BOOK REVIEW: Let Every Breath by Scott Meredith

Let Every Breath: Secrets of the Russian Breath MastersLet Every Breath: Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters by Vladimir Vasiliev
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book presents an introduction to breath exercises employed by the Russian martial art called Systema. Systema is one of a number of drill & spar-centric (as opposed to technique-centric) martial arts that have developed in modern times in an attempt to cast off the unrealistic and needlessly complicated elements that tend to grow within traditional martial arts (e.g. Krav Maga is a well-known exemplar of such a martial art.) Among the unique aspects of this system is its focus on, and approach to, breath—and breath is crucial in the martial arts, in a fight, and in life.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I’ll begin with positive aspects and then get into what I found off-putting. First, the book offers a clear explanation of principles and drills that are straight forward and will increase one’s awareness of breath. That is laudable. Are these particular principles and drills the end-all-be-all that will take one to heights that no other approach to breathing could (as the book suggests?) No. But is it a solid approach to breath that will yield benefits by making you more aware of breath while helping you to use it more effectively? Yes. Second, the book doesn’t have a lot of competitors in the “breathing for martial arts” space, and so it fits into a substantial void. (Note: the book doesn’t get into martial arts / self-defense drills or techniques, and doesn’t claim to.)

Now, here’s the other half of the open-faced shit sandwich. You’ve likely already gotten a hint of my problem with the book. This will seem like a two-part criticism, but it condenses into one problem with the book’s attempt to sell the reader on Systema. The starting point, as another reviewer noted, is that this system isn’t as completely novel and unmatched as is presented. Is that a damning indictment? It wouldn’t be. Just because this approach shares concepts applied elsewhere and is constrained by the nature of the human body doesn’t mean that it can’t offer its own unique value-added. The problem is that we are told how unique and completely peerless this system is so often that it becomes a bad info-mercial.

I get it. Systema is a product that has to compete in an intense market place with the likes of Krav Maga, MMA, Total Combat Systems, Defendu, and a ton of other self-protection oriented martial arts. It’s Pepsi, and it has to carve out a market share by convincing us of the unlikely fact that Coke products aren’t even in the same ballpark. The problem is that when it dismisses systems like yogic pranayama and Taoist chi gong, it does so in a way that shows virtually no understanding of those systems. When the author is telling us how the Systema approach to breath is superior to pranayama, he describes an asana (posture-oriented) class. If you’re going to convince us that the several thousand year old yogic tradition completely missed an approach to breath so groundbreaking that it will take one on an e-ticket ride to self-perfection, at least have some idea of the scope of what the yogis learned and how they present those lessons to their students.

The second half of this rant is that there is a lot of hagiography to delve through before one gets to the meat of the subject. Now, in general, authors of martial arts books tend to pay homage to their teachers and lineage. It’s not unreasonable that there is some near-deification of teachers in this book. However, at some point it becomes hard to tell whether the book exists to inform readers or as a monument to someone’s ego. This book gets disconcertingly close to the line. (The arrogance issue is made worse by confusion about authorship. It’s said that Meredith wrote the book, but Vladimir Vasiliev takes the by-line. This creates an odd situation because the book tells us how Vasiliev is both an exceptional human being, and humble as well. You can see my problem. Without evidence to the contrary, I can easily accept that Vasiliev is exceptional. I can also believe that he is humble. But when a book with his name on it tells me both of these things, I’m forced by the dictates of logic to reject at least one of them [and doubt is cast upon both.])

If you are looking to expand your understanding and awareness of breath, you may want to give this book a try. I certainly wouldn’t endorse every claim it makes, but there are some interesting ideas presented.

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