Exploring Breath Training

December 19, 2016 by Jason Priest  
Breath training is a foundation of Systema and gets plenty of attention in class. Breathwork is easily done on your own, without a training partner, in your home, on the way to work, playing with your children, and while dealing with the everyday stresses. It is easy to experiment with and valuable to explore. Be sure to keep in mind the seven key breathing principles.
While most students can easily tell you the four Systema fundamentals (breath, body structure, relaxation, movement), yet many seasoned practitioners cannot recall all of the seven principles of Systema breathing (Let Every Breath, chapter 3). If it has been a while since you’ve read your copy, I suggest you keep it nearby and review even a page or two from time to time.

One very interesting principle is Breath Sufficiency. To deeper understand it, in a recent class, we have modified a classic breathing-walking exercise. It was a very effective variation and I’d like to share it with you.

The basic breathwork while walking is described in Let Every Breath, chapter 7 called “Hit the Road” (p. 85). “Start your inhale slowly walking in a normal posture, and stay relaxed. To co-ordinate breathing, begin with a simple pattern of one step per every complete inhale and one step for your complete exhale.” Then inhale over two steps and exhale over two steps, gradually increase the number of steps and stretch your breathing accordingly until you reach your limit and then reduce the number of steps back to one in a pyramid fashion.

To explore Breath Sufficiency, we modified this exercise to stretch the inhale phase of the breath cycle, but keep the exhale phase limited. Start with one step inhale, and one step exhale (1-1), then 2-1, and so on up to 5-1. Then allow an additional exhale and move to six steps inhale and two steps exhale (6-2). Continuing up to 9-2, then 12-3, and up to 15-3 (15 steps inhale and three steps exhale). It is important that the inhale phase of the breath cycle be done without tension, as much as possible. This means that the inhales must become lighter and lighter as they get longer.

Students often try to inhale as much as possible over their 15 steps. This is a mistake, and with it comes the tension in the neck and chest that we are trying to avoid. In this exercise, the goal is to explore how to relax both the body and psyche as deeply as possible while maintaining normal structure during walking, to see how little breath is actually sufficient for the exercise. Even at 15-3, you should still feel like you have room to inhale more quiet comfortably. Also, remember that you have to exhale all of that air in only three steps (and with practice even fewer).

If you can comfortably complete 15-3, try 18-3, 20-3 and so on. Some students can inhale lightly and evenly over 30 steps and exhale over three. Keeping in mind that the goal is to avoid any discomfort or tension, you can find your current limit. You can see how much tension you experience over the longer inhale step intervals. It is also perfectly fine to get rid of any tension by moving your shoulders as you walk, tapping or massaging those areas, or shaking the muscles a little.

Once you have seen how far you can go, it’s time to work back down, but that doesn’t mean it is about to get easier. After a minute or two of seeing how far you can stretch your breath, come back to fifteen steps inhale and three steps exhale (15-3). Next is 15-2, and then 15-1.

As much as we focus on the inhale in this exercise, the exhale is also very important. You can tell how light your breath really is by how hard you feel you need to exhale. Ideally, your exhales in this drill should be relaxed, calm and quiet, they should allow you to conform to both the Continuity principle (p. 46) and Pendulum principle (p. 47).

If you exhale too hard or too much you will find yourself gasping or being a little greedy when you start your next inhale, or the tension may prevent you from making a smooth transition between the inhale and exhale phases. Resist the urge to exhale loudly or too quickly just to show how much air you can expel in one or two steps. Your exhale should also be Sufficient, not too much, and not too little. Check yourself on your next inhale. If it is continually getting lighter and easier, then the amount of air you are taking in and out is Sufficient – just right for the task.

Next is 12-1, 9-1, 6-1, and 3-1. By now, you should notice that both your breathing and body are quite relaxed. It should be easier to breathe very light over fewer steps and both your inhales and exhales should be quiet and almost unnoticeable to anyone watching you.

Generally, we finish the exercise with breath and steps at 3-2, 2-2, and finally 1-1.

This exercise can be adjusted of course, if 12-3, 15-3 are too much, you can start to work back down sooner, for example, from 6-2, to 6-1, 4-1, 2-1, 1-1. The idea is to do the exercise well, with no straining, rather than to do it poorly over longer breaths.

The whole time you do the exercise try to be aware of yourself, feel how relaxed you are at the start, pay attention to feelings of tension, especially on inhaling. Tension in the body and mental stress will make it difficult to properly lengthen and lighten your breath. The good news is that by lengthening and lightening your breath you can reduce both the tension and stress.

If you can, attend a breathing class, re-read Let Every Breath, and start to study and explore your breathing on a deeper level. It will bring tremendous benefits in your daily life, as will show up in all aspects of your Systema training and any physical activity.

Lastly, don’t forget the special principle of Systema – to Enjoy it!

Jason Priest

Jason Priest has been training and teaching at Systema HQ Toronto since 2007. He is a certified Systema Instructor. Outside of Systema, Jason runs an Investment Management and Consulting firm.