Monday, 13 April 2009

A few things you should know about breathing

Here is a number of interesting things I have read about breathing during the last few years - I believe you'll find these interesting:

"A person reacts to stress by breathing in shallow patterns using chest muscles. The habit carries to times even when not stressed and erodes into times of sleep. [...] When excess CO2 is exhaled, blood becomes too alcaline, leading to vasoconstriction, which causes a feeling of apprehension. The breathing pattern worsens and alkalization leads to increasingly sensitive nerve endings until pain can occur even during tasks, which were once pain free. Overused muscles (once postural but now used for breathing) retain acid wastes becoming stiff and fatigue easily as they are used for non-productive energy even during sleep. Spinal joints stiffen as they fail to move properly during breathing. The person seeks more rest and less movement. [...] Finally sleep deprivation then brings about mood and cognitive changes. This quickly becomes a case of physiology overwhelming psychology. By the time shallow breathers are seen in clinics, it may appear that the psychology is overwhelming the physiology and such patients are labeled psychosomatic".
, Joy. Embodied Wisdom : What our anatomy can teach us about the art of living. iUniverse, 2003, p. 112-113

"...Diaphragmatic breathing, with the belly expanding to the front and sides during inhalation [...] has the following effects on cardiac function:
  1. decreased heart rate
  2. decreased cardiac output
  3. reduced peripheral systolic blood pressure
  4. regulation of the cardiovascular system by parasympathetic functions of the autonomic nervous system
  5. regulation of the heartbeat by the ebb and flow of respiratory sinus arrhythmia.
Number 5 is the most universally recognized effect of respiration on cardiovascular function. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia refers to the way in which heart rate varies with the phase of respiration. The heart rate accelerates during the inspiratory phase, then decelerates during the expiratory phase. [...] The respiratory sinus arrhythmia, with its rising and falling pressure, and its variable rate of flow, has the effect of massaging and buffing the vascular walls, which are flushed smooth by the pulsating pressure. The vascular canals tend, then, to remain supple".
Hanna, Thomas. Somatics. Da Capo Press, 1988, p. xiii

"For those who prefer the 'certainty' of physiological science, it may help to understand the localization of the olfactory system in our central nervous system. Over the course of evolution our have enlarged like a city that grows progressively. There is the historical part: the antique city that embraces the oldest quarters, which in our brain is the 'reptile' or 'primitive' part - the palocortex. Then, there is the new districts of the city, or the neocortex. The most sensitive nerve endings that cover the area of the olfactory receptors are in direct contact with the 'old city', or with the part of the brain that is the seat of instinct, inherited from our most distant ancestors. With reflexive mechanisms [i.e. breathing exercises] we touch the 'visceral brain' and therefore organs such as the heart, blood vessels, bladder, intestine and gall bladder. Through other connections we also influence the pituary gland and the hypothalamus that both lie in the primitive brain; in this way we stimulate, through the use of hormones, the whole endocrine system - the 'chemical nervous system'".
Pelizzari, U., Tovaglieri, S. Manual of Freediving: Underwater on a Single Breath. Idelson Gnocchi, 2004, p. 114

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

My own, personal Systema cheat-sheet (Part 2)!

OK, I believe it is high time I wrote the second part of this three-part article, on the three sets of rules that in my opinion[1], provide a much needed context in Russian Martial Art, in order for one to be able to classify the huge number of Systema training drills or devise new ones, according to the attribute or skill which is being exercised and trouble-shoot his practice. Just to remind you, the first set of rules is neurophysiologist N. A. Bernstein’s definition of dexterity (you can read more about it here), which helps us view Russian Martial Art not as a set number of comprehensive, start-to-finish, martial arts techniques that someone learns in order to “graduate”, but rather as a training method to make one’s body dexterous, “clever” enough to solve the motor problems of hand-to-hand combat. So, let’s move now to

Rules set #2: The Three "Pillars" of Systema
The most common explanation of the three pillars one hears from Systema practitioners is that a practitioner should “always breathe, move, and keep body in form”, which although true to a degree, in my opinion is a rather oversimplified way to view Russian Martial Arts’ unique way of explaining combat within the context of a rational Western scientific tradition. I will explain why it is so later in this article, but for the moment, let’s just examine how breathing, structure and movement relate to combat performance.

