no supporting scientific evidence, it feels to me like the low abdominal breathing allows for an even more movement of the diaphragm, so perhaps this results in a corresponding increase in oxygenation.
However, another cause may be more psychosomatic in nature…
Advanced exponents of martial arts that practice low abdominal breathing combined with a persistent focus on that area (the hara/tanden/lower dantien, etc) appear to be capable of a greater level of intellectual, emotional and sensory self-manipulation.
Perhaps, these factors equate to an even greater reduction in the physical tension/stress which normally serves to reduce our energy levels and shorten our stamina. Or, in other words, the low abdominal breathing may allow us to liberate more of our innate energy.
So, low abdominal breathing may enhance the effects of the “normal”, garden-variety of ab breathing, however it would seem that by whatever combination of processes, the use of abdominal breathing prior to and during dangerous and other potentially stressful situations creates the ability to simultaneously manifest the useful symptoms of both the PNS and the SNS’ “flight or fight” reaction, while also avoiding the potentially negative aspects of both—essentially allowing an individual to “have their cake and eat it too”.
Because of these awesome abilities—and others—I can’t imagine abdominal breathing not being at the center of every aspect of my martial arts training,
That said, for me, the study of abdominal breathing has rarely been anything even close to easy and I have never known anyone who has pursued it with the necessary dedication to find it less than extremely challenging.
But for so many reasons, for any martial artist—whether they practice aikido or kyokushin, iaido or kenjutsu, tai chi or BJJ—I guarantee the struggle is worth it…so, so, so worth it!
(The above essay is adapted from a section of the Kindle book “Flawless Deception: the truth behind the samurai schools.” (https://www.amazon.com/Flawless-Deception-behind-samurai-schools-ebook/dp/B014OMZ0EA ))
12, 13, 15, 16, 17. Milton Z. Brown, Ph.D., Regulating Emotions through Slow Abdominal Breathing (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Center of San Diego (www.dbtsandiego.com)
- Rick Hanson, PhD, Relaxed and Contented: Activating the Parasympathetic Wing of Your Nervous System (Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom (http://www.wisebrain.org/ParasympatheticNS.pdf), 2007)
- Monique Moore, PhD, David Brown, PsyD, Nisha Money, MD, MPH, ABIHM, Mark Bates, PhD, Mind-Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System, (Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (www.dcoe.health.mil), June 2011, Version 2), p7