BOOK REVIEW: The Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurlien Broussel-Derval & Stephane Ganneau

The Modern Art and Science of MobilityThe Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurelien Broussal-Derval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is designed to help athletes (and those who train athletes) increase mobility. The authors draw heavily upon yoga and martial arts drills (especially judo and jujutsu groundwork drills) in addition to the usual suspects of modern fitness – i.e. calisthenics, kettlebell, etc. It’s a visual book. The text is highly distributed toward the first half of the book. The heart of the book is pictures and descriptive captions of the exercises and practices described. This isn’t a complaint. I think there is sufficient discussion of the topics addressed and that said discussion was clear.

The book is organized into four parts, and — within each part — by anatomical region. The four parts are: Pain, Breathing, Movement, and Mobility. The section on pain offers many self-massage techniques, often using foam rollers or balls to counteract myofascial pain. I was particularly impressed to see an entire section devoted to breathing, and that it not only explored exercises to free up the diaphragm and intercostals (rib muscles) but also discussed issues such as the role of stress on breath. As mentioned the parts on movement and mobility are heavily oriented toward conveying exercise sequences graphically, and the chapters were oriented by parts of the body.

With a book that is so graphically-oriented, it’s important to mention that the photography, anatomical drawings, and diagrams are well done. The photos make it easy to see what is happening. It seemed to me that they used the right number of photographs to convey the movements involved, and they augmented these with arrows and lines to show direction of movement and alignments. It was usually quite clear what the movement was even before reading the captions. The photos are of varied sizes and orientations as needed to convey the exercise at hand. The anatomical drawings are clearly labeled.

I will say there were three exercises that I found troubling, but I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt as the book seems to be directed toward athletes. I don’t think these are things that will give most athletically-built people too much trouble especially when practice in moderation. However, as anyone may pick up such a book, I would be cautious of these three activities – especially if you haven’t been training in a while or are new. First, doing loaded lunges (i.e. barbells across the shoulders) with one’s knee way out forward of the toes. As the point of the book is mobility, I don’t have a problem with doing floor exercises on a knee this way, but that’s a lot of pressure to load onto connective tissue. Second, doing cobra (Bhujanga, or what they call “Sphinx”) with straightened arms and thighs resting on the floor. That almost always creates a sharp kink in the back with one spinal process prying into another. One can do Up-Dog (Urdhva Mukta Svanasana) with thighs off the ground or Cobra (Bhujanga) with your navel on the ground, but you shouldn’t confuse the two. Finally, they mention doing a roll up into shoulder stand. Unless you are extremely experienced, this is a bad idea because with the chin tucked into the chest there is very little room for error. Work up into shoulder stand slowly and easily. I will point out that this is what I noticed as a yoga teacher, individuals with other experience may see other issues, but I have some experience with the jujutsu drills and didn’t notice anything problematic.

That said, I thought this book was well done. The organization, explanations, and graphics were excellent and it will be a helpful resource for athletes working on mobility issues.

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5 Interesting Respiratory Facts for Yoga Teachers


Pranayama (breath exercise) is a crucial part of yogic practice. While I may spend less time on the pranayama portion of my practice than the asana (postural) part on most days, I’ve come to view pranayama as at least as important. (i.e. It packs a lot of punch.) With that in mind, here are a few fun facts about respiration for you your consideration:

 

5.) Asthma Fact: People in richer countries are more likely to have asthma, but–within more wealthy countries–poor people are disproportionately effected. (Asthma is a condition in which lung tissue becomes inflamed, and thus it’s hard to breath.)

Source: Krucoff & Krucoff. 2000. Healing Moves. New York: Three Rivers Press. p. 288

Yogic Relevance: There’s at least some preliminary evidence that yoga practice can benefit asthma patients. Mekonnen, D. & Mossie. A. 2010. “Clinical Effects of Yoga on Asthmatic Patients: A Preliminary Clinical Trial.” Ethiopian Journal of Health Science. Vol. 20(2). pp. 107-112.

 

4.) Altitude Fact: At the summit of Everest, atmospheric pressure is about 30% of what it is at sea level.

Source: Coulter, H.D. 2001. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. Allahabad: Himalayan Institute India. p. 96.