Besides being part of the processes of delivering oxygen to where it is needed in the body and removing carbon dioxide waste, breathing is the only bodily function we have that allows us to regulate the physiological effects of survival stress on our body. Well, what are those effects? Let’s check out what Bruce K. Siddle, internationally recognized authority on use of force training and the effects of survival stress on combat performance, has to say on the subject, in his classic book Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge: “…a ‘perceived’ high-threat stimulus automatically engages the sympathetic nervous system. The activation of this system increases the heart rate, which in turn has a crucial affect on motor performance, visual processing and cognitive reaction time. For example, at 115 beats per minute (BPM), fine motor skills (precision and accuracy skills) deteriorate. When the heart rate exceeds 145 BPM, complex motor skills deteriorate and the visual system begins to narrow. But when the heart rate exceeds 175 BPM, a warrior can expect to experience auditory exclusion and the loss of peripheral vision and depth perception. This initiates a catastrophic failure of the cognitive processing capabilities, leading to fatal increases in reaction time or hypervigilance (freezing in place or irrational acts)”[2]. In a few words, when you are facing an emergency your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and the effects of this activation can make all the martial arts skills in the world totally useless, since when you can’t think (that’s the “catastrophic failure of the cognitive processing capabilities” is all about), you cannot fight... Now, in comes breathing, the only voluntary method of control you have on the workings of your autonomic nervous system. According to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, former U.S Army Ranger, paratrooper and West Point Academy Psychology Professor, “breathing and blinking are the only two actions of your autonomic nervous system that you can bring under conscious control anytime you choose. As such, your breathing is the bridge between your somatic (voluntary) and autonomic nervous system. Think of your autonomic nervous system as a big, shuddering, shaking machine that has only one control lever sticking out from its side. Your breathing is that control lever, the one thing you can reach out and grab”[3]. To sum this up, controlling your breathing means controlling your psychological state when fighting – breath controls the intent.

OK, let’s move ahead to structure, which, from a mechanical point of view, is every construction with the ability to bear load. Your musculoskeletal system, for example, is such a construction, which has evolved so as to allow you to negotiate the force of gravity when in a standing position. Since our ancestors did not collapse under their own weight, they were able to move from one place to the next, able to hunt, collect fruit or, escape from predators, thus they managed to survive, thrive and perpetuate their genes. Now, besides helping you to keep an upright posture (the “up” in “upright” is dictated by gravity, of course), your structure (or “form”, or body alignment) provides a stabilizing platform for your individual muscles to generate movement. If it was otherwise, each and every one of your attempts to move would have similar results as those one has when trying to fire a cannon from a canoe. One very important thing to understand about structure is that it’s not something statically maintained: you cannot “keep your body in form”, since form is dictated by function. What you can do is constantly align your structure in such a way that you are able a) to negotiate the force of gravity and b) generate force with your muscles so that you can move, according to the action you want to perform! For example, your structural alignment when you want to generate forward pressure is not the same with the one when you want to pull something backwards and both are different from the one you need just to remain standing. In combat, the correct structural alignment is the one that allows you at any given moment to perform your chosen action directly and with minimum muscular effort. Thus, relaxation, which is considered to be the “fourth pillar of Systema”, is actually a result of maintaining proper structure, so it is not an independent feature of correct technique (also the term used should be “selective tension” rather than “relaxation” in my opinion, since a lot of people confuse relaxation with being flaccid). When structure is “broken”, additional muscular effort is required in order for one to remain standing (thus the “expediency and economy in energy expenditure” principle we have seen in N.A. Bernstein’s definition of dexterity is violated – see first part of this article here). Also, no defensive or offensive action can be performed before one returns to a sound structure, thus the initiative is conceded to the opponent, so it is easy to understand that structure creates opportunity.

