Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Centrality Of Breath (Part II)

Breathing and blinking are the only two actions of your autonomic nervous systems that you can bring under conscious control anytime you choose. As such, your breathing is the bridge between your somatic and autonomic nervous system.

Think of your autonomic nervous system as a big, shuddering, shaking machine that has only one control level sticking out from its side. Your breathing is that control lever, the one thing you can reach out and grab. When you control your breathing you control the whole autonomic nervous system. As discussed earlier, the autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Through proper breathing, you can control your sympathetic nervous system response, the fancy term for fear and anger. As mentioned earlier, uncontrollable fear and anger are the same thing, they are just two different manifestations of the puppy getting out of control. Tactical breathing is a leash on the puppy. The more you practice the breathing technique, the quicker the effects kick in, as a result of powerful classical and operant conditioning mechanisms.

- On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (pg. 329)

Despite the proliferation of all things "tactical" among fitness programs in recent years, I think Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is allowed... The following is an audio excerpt from "The Bullet Proof Mind" - from about 1:30 in, he discusses "tactical breathing" and then later emphasizes the wisdom of "In Victory, Tighten Your Helmet".

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Centrality Of Breath

I read Zen in the Martial Arts for the first time when I was probably 11 or 12 years old. I don't know what happened to my original copy... probably lost in a move at some point, maybe I sold it or lent it to someone who never returned it. Anyway, I picked up a new copy a couple of years ago and was as impressed re-reading it as I was the first time I opened the cover nearly 30 years ago.

Zen in the Martial Arts October 1972, I was on holiday with my wife, Elke, in Europe. One lovely summer morning we were driving through the wine country of France when I felt an agonizing pain in my abdomen, compounded by a splitting headache. Soon my entire body ached with excruciating pain. Within an hour, I was writing on the seat and intermittently lapsing into unconsciousness. My teeth chattered and my body convulsed with coughing attacks. I had to ask Elke (who, fortunately, was driving) for a tissue so that I could wipe my lips, because I was too weak to pluck one from the box. Elke quickly took the tissue from me, glanced at it, and threw it out the window. I later learned that it was covered with blood.

Elke began driving at a furious pace, taking unpaved roads and driving on sidewalks to gain time. She knew of a university clinic in Freiburg just across the border in Germany, and we could be there within minutes. I drifted in and out of consciousness as if in a dream.

By the time we arrived in Freiburg, pain filled every joint in my body. When Elke found a doctor he came to the car and immediately called for a stretcher. I have only vague memories now of being wheeled into an examining room and given some tests.

I have a clear memory, though, of the doctors telling Elke in German that I was not only vomiting blood but also voiding it. I then heard him ask her if there were any next of kin to be notified, and I knew I must be dying. I panicked. My heart started palpitating, and each heartbeat shook my body. The doctor who was attending me thought I was having a heart attack and had a fibrillator prepared to regulate my heartbeat.

At that moment I thought, "This is absurd. I am sick enough without adding a  heart attack to my problems." With my breathing labored, my heart palpitating , and my body tense, I began forcing myself to regulate my breathing by taking deep belly-breaths (the stomach goes out during inhalation), holding for one, two, or three seconds, and then forcefully expelling all the air. I repeated the process until I settled into a relaxed belly-breathing that required my concentration, inhaling through my nose for four counts and exhaling through my mouth for four breaths. This technique, which I had been taught as a prelude to aikido, is an aspect of Zen practice that makes one oblivious to external impressions. The more I concentrated on my breathing, the more immune I became to the fear that I was dying. Within a few minutes I was in control of myself and my body again.

Before the fibrillator reached my bedside, my heartbeat was normal. "Unglaublich," the doctor said in German. "Incredible."

I lapsed into unconsciousness again and was brought to the clinic's intensive care unit where I remained for five days. Twice during that time my fever reached 106ยบ, and the doctors told Elke they had lost me. Of those moments, I recall only floating in a cocoon of warmth down a narrow tunnel where I would be free of pain. I could hear Elke's voice from a distance pleading with me not to die.

