Breathing in BJJ is often overlooked. There’s no shortage of information about the visually exciting side of Brazilian jiu-jitsu technique… escapes, submissions, sweeps, counters… the magazines and websites are overflowing with that stuff. But breathing? Boring. Right? Not exactly. When I’m rolling with someone, one of the main things I pay attention to is their breathing pattern.
I love it when a sparring partner / opponent comes out all aggro, huffing and puffing through their mouth, right from the get-go. Often in cases like this I can literally feel their energy dissipate over the course of five minutes… melting away like the Wicked Witch of the West. The energy-sapping approach is one of the cornerstones of my Frustrate and Annoy jiu-jitsu strategy (aka fungal jiu-jitsu: slow, steady, persistent, and largely unexciting) and a huge part of making it work is in the breathing.
Control Your Breathing, Control Your Stress Level
When you experience some form of stress… for example, a training partner trying to take you down, choke you, or tear your shoulder out of the socket during a jiu-jitsu roll… your system automatically launches a fight-or-flight response which is characterized by increased heart and breathing rates and the release of alert hormones like adrenaline. This response will give you an energy kick, but – as you likely remember from your first BJJ competition – it doesn’t last long. That’s why my goal during BJJ sparring is to try to avoid the adrenaline dump by keeping myself as relaxed as possible. Slow, deep breaths through the nose are the name of the game.
Slow, deep breathing is a good way to combat stress. But don’t take my word for it, the article “Just Breathe” from the Heart MD Institute is here to back me up: “A relaxation response counteracts the effects of the fight or flight response by helping to boost immune system function, reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels, and protect tissues from damage caused by stress-hormones… One of the best means of inducing a relaxation response is through diaphragmatic breathing: inhaling deeply through the chest and virtually into the stomach.” ‘Nuff said.
Scuba Diving Forces a Focus on Breathing Technique
One of my favourite non-jiu-jitsu activities is scuba diving, where the amount of enjoyment in minutes is directly proportional to your body’s ability to make efficient use of oxygen. During a trip to Fiji I went on a mind-blowing dive trip to a spot called the Great White Wall off of the island of Taveuni and three of my co-divers were a guy from California and his two teenage daughters. Man could those three stretch their tanks.
As far as I could tell, I was as relaxed as possible during the dives, yet I’d always have to surface at least ten minutes before them – and they’d still come up with a half a tank. I asked him his secret. “When I started taking yoga, I increased by tank life by about 20% right away. A huge part was learning to completely empty my lungs with every breath.”
Yoga = Breathing (+ a bunch of other good stuff)
It’s no secret that yoga is good for your breathing, just ask Khon Kaen University in Thailand, where a study of yoga and breathing found improved breathing function in subjects taking part in six weeks of yoga. The health benefits of yoga don’t stop with improved lung function though, they also include increased flexibility, strength, and balance. And if you want some yoga with a martial arts slant? No problem, Stephan Kesting from Grapple Arts has you covered. What are you waiting for?
Of course there are many more important aspects to the role of breathing in martial arts, whether you’re talking Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, judo, muay Thai, MMA, or wrestling, particularly relating to rhythm and timing. Miyamoto Musashi, Bruce Lee, Yagyu Munenori, Freddie Roach – they all exhort the importance of correct breathing. But that’s a subject for another article.
So next time you’re on the mat at BJJ class, take another look at your breathing. Pay close attention to this bodily function that most people see as a completely unconscious act. Next time you’re rolling, try to breathe deeply. Relax. Keep yourself safe and shut down your training partner’s attacks one by one while they burn themselves out. Then once you feel them melt and an opening appears, you’ll have the energy to take advantage of it.
Sources and further reading
- “How the Lungs and Respiratory System Work”. WebMD. Accessed Sept 26, 2012. http://www.webmd.com/lung/how-we-breathe
- “Physiological Importance of Breathing”. Livestrong.com. Accessed Sept 26, 2012. http://www.livestrong.com/article/75216-physiological-importance-breathing/
- “Just Breathe: The Simplest Means of Managing Stress”. Heart MD Institute. Accessed Sept 26, 2012. http://www.heartmdinstitute.com/heart-healthy-lifestyles/mindbody-connection/just-breathe
- Greenberg, B. (2012). “Fight, Flight, or Breathing Right: The Choice Is Yours”. Psych Central. Accessed September 27, 2012. http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/fight-flight-or-breathing-right-the-choice-is-yours/
- Hitti, M. “Breathe Easier with Yoga”. WebMD. Accessed Sept 26, 2012. http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20060405/breathe-easier-with-yoga
- “The Health Benefits of Yoga”. WebMD. Accessed Sept 26, 2012. http://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/the-health-benefits-of-yoga