Each one of our combat skills (evasions, deflections, strikes, kicks, throws, takedowns, joint manipulations, submissions, immobilizations etc) is executed through movement. Ability to move equals ability to utilize the specific weapons that one has in his arsenal, so it obvious that movement equals ability.

In Russian Martial Art, one cannot view breathing, movement and structure independently of each other (as in “always breathe, move, and keep body in form”): breathing affects structure thus creating movement, structure is altered by movement and has to be accompanied by breathing, movement causes breathing which affects the structure. It is the integration of the “three pillars” in a unified whole that defines what proper technique is![4] This way we arrive at the fundamental truth (the axiom, or the dogma, if you like) which lies in the core of Russian Martial Art, out of which, all our strategies, tactics and specific techniques emanate: in combat, we strive to always keep our breathing, structure and movement integrated, while at the same time trying to disintegrate our opponent’s breathing, structure and movement, thus depriving him of his intent, opportunities and abilities. This is why for a large part of our practice, we study correct movement through the biomechanical range-of-motion exercises, we examine how various breathing patterns affect our psycho-physiological state and we also train on how to integrate breathing, structure and movement through a large number of floorwork exercises.

In the core of every martial art or combat system lies a set of fundamental “truths”. For example, Tae Kwon Do is built upon the presumed superior strength, power and reach of kicking attacks, while Wing Chun Kung Fu is based upon the supposedly universal applicability of the centerline theory, the linear striking action, the simultaneous attack and defense. But are these basic principles true or are they just assumptions (maybe even wishful thinking) made under a specific historic or cultural bias? It is up to you to search for an answer to this question. The fact is that the core axiom of Russian Martial Art is based on the sciences of biomechanics, neurophysiology and psychophysiology and their findings regarding the way the human body and brain function – and that’s why it allows us to look at all sorts of combat settings (fist fighting, grappling, fighting with or against weapons, fighting on the ground, restraint and control tactics etc) within the context of a rational Western scientific tradition.

In the next and final part of this article we will examine a third set of rules which provides context in Russian Martial Art: Victor Spiridonov’s Combat SAMBO fighting strategy.


[1] Once again, I want to clarify that these sets of rules in no way constitute an “official Systema training guide”, that’s why I’m referring to them as a personal cheat-sheet.

[2] Siddle, Bruce K. Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge. PPCT Research Publications, 1995, p. 7

[3] Grossman, D., Christensen, L.W. On Combat. PPCT Research Publications, 2004, p. 329

[4] You can read a pretty good and very detailed analysis on the integration of breathing, structure and movement in Scott Sonnon’s books Body-Flow: Freedom from Fear-Reactivity and Prasara Yoga: Flow Beyond Thought.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

My own, personal Systema cheat-sheet (Part 1)!

“Can you suggest some Systema drills I could incorporate to the martial art I already practice?” This is a question that practitioners of various combat systems ask me every now and then and, honestly, I find it rather frustrating. Never mind the answer (or, if you really want to know, it’s both yes and no) – what I find frustrating is that there’s a large number of people out there who are involved in the martial arts and think that Systema is just a large collection of drills and exercises! Out of this collection, they believe they can pick whatever they find useful, or plain cool, and practice it out of context: for example, I’ve heard of Kenpo people “using Systema concepts” and others who practice “a combination of Systema and Krav Maga” and you know what? This is simply not possible! Even worse is the fact that there are also people who actually practice Systema and think that it’s just a collection of drills, simply because they’re missing the art’s context…

So, to make a long story short, I thought about writing this article in order to clarify that there is a context - a bigger picture, if you like – and explain what this context is, based on my knowledge and training experience. What I’m going to describe is three sets of rules (my personal cheat-sheet) that I’ve come upon while studying various Russian resources on hand-to-hand combat and athletic movement in general. I use them to help me classify the huge number of Systema training drills or devise new ones, according to the attribute or skill which is being exercised (so that I know what I’m training for) and trouble-shoot the training sessions of the Göteborgs Systema – RMA Klubb (so when something does not work, I know what the mistake is). Before I begin, let me clarify one more thing: these sets of rules in no way constitute an “official Systema training guide”, that’s why I’m referring to it as a personal cheat-sheet. Oh, and they’re also not set in stone, right???

Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin!

Rules set #1: N.A. Bernstein’s definition of dexterity
I do quote Bernstein’s work pretty often, I know, but when one’s field of study is human movement and especially athletic movement, it is practically impossible to by-pass this hugely important Russian Jewish neuroscientist of the 20th century. Well, according to Bernstein: “Dexterity is the ability to find a motor solution for any external situation, that is, to adequately solve any emerging motor problem correctly (i.e., adequately and accurately), quickly (with respect to both decision making and achieving a correct result), rationally (i.e., expediently and economically), and resourcefully (i.e., quick-wittedly and initiatively)”(1) . I believe it is quite obvious that any sort of combat skill, such as striking, evading a strike, throwing an opponent down, escaping from a restraining hold etc., can be treated as a motor problem that needs to be adequately solved, so it is a matter of dexterity. In this respect, the Russian Martial Art training methods place equal emphasis to each one of the four features of dexterity, according to Bernstein, in the following ways:

• In Systema, when training for a specific skill, we just follow a universal set of guidelines (do not hold the breath, keep a sound body structure, do not restrict your own mobility) and focus on the effect one’s movement has on the environment. For example, when we practice throws, instead of giving exhaustingly detailed instructions on how a technique is performed “correctly” (e.g. “put your foot exactly ten centimeters on the outside of the opponents foot" or "the left hand pulls diagonally down, while the right hand pushes straight up"), we just emphasize the universal guidelines and then focus on throwing the opponent to the ground. This way, the body learns how to solve a motor problem by… well, actually solving it! Contemporary sports science has proved that this approach to teaching motor skills is more effective: according to the constrained action hypothesis (2) proposed by a number of sport scientists in the beginning of this decade, “… when individuals focus on their movements they tend to consciously intervene in control processes that regulate the coordination of their movements. Yet, by attempting to actively control their movements, they inadvertently disrupt automatic processes that have the capacity to control movements effectively and efficiently. In contrast, focusing attention on the movement effect promotes a more automatic type of control”(3).

• It might seem strange, but in Systema we train for quickness in achieving the desirable result by INITIALLY training at slow speed. This way, we first develop the correct movement mechanics (which is in direct relation with the rationality of the movement, the third feature of dexterity) that will inevitably lead to more speed in performing an action – slow becomes smooth, and then smooth becomes fast. Also, by beginning our training at a slow time framing and gradually increasing the speed, we condition the brain to perceive multiple stimuli, thus increasing our reaction speed and at the same time building anticipation skills.

• Regarding the issue of efficiency in movement (i.e. getting the job done with minimum energy expenditure, getting more bang for your buck, if you like), first of all, keep in mind that the human body is a natural energy-efficient system: for example, if it is possible for you to lift an object by using one single motor unit (this means one motor neuron and the muscle fibers corresponding to it), you body would rather do this than use two or three motor units and thus waste energy. The historic roots of Systema as a combat system taught in the elite units of the Soviet military, place special emphasis on movement efficiency. The reason is pretty simple: unlike a professional fighter, who has to face only one opponent at a time and can “give 110%” of his effort in each of his fights - since his next fight is after two months - a soldier must find ways to drastically reduce his fatigue and recover to pre-combat levels of energy, because he must always be ready to fight. One more thing, and please pay extra attention to this, because it is crucial for your training: what you focus upon when you’re training affects the amounts of energy you expend! Gabriele Wulf, PhD, professor of kinesiology at the University of Nevada, claims that “…an external focus has been shown to reduce muscular activity, thereby enhancing movement efficiency. Moreover, an external focus seems to result in more effective coordination between agonist and antagonist muscle groups”(4) . So, once again, when training pay attention to the desired effect of your actions on the environment (your opponent for example), not minuscule details of your own movement – these have a tendency to take care of themselves.

