Student: Could you give a few tips on applying Systema Breathing to taking a punch.
Most people have the primary fear of contact. Of course the degree of fear varies from person to person. I have met some who came to my school afraid to get hurt to such an extent that they were shaking even in a peaceful setting of the gym. Learning to take strikes should follow a good progression.
One day at Mikhail Ryabko’s class in Moscow one of his students brought a friend who was not a fighter at all. In fact, the man had no experience in any martial art or any sport, he was from the world of science and classical music. He wanted to know how to take strikes, but was absolutely unprepared to have any contact with a fist. Despite his interest, he was completely unable to understand the principles of breathing and taking strikes. Even talking about punches made him panic.
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For another easy test, try to keep your mouth closed as you are just standing and doing nothing else, you will feel tension increasing inside. So imagine if you have tension to start with, then pushes cause more tension, strikes cause yet greater tension and hitting with an object or weapon would cause even more tension inside. The very thing we want to avoid, since as we know, unresolved tension leads to destruction.
Student: Can you explain what you mean by that.
Student: During these drills is it better to exhale quietly or to make a sound?
Student: When I am comfortable with pushes and exhales can I begin taking punches?
When you have gained this automatic response of contact-exhale, then you can start on real punching. You may like to prepare by doing a few sharp inhales and exhales to prevent the fear from developing. As we discussed in the first part of our conversation, such dynamic breathing interrupts the fear-building process. Sharp breathing keeps you in control while at the same time fills your muscles with oxygen needed to match the physically active condition of your partner.
When you begin to practice taking punches, make sure you stand in a natural and straight body position, as described in Let Every Breath···, pages 51-54, at a comfortable distance to each other. At the very moment that your fist touches your partner’s stomach, he exhales sharply though the mouth. Then he immediately draws a short and sharp inhale though the nose with the mouth closed, ready to repeat the exhale at the point of next contact.
Punches can now get stronger than in the previous drills, but stronger for that recipient and his level of skill. Your primary goal is to teach your partner to breathe, so as you strike watch your partner vigilantly and make sure that your strikes do not make him tense.
In Systema, we call these short and sharp inhales though the nose and exhales though the mouth Burst Breathing. It is widely used in tolerance training exercises and in combat. More details in Let Every Breath··· pages 69-70 and throughout chapters 5 to 7.
When training, the more discomfort and pain you get from a strike the more you accelerate and intensify your burst breaths. This way you do not allow the pain to penetrate. By doing Burst Breathing you can also stop the destructive feelings of self pity, anger and resentment from arising within yourself.
In Russian, Burst Breathing is also called The Saving Breath. There are numerous instances where this type of breathing helped to prevail in a confrontation or saved a life.
I heard about one such dramatic episode from Mikhail’s student in Moscow. This young man was in a horrible accident. The minivan with several people in it fell off a cliff and rolled down a steep and rocky hill. The minivan took one shattering bounce after another and each time this young man tried to group himself, move and roll, he kept doing Burst Breathing constantly. (See news story Ken Good Breathes thru a Crash)
Tragically, all other passengers were killed in the crash. He was the only one that took Systema classes with Mikhail, and he says that it was breathing more than anything else that saved his life.
Student: How many times should I hit my partner when we are practicing?
Student: I noticed that when I am being punched, I sometimes close my eyes for a very brief moment. Why is that?
You can deliberately make this an element to work on. It is important to watch and see when the strike comes at you so that you know exactly when to exhale. With more experience, you will be able to catch the right moment even with the eyes closed. Keep in mind that the perceptions of pain are different when the eyes are open and closed.
Vladimir: The reason is that you begin to concentrate on the pain and other body sensations, you become too consumed with these and thus loose the control of your surroundings and become disoriented. During practice, it is useful to look at your partner, remain in visual contact with him. It does not even have to be him, you can maintain eye contact with another person in the gym. Burst Breathing will also help you restore your awareness much faster.
Vladimir: I often ask more experienced students to work with newcomers. It is a great opportunity to check oneself, because the new person presents something unknown and unpredictable, a chance to control the tension of anticipation and adjust to a variety of punches.
Vladimir: Make a habit of breathing properly all the time in class, during any exercise. No matter where and how you are training watch the tension as it appears from any contact or any effort and exhale it. Apply the same to your everyday life, do not let the stress, tension and negative feelings get in.
Vladimir: It is important to proceed gradually, preparing your body physically and preparing yourself psychologically. Systema also recognizes that the one who strikes transfers his internal condition to his partner. As the skill of striking improves, it becomes easier to transfer inner feelings to the recipient. This is a word of caution especially to those who teach. An instructor may not even recognize it himself but he may be trying to prove that he is not just an ordinary person··· Sometimes we forget that we cannot be the strongest ones. The desire to be the strongest makes us the weakest. An ideal teacher is a calm and balanced person with no ego. His strikes would be safe to take.