Yogic Relevance: The slow deep breathing you sometimes teach in pranayama courses could be a life-saver. Bilo G. et. al.  2012. “Effects of Slow Deep Breathing at High Altitude on Oxygen Saturation,” Pulmonary and Systemic Hemodynamics. PLoS ONE. Vol. 7(11): e49074. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0049074.

 

3.) Lung Fact: If one extracted, flattened, and laid side-by-side the 300 million alveoli of the average person’s lungs, they would cover an area greater than the average one bedroom apartment. (Alveoli are the little sacks at the end of the bronchioles where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.)

Source: Hymes. A. 2009. “Respiration and the Chest: The Mechanics of Breathing.” in Science of Breath: A Practical Guide by Swami Rama. Honesdale, PA: The Himalayan Institute Press.

Yogic Relevance: Vital capacity (total amount of air one can breath in and out of those little sacks) is increased through yogic practice. Karthik, P.S. et. al. 2014. “Effect of Pranayama and Suryanamaskar on Pulmonary Functions in Medical Students.” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. Vol. 8(2). pp. BC04 -BC06.

Note: there has been confusion about the degree to which yoga helps VO2 max (maximum oxygen utilization), at least in comparison to other forms of exercise, because there has been mixed results in the literature. The consensus seems to be the effect–if any–isn’t large compared to cardiovascular exercises. The strength of the pump (i.e. the heart) seems to have more to do with this particular measure than the lung’s holding capacity. While VO2 max is an important measure for athletes, the fact that it may not be improved by yoga doesn’t mean yoga doesn’t offer many fine benefits for athletes. As I recall, this is dealt with at length in Broad’s book (i.e.  Broad, W.J. 2012. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. New York: Simon & Schuster.)

 

2.) Nose Fact: Rhinologists (doctors specializing in noses) figure that the nose has around 30 functions in the breathing process (e.g. moisturizing and warming air, catching foreign matter, directing airflow, and much more.)

Source: In the aforementioned Swami Rama book Science of Breath in a chapter entitled, “Following Your Nose: Nasal Function and Energy” by Rudolph Ballentine, MD.

Yogic Relevance: Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) is shown to tone the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, i.e. the part of the autonomic nervous system involved in rest & digest functions.)  Sinha, A.N., et. al. 2013. “Assessment of the Effects of Pranayama / Alternate Nostril Breathing on the Parasympathetic Nervous System.” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. Vol. 7(5). pp. 821-823.

 

1.) Pace Fact: At about 5 breaths per minute, most people’s thinking is clearer than usual.

Source: Brown, R. & Gerbarg, P.2012. The Healing Power of Breath. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Yogic Relevance: The breath is our most powerful tool for controlling the mind. Vindicated!

BOOK REVIEW: Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter

Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and PractitionersAnatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners by H. David Coulter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many books on anatomy for yoga, and I’ve read my share, but this is my favorite.

What did I like about it? First, Coulter examines the anatomy and physiology of breathing in some detail, and that’s an important topic that is overlooked by many others. A lot of yoga anatomy books stick exclusively to the musculo-skeletal system. Second, this book doesn’t mix science and pseudo-scientific mythology. Sometimes books shift from talking about arteries and veins to nadis and chakras in a manner that can be confusing and counterproductive. Third, the book discusses how postures can be safely varied for individuals with limits, as well as discussing the most advanced expression of postures for more flexible or skilled students.

What’s the catch? There must be a downside? Well the book is dense and it’s a challenging read. It’s not that the writer uses too many technical terms. That isn’t the case at all. In fact, Coulter is careful not only about using anatomical terms, but also avoids reliance on Sanskrit names as well. It’s just that there is a lot of material that one must read painstakingly while visualizing and–in some cases—tactically probing around one’s body (or someone else’s–if they’ll let you.) I don’t know that there’s much that could be done about this, given the desire to convey the material that the book does—and it’s valuable information. The book has a large number of graphics that mostly consist of anatomical drawings and photographs of the various versions of the postures. It’s possible that more graphics could have been used to reduce the amount of descriptive text, but—on the other hand—reading it slowly and carefully is a useful and productive exercise. And, if you’re not reading it for your RYT-500, you can take your time and read it section by section, as time permits, over the course of more than a year as I did.

The ten chapters of the book are mostly divided up by classes of posture (asana.) Chapter 1 is about “movement and posture” and provides the necessary background that one will need to understand the later chapters. Chapter 2 is on breathing–both the musculature involved and the physiology of it. The rest of the chapters are on core exercises, standing postures, back bends, forward bends, twists, headstands, shoulder-stands, and meditative postures, respectively.