• The fourth feature of dexterity, according to Bernstein, is resourcefulness and the heart of it, in my opinion, lies in the ability to correctly find a solution to a motor problem in conditions of an environment that changes unexpectedly. Well, one of the basic doctrinal tenets of Systema is to rely upon spontaneous improvisation to generate uniquely appropriate solutions to unfolding situations and that is why we do not train in pre-arranged techniques.

So, the first part of the context I was talking about in the beginning of this article is that Russian Martial Art does not consist of a number of comprehensive, start-to-finish, martial arts techniques that someone learns in order to “graduate”. It is rather a training method to make one’s body dexterous, “clever” enough to solve the motor problems of hand-to-hand combat – even those one hasn't faced before and does not expect to face...

In the second part of this article we will discuss the “Three Pillars of Systema” (yeah, I know some people talk about four pillars, but I can explain that).

(1)Latash Mark L., Turvey Michael T. Dexterity and Its Development. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 1996, p. 228
(2)Wulf, G., McNevin, N.H., & Shea, C.H. The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54A, 1143 – 1154 (2001)
(3)Wulf, G., Attention and Motor Skill Learning. Human Kinetics, 2007, p. 113
(4)Ibid., p. 116

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Why on earth do these guys train slow???

What I would like to discuss in this article is the importance of this particular method of drilling we use in Systema, known as "Soft Work" (the original Russian term, copyrighted in Russia by General Alexander Retuinskih of the ROSS System, was translated in English as "Softwork" and subsequently copyrighted by Scott Sonnon, Retuinskih's representative in USA till a few years ago, so I prefer to use the non copyrighted "Soft Work":-). In Soft Work what we do is simulate combat situations using slow time framing (low speed, that is) while trying to keep the energy of our attacks real. This training method of Russian Martial Art has been highly publicised, mainly through videos available all over the Internet and it is because of this training method that Systema has been accused by practitioners of other combat arts as "unrealistic", "flowery", "girly" and various other reeeally cool adjectives!

Before going deeper on the specific reasons of using Soft Work as part of our training, I would like to state something that for Systema practitioner is already well known: we do not ONLY train soft in Systema - on the contrary, we use both soft and hard methods and each of those plays its own distinct role in our fighting preparation.

Now, in order to analyse the scientific basis behind Soft Work, we must first take a deeper look in the most common emotion we experience during combat, which is fear. Extensive research on the human emotions in general and especially fear has been conducted in the last 30-40 years and one of the most prominent scientists in this field is Joseph LeDoux, Professor of Science in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. Referring to the fear system in the brain, LeDoux writes that "it is a system that detects danger and produces responses that maximize the probability of surviving a dangerous situation in the most beneficial way. It is, in other words, a system of defensive behaviour".

Basically, what this means is that we are designed to survive. The millenia of evolution have hard-wired us with a personal protection system, which roughly functions like this: a potential threat is perceived by our senses (sight, hearing, touch taste and smell) and then sent for processing by a structure in the brain which is called the sensory thalamus. Subsequently, the info follows this route:
a) it goes to your "thinking" brain (cortex), which, based on your memories, previous life experiences, skills etc, will assess the situation and prompt you to an appropriate response, and also follows a parallel route to
b) your amygdala, another structure in your brain, which is not wired for thought but for direct action.
c) The info which has been processed by the cortex also goes to the amygdala, but it gets there a few milliseconds later than the info sent directly by the thalamus.

What's also interesting is that the info that goes into your thinking brain is as accurate as possible, while the info that goes to the amygdala is crude and almost archetypal (something like what you hear when you speak to your mobile phone in an area where the signal is weak). The results of this process are described in this example given by LeDoux: "Imagine walking in the woods. A crackling sound occurs. It goes straight to the amygdala through the thalamus. The sound also goes from the thalamus to the cortex, which recognizes the sound to be either a dry twig that snapped under the weight of our boot, or that of a rattlesnake shaking its tail. But by the time the cortex has figured this out, the amygdala is already starting to defend against the snake. [...] Only the cortex distinguishes a coiled up snake from a curved stick. If it is a snake, the [response evoked by] the amygdala is ahead of the game. From the point of view of survival, it is better to respond to potentially dangerous events as if they were the real thing, than to fail to respond. The cost of treating a stick as a snake is less, in the long run, than the cost of treating a snake as a stick".

