Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Breathe with me!

I've talked in recent posts about Rickson's demonstrations and explanations of his breathing techniques.  Ever since I've been training with Dean, I've noted the train-like, rhythmic breathing he practices when training hard.  It's something that a lot of people that have trained with Rickson imitate and I've personally found, even with a poor understanding of the physiology of breathing, breathing in an audibly rhythmic way, at the very least, creates a focus on the breath.  A focus that's easy to forget when you're training hard and if you lose that focus, it can become very hard to remember to actually breathe - something a lot of beginners will identify with!

So, on the recent occasions that I've trained with Rickson, he spent some time explaining his belief in correct breathing method and the benefits he draws from his own education in this area.  Neither explanations were particularly about how  to do it, but more why we should do it.  In the sessions at our club, Rickson went further in talking about how he combines his breathing with movement to create a unique workout, which is documented in "Choke".

Just after the seminar, Richard sent me some links and details of books related to the things that Rickson had talked about, which have been great (cheers Rick), so in this post I aim to give an overview of some of the things that I've gleaned from listening to Rickson and my subsequent reading.  I'll start with the breathing and then move on to Bio-Ginastica, something which Rickson gave great credit to for his own conditioning.

What have we become?
It seems that a lifetime of poor practice, posture and lifestyle has reduced our natural ability to breathe to a series of shallow and inefficient breaths.  Just stop for a second and think about how you breathe normally.  Chances are, like me, that you breathe into the top part of your chest.  As you do, you chest expands and your collar bones and shoulders raise slightly.  Occasionally you'll take a "deep" breath where your chest expands more fully and your abdomen raises too.  Have you ever considered why your body makes you take these additional deep breaths?

Rickson focussed on the shape of the lungs.  Take a look at this picture.
Fig1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

As he pointed out, a lot of the volume of the lungs is in the lower parts of the organs.  So, by breathing at the top of our lungs we are not utilising the full capacity of our lungs.  This is particularly clear when we are "fighting" for breath due to fatigue.  With our minds fixed on the sensation of fatigue and the need to get more air, we normally breathe harder and faster, but still only at the top of our lungs .  The fight for air is one we'll surely lose, as, breathing in this way, we'll never take in as much air as we really need.  Watch someone who's been exercising hard - chances are their shoulders will be up and down like a yo yo.

Now, we all know that to live, we need to breathe. But in his book, "Hatha Yoga - The Yogi Philosophy of Physical Wellbeing", Yogi Ramacharaka gives a detailed explanation of the physiology of breathing and the health impacts of not breathing properly.  I'm not going to spend a great deal of time going over this but suffice to say that we know that putting oxygen into the blood is vital for proper function.  It follows that the more oxygen we have, the better that function will be.

He talks about the misunderstanding of deep breathing and abdominal breathing, whereas he, and Rickson, advocate diaphragmatic breathing, which, to the uninitiated looks like abdominal breathing.  Ramacharaka also talks about "Complete" breathing, which I'll take a look at now.

In "low" or abdominal breathing, we are drawing air into the lower and more voluminous parts of our lungs.  Now, this is preferable to shallow and inefficient high breathing, but the lack of movement of the diaphragm means that we are still not expanding the lungs to full capacity and we are still not utilising the mid-space, or the top of the lungs - we are far from breathing at full capacity.  Take a look again at figure 1.

The thoracic diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity.  When we breath in, it contracts and creates more space in the thoracic cavity for the lungs to expand.  It stands to good reason then, that if we can manipulate or control the diaphragm, then we can create additional breathing capacity (interestingly, both Rickson and Ramachakara also talk about how controlled movement of the diaphragm also facilitates a beneficial gentle massage of the internal digestive organs).

Ramachakara talks about being able to manipulate the diaphragm to facilitate deep breathing and then, in one continuous breath, also facilitating breathing into the mid part of the lungs (thoracic breathing) and finally drawing up the shoulders to facilitate high or "Siphon" breathing.  In this way, we are able to utilise the entirety of the lungs, or "complete" breathing.  I've now tried this quite regularly. It is relatively easy, but requires a little bit of mindfulness (a clue that we're not normally mindful of the most fundamental action our body performs).  When achieved, you do feel good - refreshed and alert and the proof is in the exhalation.
Fig 2: Three types of breathing

Try this:  breath high, then exhale slowly and count.  Breathe low (abdominally), exhale and count - it's probably longer than the high breath.  Now do a complete breath, exhale and again, count.  I bet it's longer still - testament to the extra capacity that you've created and life source that you've inhaled.

Ramachakara advocates practicing this and over time developing this as a new breathing habit. - seems sound advice to me.

A second feature of Rickson's approach to breathing concerns exhalation.  It's natural to fixate on inhalation - we need air to live, but in order to breathe in effectively, we also need to be-able to breathe out.  The air being expelled from our lungs is also doing a vital job in exporting waste from our bodies and in order for new air to enter, space needs to be created.  We often consider that the "working" phase of breathing is the inhalation - we "fight" for breath when we are exhausted - a very active notion.  And yet, it is Rickson's belief that the opposite is true - the most active phase in exhalation.  We must manipulate our diaphragm to expel what Rickson calls the "black gas" from our lungs (a very good visual analogy).  Ramachakara talks in his book about "cleansing" breaths which involved strong and rapid emptying of the lungs.  Inhalation is actually then a very voluntary action as air rushes into the empty cells of the lungs.

So here, we have two parts of the whole and something to bear in mind the next time you are fatigued - by focussing on breathing we can find far more effective ways of both inhaling and exhaling and I think this philosophy really shows how it's a natural skill that, for all of our apparent civilisation and intelligence, we've somehow unlearned .

So with breathing explored, Rickson went on to talk about movement.  Now, I've spoken about fundamental human movement before in this blog and the link with Ramachakara continues in that Rickson's chosen source of movement also stems from Hatha Yoga.  In conversation, he credits much of his own journey into movement, breathing and Yoga to a guy called Orlando Cani - the creator of Bio-Ginastica.  Cani, a Brazilian, is, amongst many other physical education accomplishments, a Hatha Yoga adept.  Combining his physical education knowledge, with elements of Tai Chi, Meditation, and gymnastics, he has created a system which works around the principles of animal-inspired movements.  Again, some of this is display in the clip of Rickson from Choke and there's more information on Cani's website as well as some nice examples on YouTube.

Readers of this blog may recall that in a previous post, I talked about Ginastica Natural under Alvaro Romano.  Until I heard form Rickson about Cani, I'd never heard of him, but, it transpires that Romano originally worked for Cani and, it seems, took Cani's work and re-branded it.  Read more about that in this interesting article.  Cani seems more bemused and disappointed in this turn of events than angry, but it all seems to add perhaps an air of well-marketed emperor's new clothes to Romano's work.  Maybe I'm wrong, maybe Romano has moved in a different direction or evolved in some other way.  It's just interesting to note.

Packaged as a whole, hearing Rickson talk about his philosophy on breathing and physical conditioning and seeing in person his condition as a 54 year old, it's compelling stuff.  Stuff that I've enjoyed looking further into and stuff that I feel can only be of benefit to me in both general health terms but also in my Jiu Jitsu.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very interesting post. i'd love to hear some more about the links and interesting books that Rick sent you.