The book has a glossary, a short bibliography, and two indexes (one by anatomical parts and the other by practices/postures.) I normally don’t bother to mention indexes, but in this case it’s useful to know because the book’s organization is by type of posture, and so it’s not always straight forward where various muscles or tissues are being covered.

As I say, I found this book to be tremendously informative. I recommend it for yoga teachers as well as intermediate / advanced practitioners.

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BOOK REVIEW: Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of BreathingLight on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Breathing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is B.K.S. Iyengar’s A-Z guide to breath and breathing exercises (pranayama.) It’s meant to do for pranayama practice what “Light on Yoga” did for asana (postural) practice. That is, it presents all the classic techniques, offers variants to meet individual needs, and provides the background necessary to put pranayama into the context of a balanced yoga practice.

Let me begin by discussing the book’s organization, and this book is organized to the n-th degree. There are parts, sections, chapters, and even the paragraphs are numbered (though–near as I can tell–the latter serves no purpose for a typical reader and may be more for the help of the writer and his assistants. It does create a somewhat biblical scheme, so maybe it was assumed there would be a need to quote this guide “chapter and verse,” as they say in Bible study.)

The bulk of the book consists of the first of two parts, and Part I is divided into three sections. The first of those sections is “The Theory of Pranayama,” and it puts pranayama in the context of yoga’s entirety. If you’ve read other B.K.S. Iyengar titles, much in these nine chapters will be familiar (e.g. discussion of the eight limbs.) However, chapter 4 offers a nice description of the anatomy and physiology of respiration. There are many anatomical drawings and diagrams in it to help convey the complex information. There’s also additional information about the traditional Indian notions of breath encapsulated in the concepts of prana, nadis, and chakras.

Section II is entitled “The Art of Pranayama” and it covers those topics necessary regardless of what technique of breath exercise one is practicing. It includes seated postures, mudras, bandhas, inhalation, exhalation, retention, etc. This section, too, has nine chapters. The final section of Part I describes the various techniques of pranayama. The chapters of this section are arrayed in lists, and they systematically build from the basic technique towards more advanced variations (e.g. by inserting retentions.)

Part II covers meditation (dhyana) and the corpse pose (savasana.) With respect to the former, it suggests how one’s body, mind, and sense organs should be conducted in the act of meditation. In the case of the chapter on corpse pose (after cross-legged seating position, this being the most common position for practice) there’s an extensive look at the details of that pose.

There are a number of helpful features incorporated into the book. In addition to the drawings mentioned in Chapter 4, there are black-and-white photos throughout to clarify the textual instructions. There is also a glossary of Sanskrit terms and an Appendix of courses of pranayama (i.e. recommendations as to how to sequence breathing techniques for optimal results with guidance as to how many sets or repetitions of each to use.)

My major criticism is one I’ve offered about previous books from this author and others. There’s a muddle of science and mythology that makes it hard to know how much weight to give particular instructions. It may be that a given piece of advice (e.g. a contraindication) is based on repeated observations of the physical or mental effects, or on a sound understanding of anatomy & physiology. In which case, it makes sense to heed such advice. However, advice can also be based on myths and the desire to preserve a way of thinking about the human body which is wholly unsupported by evidence. In which case, if one has no dog in the fight to preserve egos, it makes sense to disregard said advice. I suspect the vast majority of statements of what to do (or not to) fall into the first category, but some may fall in the latter, and it’s not easy to tell which is which.

I would recommend this book for students and teachers of yoga. It’s a good reference for one’s pranayama practice.

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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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BOOK REVIEW: The New Rules of Posture by Mary Bond

The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern WorldThe New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern World by Mary Bond

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book’s author, Mary Bond, was a UCLA-trained dancer who became an Ida Rolf-trained Rolfer. If that sentence makes no sense, you’re probably unaware Dr. Ida Rolf and her self-named system. Rolfing was popular decades ago, but fell out of favor—possibly owing to its reputation for being agonizing. (However, I did recently read an article suggesting renewed interest in this practice.) Rolf’s system is generically called Structural Integration, and it’s intended to better align the body with respect to the force of gravity. The heart of the practice (though not addressed in this book) is a massage-like system that focuses on fascia (connective tissue) rather than musculature (as massage generally does.)

[This paragraph is background, but isn’t about the book per se. Feel free to skip it if you are familiar with structural integration or don’t care.] It should be noted that Rolfing is controversial. I’m not sure what to make of this controversy. On the one hand, the system hasn’t been helped by zealous advocates and practitioners. In any such system, zealots often suggest their beloved system is a panacea for all that ails one. Furthermore, the more hippie-esque practitioners try to reconcile / unify Structural Integration with ancient systems like Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM.) This neither helps to validate those ancient systems nor improves the case of Rolfing as a methodology rooted in science. On the other hand, not even yoga has been free of haters. There is a sector of humanity that is openly hostile to the notion that the only way for many people to feel better is for them to do the work of improving their bodies (e.g. posture, range of motion, strength, etc.) (i.e. If your problem is rooted in your shoulders not being over your hips or you have an imbalance in your core between your ab and back muscles, there is no pill nor surgery to cure you—you’ve got work to do. And—it should be noted–both of my examples can cause a person to feel like crap in a number of different ways.) Another element of controversy is that Structural Integration places special emphasis on fascia (connective tissue.) While it’s not clear from scientific evidence that fascia deserve special attention, I’m also not sure that Rolfers don’t have a point when they note that everyone else completely ignores this tissue.

Having written all that, The New Rules of Posture isn’t a book about Rolfing as massage-like practice. Instead, as its subtitle (how to sit, stand, and move in the modern world) suggests, this is a book about how one can improve one’s posture, breathing, and movement (i.e. most notably walking). It’s arranged as a workbook, and it contains over 90 exercises and observations for the reader to perform. The author calls these exercises “explorations” and “practices”; the latter are more extensive and are more likely to require revisiting.

The ten chapters are arranged into four parts: awareness, stability, orientation, and motion. Each part has two or three chapters. The author divides the body into six zones (pelvic floor, breathing muscles, abdomen/core, hands, feet, and head)—the first three of which are associated with stability and the latter three with orienting the body. The six middle chapters (parts 2 and 3) are each tied to one of these zones. The book uses vignettes and side-bars in an attempt to make the material more palatable to readers who aren’t deeply interested in the topic.

The author gives attention to a wide variety of modern-day activities that can have an adverse impact on bodily alignment such as driving, computer time, and rushing about. I suspect this book will offer something useful to almost anyone.

The book’s graphics are line drawings—some are anatomical drawings and others demonstrate postural problems or exercises. The drawings are clear, well drawn, and useful. In addition to the usual front and back matter, there’s a brief bibliography and a resources appendix.

I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers and those interested in the body generally and movement and postural improvement specifically. If you’re having problems that you think may be linked to postural problems, this isn’t a bad place to start thinking about how one might improve one’s situation. It’s very readable and clear.

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6 Lessons from a Pranayama Intensive

Last week I attended a five-day workshop on pranayama, the breathing exercises practiced in hatha yoga. (Yes, I’m aware that that definition may be a radical oversimplification to many.)

 

Breath is like water. It’s easy to take for granted as long as it’s unimpeded, but the moment it’s cut off life is miserable–not to mention short. (If you’ve never been at an altitude that your body wasn’t adjusted to, this may not seem profound, but trust me.) We reduce breath to an autonomic function–mindless and effortless. It’s easy enough to do this if one doesn’t have an interest in getting control over one’s emotional life or one’s health.

 

FUN FACT: Exhalation inhibits the firing of the amygdala–two structures in the brain that are partially responsible for our experience of fear. Ergo, elongating exhalations may diminish the expression of fear.  [This isn’t a fact that I learned at the workshop, but was something I recently read in the book Zen and the Brain, which is a neuroscientist’s explanation of the nervous system and the effect of meditation on it.]

 

The workshop was educational and offered plenty to work on as I expand the pranayama portion of my practice. Here are a few of the takeaways I brought from the workshop:

 

1.) There’s a thorough system of classification of the various pranayama practices. This might seem self-evident, but it’s not something I’d thought of before.

PranayamaClassification begins with the tree above, but there’s much more to it. For example, one might group practices lying under the “without mantra” box as vitalizing (e.g. Bhastrika) or tranquilizing (e.g. Sheetali/Sheetkari.) One can also classify pranayama by whether there’s a retention of breath or not, and–if so–whether the retention is done with air in (Antar Kumbhaka), air out (Bahya Kumbhaka), or both (Sahit Kumbhaka.)