So, the motto of the fear reaction system for which the amygdala is responsible, is "better safe than sorry" and in the long run of evolution, this has been a successful strategy. But, guess what: the amygdala, in order to initiate emergency reactions, is capable of ignoring a lot of information as irrelevant (under stress, you see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment) and of course, it is also wrong a lot of the time!!! As Lawrence Gonzales, author of the best selling book Deep Survival puts it, "emotions [like fear] are survival mechanisms, but they don't always work for the individual. They work across a large number of trials to keep the species alive. The individual may live or die, but over a few million years, more mammals lived than died by letting emotion take over, so emotion was selected".

There exists a number of modern self-defense systems (among them Krav Maga, Rapid Assault Tactics, Tony Blauer's S.P.E.A.R etc) that are based on this function of the brain. These are known as "adrenaline based" or "reflex based" and the logic behind them is that since most crisis situations will trigger the fear reaction system, the training should take advantage of these fear responses as starting point for a few gross motor skills techniques. Systema instructor Kevin Secours from Montreal, Canada, has an interesting point to make regarding this approach: "If we simply decide that 'all reflexes are good', then we will be relegating control to every impulse and nervous twitch that we have and deprive ourselves of the incredible powers of our cognitive brains that have made us the dominant species that we are today".

Now, imagine you're training in martial arts, Systema, or what have you. You want to work against a front kick and your partner decides to throw it not slow and smooth, but hard and fast. Your eyes see a leg coming towards your mid-section at 60 kph. The visual information goes through the thalamus to your cortex that will decide that this is your training partner who doesn't really want to hurt you, so you should try to do something technical and martial artsy, right??? Wrong! Because a rough version of the same info will reach your amygdala first and it'll go all "Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!!!" So your abdominal muscles will tense, you'll probably bend at the waist and your arms will flail uncontrollably towards your partners leg trying to stop it, resulting in a... well, less than technical move. Let's presume you survived the attack (although this depends more on your opponents speed, or lack of it) by using this primal instinct, which is triggered without your cognitive brain even knowing what exactly happened. Please keep in mind that, even if your partner"offered" you a chance to counter-attack (like and arm you can manipulate, a slight loss of balance you can capitalize upon, or a vital target which is waiting for you to reach out and touch it), your amygdala has considered this information as irrelevant and ignored it!!! Have you learned something from this exchange? Have you gained some sort of experience that you'll be able to use against real life danger? I'm afraid not... The only thing you've probably "learned" is to be fear conditioned and respond in the same spastic way every time somebody front kicks you.

The most important thing about our training sessions is that they should be educational and productive. There is a time and a place for both soft-smooth and hard-fast training. But training is not survival, and it is definitely not contorting our faces with anger or flushing our systems with poisonous chemicals (like adrenaline) which will do us harm in the long run. Training is about learning skills which some day may aid to our survival, in a sustainable way. So, next time you come to a training session think of this: if you go hard and fast, you use your amygdala which cannot be educated. If you go slow and smooth, you use your cognitive brain, which can be educated. Which one will you choose?

*The Youtube video above is an excellent example of soft work by senior Systema instructor Martin Wheeler - really impressive!

Suggested reading
1. LeDoux, Joseph: The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996) Although this is a popular science book, it doesn't in any case constitute what one would call a "light" read. Still, if you're interested in knowing more about the workings of fear in the human mind, it's excellent.
2. Gonzales, Lawrence: Deep Survival (Norton, 2003) This one is a very entertaining book, by a journalist and writer who's been studying human behaviour under extreme circumstances of stress (like accidents) for more than thirty years.
3. Be sure to check the articles on senior Systema instructor Kevin Secours' site: