Breathe

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Paying attention to your breath: it works in yoga and when you're getting hit in the face!

Paying attention to your breath: it works in yoga and when you’re getting hit in the face!

In combat sports we re-learn how to breathe.

Boxing coaches will teach you to breathe out with each punch. Jiu jitsu instructors will remind you to breathe steadily through the entire match. Short breaths are good for explosive movements like strikes, while deep, relaxed breathing facilitates the sustained movements of grappling.

While advice like “breathe while moving” might seem obvious or redundant, it isn’t. This is because many new combat sports practitioners simply find themselves unconsciously holding their breath. And since new athletes often don’t yet possess good cardiovascular conditioning, their level of perceived exertion skyrockets because they accidentally forget to breathe while under stress.

Usually, respiration is an automatic process regulated by that little knot of grey matter located towards the back of your skull which connects your spine to the rest of your brain. This is called the brainstem. You can think of it as your lizard brain: it controls the extremely basic, unconscious functions (such as your hear rate, breathing, sleep cycle, and ability to maintain consciousness) that all animals have and which will hopefully run on autopilot all of your life.

But respiration also has a voluntary override. This post will address the technique and benefits of learning to toggle this override.

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class you know that yoga is so much more than just stretching. A good yoga instructor will cue you to bring your awareness to your breath and draw it into your chest, abdomen, and nostrils. This is because learning to control your breathing, especially in difficult or strenuous circumstances, helps still the mind and re-focus your efforts.

Breeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaathhhhhe

In between rounds my coach and corner, Nick Gilardi, helps me regain my composure, raising his hands and saying “Breeeeeaaaathe.”

Even in less intense circumstances, bringing awareness to your breathing will teach you to notice the mind’s tendency to leap around from one thing to the next. By beginning to observe this habit in yourself you can learn to shut it off and thereby become more fully present in the moment.

While yogis and practitioners of formal meditation call this “mindfulness” or “Being,” many athletes refer to it as being in “the zone” or in a “flow state.” Though combat might seem to be about as far away as you can get from peaceful meditation, the two are not so different because being in the zone is just a form of moving meditation. With complete presence comes the ability to respond calmly and without hesitation as events occur.

As you learn to control your breath and incorporate this into your training you can begin to let go of the conscious override and let it shift back to being a mostly automatic process. (Which happens to be how many such functions work: they are conscious while you learn them, then they switch over to being unconscious once the skill is acquired.)

An added bonus to this approach is that steady breathing increases oxygen intake, which in turn improves athletic performance. This also helps regulate heart rate, improve recovery time, and bring oxygen into the blood to help muscles function. On the psychological side of things, it’s benefits include decreasing anxiety and shifting attention away from pain. This allows for more efficient allocation of mental resources, especially when learned well enough to be automatic.

It's a nice sentiment, but a strange place to put the reminder....

It’s a nice sentiment, but a strange place to put the reminder….

Practicing MMA will teach you to keep breathing when you feel the adrenaline flooding into your body, to keep breathing when you’re taking hard shots the face, to keep breathing when you’re three rounds into a fight and still not sure how you are going to seal the deal before time runs out.

Of course, learning to keep breathing under duress comes in handy in a variety of less dangerous (but no less intense) situations, such as job interviews, presentations, performances, and networking events– to name just a few. Set aside a few minutes to practice each day and you’ll likely find numerous ways to use this skill in your daily life.

photo credit: Nicholas_T via photopin cc

photo credit: Deanna Wardin @ Tattoo Boogaloo via photopin cc

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A Reason to Run

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I went for a run last week. It was the first time in almost two years and one of only a handful of times I have ever tried to undertake this form of exercise. I liked that run so much that only a few hours later I was already looking for an excuse to do it again.

So I did.

That’s not normal for me. Usually, I hate running.

STREET CLOSED: just go home

This about sums it up.

I detested it so much that I was fond of claiming I had learned MMA just so I’d never have a reason to run. Before I started working out in college I literally would not have run a block to catch a bus. Several years in, I would run for the bus, if need be. But that was it.

I went out of my way to avoid running as a form of cardiovascular exercise. I cycled. I rowed. I did sled pulls. I worked the heavy bag. I used an elliptical machine. (Let’s chalk that last one up to youthful indiscretion and try to forget about it, ok?)

I absolutely flat out refused to run because it gave me side splints, made it hard to breath, and made me hyperventilate every single time. I couldn’t sustain a good pace for more than a few blocks without having to stop, red-faced and frustrated, and walk.

I loathed it.

Then running showed up on my training program.

I assured my trainer that it wasn’t going to go well. If I didn’t flat-out say, “I can’t do it,” I certainly thought it.

Just before my run, I was telling a friend (and fellow MMA fighter) about how much I was dreading it. I told him that when I run, I feel like I’m having a panic attack. He got really excited and told me that was going to be great for me.

His reasoning went that, after all, a lot of fighting is mental. So much of the game is about what it does to your head, how you handle the nerves, and how well you can function when your system is dumping adrenaline into your body like there’s no tomorrow. So, by my friend’s logic, I could use running as an opportunity to practice confronting the uniquely frantic headspace of MMA.

It was a great idea. But I didn’t get to actually try it out as intended, because when I laced up my sneakers and hit the pavements I found out that running no longer sucked.

It was straight-up fun.

It turns out that after all that time spent dreading and avoiding it, the simplest exercise possible was also enjoyable. I got home from my run feeling like I had slain a dragon.

This is pretty much how it all went down.

photo credit: Rafael Peñaloza via photopin cc

I had a similar experience with re-learning to drive. I had a license as a teenager, but I let it expire when I moved to Portland eight years ago. I waited almost a decade to try to get licensed again because I was deeply afraid of driving. I had always hated it, even back in my hometown Sitka (a tiny island town with just 19 miles of road, two stop lights, and nowhere you could go over 45 mph), and Portland’s (admittedly moderate) traffic was far more intimidating.

When I finally got behind the wheel again a few months ago, it was scary at first. But a few days’ practice had me driving on major streets, and within a month I was on the highway for the first time in my life. When I found I could pass a semi and merge back into the flow of traffic, I once again had that dragon-slayer feeling.

It was a beautiful night for a run...

Nice night for a run.

I’d been acting like a child that insists she hates broccoli, only to discover when she finally tries it that it’s pretty damn tasty.

These recent experiences not only expanded my potential modes of transit, but they also blew my notions of what’s impossible out of the water.

Now I can’t help but wonder, what other supposed impossibilities might I unknowingly be rearranging my life to avoid? Are there holes in my MMA game that I had assumed were unassailable? Are there other sports I could try, foods I might like, bigger projects to undertake?

Suddenly I wanted to dash out and scour all of the unexamined caverns of my mind. I had found a good reason to run– not away from something that scares me, but towards it.

I want more of that dragon-slayer feeling, so I’ve made peace with running. After all, there are plenty more impossible dragons I want to chase down and dispatch with.