Each time this happened I began to regulate my breathing. Three weeks later I was discharged from the hospital. I had survived a case of Weill's disease, a rare virus which is usually fatal. (I was the first case in Germany in over forty years.) According to the Institute for Tropical Disease, I had contracted it from some foul water in Spain.

Had this incident befallen me a few years earlier, I would have certainly died because the Zen breathing technique was not yet known to me. Since then I have found the technique especially useful in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations when my breathing becomes irregular and fear distorts orderly thought processes, which tend to immobilize both my mind and body.
Breathing and breath control are vital to performance and health. I've touched on it a few times over the years in this blog and plan to add entries on the topic over the next few weeks. You'll find a lot of overlap in the materials, but hopefully discover something new or remember something important.

Related Posts:
Breathing (SquatRx #10)
Breathing (The Central Lessons)
Specificity & Posture
Doing Nothing: An Introduction To Meditation
"Hypoxic" Training

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blogs Of Note IV

I'd like to share three blogs with you today:

Adam "Unbreakable" Glass (formerly known as Adam Glass RKC) keeps a really interesting blog. Many posts document his feats of strength and his grip adventures are truly amazing. His writing is certainly not sensitive, but he has a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things to say.
In some of his latest posts, he gives us his Brain Droppings and Some More Brain Droppings. Do I agree with everything? Of course not - he's an opinionated SOB, but Adam's no-BS straight talk is always refreshing.

Tracy Fober, a physical therapist and S&C coach, keeps a blog over at The Iron Maven. She always has great advice and insight into training. I was fortunate to meet Tracy and her husband after Catherine Imes' workshop a couple of years ago and you'll never meet finer people.
In this post, she touches on The Shoulder and it's training and function. And, in this post, she talks about Building Foundations - both are short and very sweet blog posts.

If you've been here for a while, you know I'm a fan of Dave and Laree Draper. They keep a blog at Iron Online Strength and Conditioning and fill it with great information, occasionally introducing you to products they find worthwhile.
This post links to a new book series by bodybuilding strength legend Bill Pearl called Legends Of The Iron Game. It looks absolutely fantastic and I'll be looking to get a copy for myself for the holidays.

Stop by these three superb blogs and say hi.

- Boris

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Control The Raging Spirit

Tire wrenches might not be what triggers it, but we all have our moments when we're like David/Bruce Banner seeking to control the raging spirit that dwells within us...

Friday, October 15, 2010

Making The Bad Dreams Go Away

On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace

...there is one thing you can do that has helped many warriors to make the dreams go away: train. The puppy is worried, so to calm him you teach him a few new tricks or polish the old ones. Train hard so that he feels confident.

I know an officer who is a member of one of our nation's most elite SWAT teams. He goes into harm's way on a daily basis and is confronted by deadly force encounters on a weekly basis. He tells me that every six weeks, like clockwork, his nightmares return. To make them go away, he goes out to the firing range on a Saturday and fires hundreds of rounds. He particularly likes to shoot at steel targets, the kind that produce an audible clank when struck and then drop down. "My weapon turns into a magic wand. Wherever I point it, things fall down, and my nightmares go away."

For some people, the nightmares pass when they are no longer in danger. Others seem to "learn" how to win in their dreams, to "will" themselves to win, even if it means picking up a big rock and smacking their enemy with it, or defeating an endless stream of attackers until their opponents finally give up. However, if the nature of your work is that every day you face combat or the possibility of combat, one possible solution is to train.

The midbrain or the mammalian brain truly is like having a "puppy" inside. The only way to communicate to your puppy is to train him. I have two dogs, a poodle and a German shepherd: my elite, crack security team. I cannot talk to my dogs, and tell them, "All right, I'm going to be gone for a week, so you guys are in charge. You've got the front door, and you've got the back door." It's not like Scooby Doo where they say, "Rr-all right boss!" and go do it. In the real world the only way you can communicate to your dog is to train him. The  same is true with the puppy inside.