 

2.) [Related to lesson # 1.] Some of my favorite pranayama aren’t necessarily considered pranayama.  Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) is classified as a shatkarma (cleansing practice) rather than a pranayama by many. Furthermore, some think of kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) more as a shatkarma–though many accept that they can be classified either way. Certainly, it’s more important that you do it than put it in the right box, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

 

milk3.) Ghee is to yogis as duct tape is to a handyman.  It’s a readily available multi-purpose tool. But seriously, I learned that hot milk and ghee–for some reason–have different characteristics in the body than regular cold milk. One wants to minimize mucus producing foods when one does a lot of pranayama for obvious reasons. (Blowing snot bubbles is neither dignified nor sexy.) So it came as a surprise when ghee and warm milk were suggested foods. (Milk, when taken cold, is about as mucus-producing a food as there is.)

 

4.) I learned why I can hold my breath so long after kapalbhati (or bhastrika) breathing. (Kapalbhati is a breath in which the exhalation is forced out; in bhastrika both the inhalation and exhalation are forced [pumped]–i.e. these are hyperventilating breathes.) I noticed a while back that as I practice kapalbhati, doing internal retention afterward was easy to hold for a long time. This is probably one of the most counter-intuitive facts I’ve experienced in practicing breathing exercises. The body has shed a bunch of carbon dioxide and has time and capacity to build up more without the body responding severely. It should be noted that the feeling of suffocation what we experience as being “short on breath” isn’t a lack of oxygen. It’s an excess of carbon dioxide. [One should also note that the reason that one needs to exercise great caution and graduality with these breathing methods–i.e. the reason that people have been known to pass out–is that the body reacts severely to carbon dioxide levels that are outside the appropriate ranges.]

 

5.) Diet is considered more important in starting a pranayama practice than in starting an asana (postural) practice. The basis of this statement is that one of the most prominent hatha yoga manuals (e.g. Hatha Yoga Pradipika) recommends dietary considerations for those beginning a serious pranayama practice, but it makes no similar statements with regard to beginning an asana practice. This doesn’t mean that what / when one eats isn’t important for postural practice. Anyone who’s ever eaten a heavy meal too close to an intense asana practice will know that it’s not true that food is irrelevant for asana practitioners. However, there seems to be a belief that many specific foods can be quite detrimental to pranayama practice–and a few really mesh well with such a practice.

 

FUN FACT: Conscious breathing stimulates the Vagus nerve, and the Vagus nerve is crucial in the functioning of  the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)–i.e. advancing the “relaxation response” or “rest & digest” functions. Therefore, conscious breathing practices can help one to be healthier because PNS activity supports healing functions.

 

6.) There’s an established sequence of advancement that can be used across many different breathing exercises. One will see breath ratios that consist of up to four numbers. (e.g. 1:1 means that inhalation and exhalation are the same length (whatever that length may be, it will vary by person); 1:2:1 means that one internally holds the breath for twice as long as one does the inhalations and exhalations; and 1:1:1:1 means that one will inhale, internally retain, exhale, and externally retain all for the same length.)

 

Note: the counts that those numbers represent can and should increase over time–e.g. a 1:2:1 ratio may represent a six count inhalation/exhalation with a twelve count retention or it could be an eight count inhalation/exhalation and a sixteen count retention.

 

The aforementioned sequence is 1:1, 1:2, 1:1:1, 1:2:1, 1:2:2, and 1:4:2.

 

Happy breathing.

 

 

 

Yoga for Martial Artists

Long before I ever took a yoga class, I was doing a kind of yoga. It may have even had its roots in India, but it also might have blossomed independently. In the Japanese martial art I study, we called it junan taiso, and many of the poses would be recognizable to a yogi. While it didn’t include the complex and balance-challenging poses seen in yoga, stretches like the butterfly (Poorna Titali Asana), straddle stretch (Upavistha Konasana), and the back stretch (Pashchimottanasana) were virtually identical. As with yoga, the manner of breathing was as important as the nature of the stretch.

Butterfly Stretch (Poorna Titali Asana)

Butterfly Stretch (Poorna Titali Asana)

Back Stretch (Paschimottanasana)

Back Stretch (Paschimottanasana)

Straddle Stretch (Upavisthakonasana)

Straddle Stretch (Upavisthakonasana)

Flexibility is key in the martial arts, and not just the ones with high-flying kicks. Even grapplers and practitioners of the less fancy striking systems gain from increased flexibility, but it isn’t only increases in range of motion that yoga offers.

Let’s consider a modest front kick to a target no higher than the solar plexus. One might be inclined to say, “I don’t need yoga to help with that, I do that kick all the time, and have no problem reaching my target.” Do an experiment. Take a full 30 seconds to do the kick, from the time the foot leaves the floor to the time it extends out, and then hold it for 15 seconds, or so. If you succeeded in this without any problem, you may be good to go.

Front kick, slow-motion style.

Front kick, slow-motion style.

However, there are three problems that might plague one, and yoga is tailor-made to fix two of them. First, you may not have adequate range of motion. You may have thought you did because you can kick at speed and reach the target. But, you say, “Why would I need to kick in slow motion?” You wouldn’t, but this exercise shows you that you are having to use inertia to kick through the resistance of your own muscles. Unless you’re a hardcore bodybuilder that resistance might not seem too daunting, but you are essentially having the brakes applied–albeit softly–to your kick and that’s costing you speed and power.  Yoga can help you develop that range of motion. Consider the pose below, which requires the same type of flexibility.

Hand to Big Toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana)

Hand to Big Toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana)

Maybe you can raise your leg, but keeping it cantilevered in place is too much for you. This means you don’t have the strength to support your own leg. Either your leg is  heavy, your strength is lacking, or both. Building this kind of strength isn’t necessarily yoga’s forte. There are styles and approaches that may help you build that strength, but there are other things you can do that may be more efficient for that purpose–not the least of which is doing a whole bunch of kicks one after the other without a break until your leg is burning, and then doing some more.

You may have had the strength and flexibility, but found it hard to stay on balance. The naysayer says, “Yeah, but that imbalance would never be noticeable at speed. That is (as with the lack of flexibility) one can hide weaknesses with speed. While there maybe some truth in this, a lack of balance will cost you in subtle ways, and yoga can help. There are a number of postures that enhance one’s balance, balance on one’s foot, one’s head, or one’s hands (the latter could be useful for the ground grapplers.)

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

Headstand (Shirshasana)

Headstand (Shirshasana)

The Crane (Bakasana)

The Crane (Bakasana)

Tree (Vrksasana)

Tree (Vrksasana)

There are a couple of other areas in which yoga can help one’s performance as a martial artist. One is expansion of bodily awareness of issues of alignment and posture. These might not seem so crucial, but if you are in the martial arts for the long-haul, then having the awareness to make small adjustments can be the difference between chronic ailments or a lack thereof. It can be difficult to discover a misalignment in the quasi-combative environment of martial arts training. It’s easier to notice these issues in the slow and controlled practice of yoga.

Postures like Warrior II and the Side Angle Pose and show you where you are holding tension that you might not otherwise be aware of.

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

It must also be remembered that asana (postures) are only a part of yoga. Another aspect that can be extremely helpful for martial arts is pranayama, or the discipline of breathing.  There’s no substitute for cardio, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t benefit greatly from learning more about how to breath, and the science of breath. This is an area in which yoga excels. The great yogis made extensive study of breath and the effects that are achieved by various types of breathing, and these exercises can expand and strengthen the diaphragm and the muscles of the rib-cage. One tends to see the coup de grace strike and think, “There’s your problem.” However, often it’s fatigue that’s the underlying culprit. Better breathing can reduce fatigue.

Of course, meditation is another critical skill for calming the mind and learning to live in the present. Many martial artists already practice some form of meditation, but this is another option.

There is one more benefit and that is building greater confidence in your ability to exercise control over your body. There are many challenging postures in yoga. I don’t advocate all asana that have been taught historically because there can be such a thing as too much flexibility for a martial artist and some poses exercise joints in ways that were not meant to operate. There needs to be a proper balance of strength and flexibility, a proper tension within /between the skeletal and muscular systems. However, there are many poses that just take a bit of time and effort to develop the skill without putting too much wear on the body.

8-Twists Pose (Astavakrasana)

8-Twists Pose (Astavakrasana)