“Breathing has never been an issue for me… as an old guy sparring with my fighters, I breathe and recover fully during the breaks between rounds… with no problem. I’ve always had abs… and I’ve always thought I used them properly in the SFG lifts. So I figured I knew how to breathe, and my abs were dialed in. Then I had to abdominally breathe from a cross-legged, seated position in Ronen’s seminar. Suddenly my stomach was contracting when it should have been expanding, and expanding when it should have been contracting – couldn’t seem to get the lower abdominal region to fully contract. But Ronen’s prompts were very clear and if I really thought about my breathing and concurrent abdominal movement – I could coordinate the belly breathing properly. And I’ve continued to practice since the workshop. What I’ve found is that my breathing is slower and deeper. Most importantly, I’m achieving a much greater level of engagement and connection on lifts. I’m very confident that this improved connection will allow me to get stronger in everything… It’s very cool to keep learning tools that help me, and that help me be a better coach.”
—Steve Milles, SFG II, Director Five Points Academy, NYC
Man can survive weeks without solid food, days without water, but only mere minutes without air. In ancient traditions they knew the importance of breathing. Breathing technique drills were a necessary component for guarding both one’s health as well as developing one’s progress on mental and spiritual levels. In the years during which I lived in Japan, Masutatsu Oyama – the founder of Kyokushin karate – used to begin and end his lessons with a special breathing exercise. The instruction was to start with the inhalation breath at tanden (three fingers beneath the navel) – the area that is considered the center of force in the world of martial arts. The ratio between inhalation and exhalation is 1:2 (in other words, if the inhalation lasts four seconds, the exhalation lasts 8 seconds). This drill served as a base for practicing one of the single most important katas in the world of martial arts – the Sanchin kata, in which the practitioner attempts to unify Movement and Breath, during which he or she attempts to generate maximum force. In fact, in his brilliant book The Naked Warrior, Pavel Tsatsouline describes an identical drill: squeeze the glutes, point your navel toward the ceiling, zip up the body, and so on. The goal of the martial arts practitioner as well as the StrongFirst practitioner is to generate maximum force, and this is how we do it.
In Raja yoga it is said that the consistent practice of breathing exercises makes it possible for the practitioner to arrive more quickly at the state scientists call REM (rapid eye movement), which is the pinnacle of maximum relaxation. The average person experiences REM at some point during their nightly sleep, but many yogis can attain it within only 8-10 seconds! It is for this reason that many of the best yogis don’t sleep much – they are able to reach the REM state faster than the average person.
The first step to improved breathing is a renewed integration between the three levels: lower, middle, and upper (belly, lungs, and rib cage) together as one unit in the breathing process – a process that comes naturally to infants and children. Breathing this way enables a larger movement of the diaphragm, thus providing a full and thorough massage of the internal organs of the belly. Later the student learns two types of breathing – stopping the breath with air (representing physical power, as we’re used to with kettlebells and barbells) and without air (which requires mental power), the goal of which is to maximize the oxygenation of the blood flow through the use of long, slow exhalation and deep and thorough expelling of carbon dioxide residues from the body.
Modern man spends a large portion of his life sitting in front of a computer screen or behind a steering wheel, and he is generally tense, stressed out, and unsatisfied with life. Nowadays the average person utilizes a minute amount of their lungs’ capacity (when seated, it’s only half a liter of air per minute, during physical activity 1.5 liters per minute, and during intense physical exercise 3 liters per minute). For this reason it is common to hear people sigh throughout the day – in order to compensate for the lack of air their bodies are taking in.
Through both observation and personal inquiry the masters came to better understand the nature of the mind: that it lacks the ability to be silent, and the path to calming the mind is through mastery of breathing. As such, when we feel stressed or angry, our breathing becomes fast and irregular – the same as when we are approaching the climactic moment of a suspenseful movie – our breathing stops by itself. The regular practice of breathing exercises will imbue the practitioner with fortified strength, calm, and control over one’s will power.
Here’s one recommended breathing drill: between one and three times per day, stand in a split stance (hip width) with your palms resting on your stomach, thumbs pointing toward the navel, the remainder of the fingers under the navel. Begin with a long exhalation while gently pressing your hands inward against your stomach. With the inhalation, push the stomach out with your hands placed against your stomach. Repeat for five cycles, and be strict; do not force your breathing. Do this drill on an empty stomach, and preferably before training.
I have intentionally included very few details in this article. Correct breathing, much like all expressions of strength, is a skill, and therefore must be learned and practiced. Just as we can’t properly learn the depth of details of a heavy deadlift or a Kettlebell swing from one article on the internet, we can’t unlock and understand the many principles and practices of proper breathing without correct and mindful instruction. Breathing practice presents an excellent addition to one’s daily training and will undoubtedly lead to improvement in all levels and aspects of training and life.