The one quality all good police dogs have in common is confidence, verging on cockiness. This is because they have been highly trained and they know that there is nothing the world can throw at them that they cannot handle. Have you ever seen a person that just exudes confidence under stress? You can't fake it, it is a product of training and experience. If you are having performance anxiety dreams, it may mean that the puppy doesn't have that confidence. The only sure way to get it is through training.

From On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (p. 157)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

This Overhead Squat Video Has A Quarter-Million Views

I like to say "I am not a form nazi", but come on! If you are putting out instructional videos, be able to demonstrate correct form. A free YouTube video, like the one above, is one thing, but if you're charging a chunk of change for a DVD, do it right, take 2 and get your form down before shooting, or get someone else (one of your bazillion clients) to do it for you. [/rant]

If you can look past the cleavage and bad (good?) camera angles, you'll notice
the rounding lumbar, the heels coming off the ground, and dumbbell forward
of the body's center of gravity.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Change

The Buddha in the Robot

People do not find life worth living unless they experience change, but change in the form of quantitative growth is limited by the fact that resources are finite. Excessive quantitative growth is self-defeating and self-destructive.

...we must realize that if we attempt to satisfy our human desire for change with nothing more than quantitative improvement, we shall be moving in the direction of suffering, because there is a point beyond which quantitative growth is impossible. What we must aim at is qualitative change, which can continue forever.

... If it is simply a matter of producing more of the same product - a quantitative change - you can do that without thinking. But if you are seeking a qualitative change, you must use your head. This is what is called creating. Merely repeating the same process leads to unspeakable sorrow, but creating something new leads to indescribable joy.

- The Buddha in the Robot

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

DVD Review - Lats: The Super Muscles

About two months ago, I posted a short video about improving the overhead squat - somehow I thought my "insight" into external rotation and lat involvement with the exercise was something special. Watching Master RKC Mark Reifkind's video Lats: The Super Muscle, I am once again reminded of the humble "beginner's mind", as I usually am when I listen to great teachers. Rif covers everything I wanted to say in Squat Rx #22 about extension, spiral tension, and so much more.

Rif begins his presentation with a rundown of latissimus dorsi anatomy and function and follows that up with many drills and exercises that engage the lats and encourage strong and healthy movement. It is a solid hour and a half of knowledge that will help you swing better, press more strongly, and improve shoulder health, t-spine mobility, and hip function - and all that from a four letter word for a powerhouse of a muscle.

Honestly, when I heard the title, I thought "Huh? Super Lats? Has Rif gone all bodybuilder on us?" I didn't think there would be a whole lot of new material for me to chew on. I could not have been more wrong! I was not a believer before, but I am now. If you've ever, ever wondered why the lats help your press, this DVD will lay your questions to rest. If Jeff O'Connor's warning that "the ears are shoulder poison" ever had you scratching your head, this DVD will end the itch. If you ever wanted to know why your lats are sore after doing a lot of push-ups, look no further - Rif has the answers.

At $29.95, "Lats" is an absolute bargain. It is available from Dave and Laree Draper's website at

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Blogs Of Note III

The Gubernatrix is a very interesting blog about the strength game told from a lady's perspective - very refreshing in an often-too-testosterone-laden field. Well written and insightful, her latest post is about The Benefits Of Walking - something most Americans need to spend A LOT MORE time doing...

Mark Reifkind's Blog - Master RKC Rif has been at the strength game for a long time and his blog often covers the topics of mobility, powerlifting, and, of course, kettlebells. He'll also will throw out deep thoughts like this one - You Have To Be Ready To Grab It from time to time, which serve to smack you awake from your foolish training practices. His recent DVD, Lats: The Super Muscle is absolutely fantastic - a must-have for hard-style kettlebell enthusiasts (and probably everyone else for that matter). I will be posting a review later this week.

Bret Contreras, "the glute guy", keeps a popular blog with many thought provoking gems. Often, he'll make a post with over 50 links to interesting blogs, articles, and sites! He's passionate about glutes and S&C and it shows in his blog. Here is his latest Good Reads For The Week post.