(Reproduced from an old article in Martial Arts Illustrated)
A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from the Editor in Chief and Big Boss at M.A.I, Bob Sykes. “Johnny I’d like you to come up with a mini-series of articles about taking ones martial arts to the next level”. ‘Fantastic, that should be a piece of cake’ I replied somewhat sarcastically. After some more chatting, no sooner had the call ended was my mind racing and computing various article possibilities. I mean come on, this is not exactly the easiest of subjects to write about is it? Making my way through the pages of this magazine each month I find that there are so many superb pieces written by hugely talented and experienced practitioners. Every subject seems to be covered. From competition preparation to street combat application right through to ultra scientific approaches and training in the ancient ways. There always seems to be something that is useful in offering keys to elevating your skills. With such an undertaking I thought long and hard about what I could present. It needed to be something that was thought-provoking if not altogether different but was universal to anyone that practices martial arts.
While in quiet article contemplation mode somewhat akin to a surfer on his board waiting to catch that perfect wave, my mind was taken back to a small series of articles I wrote a number of months back entitled ‘Going The Distance’ which focussed on training longevity. As I meditated on what I wanted to relay it occurred to me that there existed a big correlation between that series and this current undertaking. People want training longevity because perhaps among other things they want to go as far as they can in their martial journey; they want to reach the highest level they possibly can. As I got thinking more about this it seemed to me the next obvious question to ask was ‘what does taking martial arts to the next level mean’? There will be any number of interpretations of what this might mean. Ultimately it all comes down to what you “see” for yourself. Your ‘vision’ often times will be a huge factor in determining how far you will go and how much ‘success’ you may achieve. Consider for a moment great visionaries such as Gandhi who envisaged peace or Thomas Edison who ‘saw’ in his mind’s eye the light bulb, the list of great people like these is endless. All of their successes began with a thought that became an all-consuming vision. Even closer to home the ‘Little Dragon’, Bruce himself ‘saw’ a fluid and different way in martial arts and as a result of his pioneering work and thinking outside of the box combat went in a completely new and exciting direction. A Biblical proverb says it this way; ‘the people perish for a lack of vision‘. In other words, without direction, you often get lost. What is it that you see for yourself in martial arts and what defines the next level for you? Have you ever really stopped to take time and think deeply over it and ask what yourself what you exactly want to get out of it?
The answer to that question is very straightforward for some; don’t think or analyse too much, just train as hard and consistently as you can, enjoying the process and over time you will improve greatly. This is very true and the ‘Just Do It’ motto perfectly fits this mindset. We all need that in our psyche. For others, however, it can often be a little more complex than that because martial arts simply isn’t just an activity it’s an all-encompassing way of life. Going back to the point of what your vision is, it is essential to carve out some personal time for yourself on a daily basis to either bring into sharper focus that ‘something’ you sort of see but can’t quite articulate or to continue to bring to reality the clear image you hold in your minds eye, in other words, to press on forwards making progress on your chosen path.
If you don’t already have one, in order to discover your vision (or goals or motivations) you need to be able to concentrate for a certain amount of time to see what’s inside of you. Every aspect of mental training is interconnected in some way or another. The problem for so many people is that they find concentration really difficult; certainly if it entails stilling the mind and the external senses. Lack of concentration can just be a symptom of stress or anxiety or any number of other causes. In all of this inter-connectedness, there runs a truly sublime ‘vein’ that always seems to help during these times – the breath. Life-giving and life transforming! It is from this place we are starting our little journey. Once we get in touch with our breath it will be the catalyst in helping us concentrate which in turn will help us quieten our minds to finally get us to a place we can ‘observe’ and set goals and allow that personal vision to burn bright. End result being as you apply these ‘forces’ to diligent training and practice you will hopefully begin to reach new levels in your martial arts ability.
So, this month I want to share with you a very simple breathing exercise that you can do at any time but which especially works well first thing in the morning to set you up for the day. Just before I go into specifics I want to say that if you have a practice whether it be in the form of Tai Chi, Chi Kung or any other such discipline then this may or may not benefit you as you are already extracting all of those subtle elements into your body and your concentration is probably razor sharp, however, it certainly won’t hurt adding this. This is yet another ‘tool’ for the ‘box’ – something to trial and to see if it benefits you. As I always say, nothing is set in stone so experiment with it.
This technique was taught to me in the early ’90s by one of my teachers, Guru Ma Prem in Holland and it is a variation on the Yoga alternate nostril breathing exercise. On a subtle level it helps to strengthen the energy channel that runs between the nasal passages but on a purely physiological level it can have the following benefits:
Oxygenate and re-energise the body
Help improve mental faculties such as concentration and decision making
Improve breathing and clear nasal blockages
Calm the nervous system
So then the first step is to find a comfortable position. You can either sit cross-legged or on a chair, whatever is most suitable. Just try and maintain a good posture. My personal favourite is to sit on a chair right by my open window looking to out into the garden during the early morning. As a beginner you should follow a 7-3-7 breathing pattern – that is to say, inhaling for seven seconds through one nostril while using a thumb to block air to other. Hold for three and then exhale for another count of seven. You would then repeat this cycle using the ring finger of the same hand to block the other nostril. This whole alternating sequence lasts ten minutes. After a couple of weeks if you find this is quite easy you can progress to a 7-7-7 breath cycle. The breathing should be deep but relaxed. Try to imagine as you breath in through one of your nostrils the air is filling your lungs first from the area around the navel and then rising higher up to the chest. Then as you hold the breath imagine yourself really ‘absorbing’ that air. Finally when you exhale out of the mouth reverse the breathing pattern, focussing on the releasing the breath first from the chest then down to the navel area.
After a few minutes of performing this exercise, you may begin to notice different things happening. Initially, you might feel a bit light-headed but that isn’t a bad thing, it is just your body adapting to the different breathing pattern. However, if it gets severe then stop the exercise. You may find that nasal passages begin clearing or that any phlegm you may have in chest begins to loosen up which is a good sign. Hopefully, by the end of the ten minute period, you will feel more energised and alert. That my friends is really all there is to it. As you develop this new connection with your breath during this exercise try and be more conscious of your breathing during the course of the day. Aim for a deep rhythmic pattern, and when in training strive to find a relaxed pattern that keeps you in control of the breath and not vice versa. Ten minutes daily of this very simple over several weeks should reap some interesting dividends. Give it a fair trial of at least 21 days to see if you notice improvements in any area either physical, mental or otherwise. The breath is a massively important component in helping you reach the next level. Next time I will discuss concentration and offer a couple of very simple exercises that may help to improve it.