Breath is Life

Systema Training at FightClub

The most basic of human abilities, life begins with an inhale and ends with an exhale. It controls countless bodily functions. Inhalation should travel through the nose and exhalation through the mouth. A person should never hold their breath unless it is done so deliberately because it places great strain on the body’s systems. Good breathing will impact and improve every aspect of your life. If you have breath, you have life, and if you have life, you can move and if you can move, you can survive. This principle is important not just for the martial art but for overall health and well being.

If you cannot control your breathing, life will not fair well for you. When you consider how many bodily functions are regulated though breathing one can never emphasize its importance enough. It keeps the mind calm and focused, regulates core body temperature and supplies much needed oxygen to the body. Its importance to self defense is no different and its relevance can be seen in every class or seminar.

Breathing begins by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Here are a few simple examples of how this is applied: when walking or running, take a step and inhale through your nose, then take a second step and exhale through your mouth. You can keep repeating this cycle or increase to 10/20/30 steps inhaling and 10/20/30 steps exhaling. The number is not that important, the focus is on connecting the breath and movement.


The same idea can also be applied to exercises like push-ups, squats or leg raises. For downward movements you inhale; upward movements you exhale or vise-versa. Once again, you can keep this cycle or increase it. I have seen students that can complete 20 push-ups inhaling and 20 exhaling with less than one year of training. The concept is to be aware and in control of your breathing, no matter what you doing.

The ultimate application comes when breathing is incorporated with the drills and movements in a martial art context. Inhaling as the attack happens and exhaling in putting the person down. Exhaling as a punch lands, inhaling as the punch goes. Obviously it is a little more complicated but the idea is what I am presenting.
Another important component to breathing is the rate of breath. Your body takes many cues from your breathing rate. If breathing speeds up the body becomes more alert, while a slow breathing rate makes you calm. As a situation changes so must your breathing, if you’re interested in getting the most out of your abilities. It is like an engine of a car, if you want the most out of the engine you must be in the right gear. However, the right gear changes as the road or situation does. Similarly a situation (road) will dictate the proper breathing (gear) rate. Your training must be diverse enough to allow this to happen. The reality is that a common day for most people may involve many different breathing rates. No one is right or wrong, until you know the situation. The same is true for martial arts.

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The Greater Good

I make art (Martial Art) for a few reasons – The Greater Good.

In life, we experience so much fragmentation of thought and feeling. For me, creating art brings things back together.

In my own work, that is true throughout the process. At the beginning, developing the basic raw materials for the work is deeply reflective and informative. Later, bringing those materials together into a form—distilling and shaping movement, creating a context, working to something that feels cohesive and complete. That’s incredibly powerful for me—something that really keeps me going.

Interestingly, the body of my work is like a catalog of the events and thoughts of my life. For me, ‘making work’ (training) is almost like keeping a journal. Giving that to someone else—as a kind of gift through my classes—is the most meaningful aspect of my work.

Martial Arts is a powerful art form – If you love it; then you should be happy. Emmanuel

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Containing Overwhelm

As martial artists, we would be remiss not to consider some of the broader considerations around “self defence”. Often unspoken, the fear and pain many of us feel have little to do with physical confrontation and harm, but a disorganization of the self. A fraction of these potential dangers include:

  • losing friends and family to age, sickness or seemingly irreparable disagreements;
  • financial stress;
  • being rejected or judged by peers (particularly when it is for choices close to our heart that we believe in, but others cannot support, or a sense of personal failure); and
  • the merciless march of time which eats away our opportunity to pursue our dreams.

The hours I have spent training far exceeds the moments of real physical danger in my life; most of the physical harm I have experienced have been accidents and miscalculations in training itself. The dangers above however, are more frequent and familiar to almost all of us, or we are well aware they will be coming… eventually. They also hit much deeper. How odd would it be to study martial arts without thoroughly considering these penetrating strikes into our identity – delivered not through fists or feet, but by words or by circumstance? An insightful student can intuit and draw parallels between a physical strike and a verbal one, but the visceral collapse of being betrayed by someone you love can be more devastating and long lasting than broken bones.

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”
C.G. Jung

My recent explorations on this topic lead me to believe that there are two primary mechanisms of training on this topic. A metaphor may be useful.

Imagine your nervous system is a cup of water in a hot day. The cup itself can grow in size, or shrink; it is your capacity. The circumstances of life are like periodic rainstorms, that fill the cup. The rains come, your cup fills, the rain passes, the water evaporates and you have more room for the next storm. The rains can be heavy or light. The longer the water stays, the more sludgy and hard it becomes, and more difficult to remove. The more full your cup, the more likely it will crack; the rebuilding process will be long and often imperfect.

It is a rare person that has a completely empty cup. As a result, when the rains come, we already have a diminished capacity to hold an additional amount.

The metaphor has a number limitations, but it provides a starting point for discussion. We have two potential responses:

  1. Do our best to completely empty the cup to maximize our capacity for the next storm (remove held stresses/tensions).
  2. Grow the cup into a bucket (expand our capacity). This one is debatable – it may only appear to be true because emptying the cup gives an illusion of this (to be discussed another day).

The Systema approach is fundamentally a familiarization with our experience of ourselves in a variety of exercises and conditions. Wrestling, stretching, breathing, striking – these all provide a mechanism to jostle the cup, and get a sense of what is inside. Done improperly, you end up either damaging the cup, or mimicking a storm that leaves you with more water than when you started. Done properly, some of the water splashes out and you feel the space of being cleaned. Sludgy residue acts unpredictably – it can be difficult to dislodge, and once loose, has a tendency to do more damage to the cup than when it was stuck to the sides/bottom.

While watching myself and other students, my sense is that we have a tendency to frequently overlook the meaningful signs and signals from within ourselves in the course of our training. The cup is jostling, but we have a poor sense of which side of the cup the water is tending towards. We do have some slower exercises (e.g., slow push-ups make it possible to seek out sticking points, drawing out and extending some of the issues which require attention); which are more akin to gently tipping the cup rather than jostling it. Yet even in these slow calisthenics, the nervous system is under stress and somewhat defensive.

The slow tipping of the cup is a special approach. When it is being done, the work happens inside each person, and is difficult to accurately intuit except for the keenest of training partners. When our drills require rapid changes in direction, speed or a focus on biomechanical results rather than self observation, our habitual responses draw our attention elsewhere, making the water difficult to sense.

As the quote from Jung suggests, we need to devote some special training and attention to the darkness within. The movements of the water and its older sludgy companions are often very personal and difficult to approach largely because we have been ignoring them for as long as we have had them; that is why they are still there.

Critically, if you fail to address your own darkness, you will not have enough capacity to share the load of the water in your partner’s cup. Their residue will resonate with yours, and you will blame each other, instead of recognizing what you have hidden from yourself. However, when you pair your cup with your partner’s and you both have the capacity to gently jostle/tip the cups, more water will leave your cups than if you were to attempt to do so alone. In this way, our training partners are our greatest allies, but only if we have the intelligence, trust and understanding to offer this service to each other.

By healing each other, we will win learn more about self defence than we could by any other way.  We will empty our cups, and our capacity to contain the sometimes shocking and difficult realities of this world will be enhanced.

See you on the mat.

– Mark

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“Don’t see dead people; we’re not fighting terrorists today guys”

Emmanuel is fond of the above quote, which he picked up from a fellow instructor at a seminar devoted to knife work. The instructor in question went on to distinguish between practicing knife work and practicing martial arts with a knife. ‘Real’ knife work is dirty work. It involves learning how to kill and maim or otherwise incapacitate your attacker. That sort of training has its place, but you don’t want to be doing it all the time in the gym. That’s how you start to ‘imagine dead people’ while you work, giving in to fear and pride; that’s how things get too serious in martial arts, how people get into absurd, unending arguments over the ‘best’ techniques. YouTube and Black Belt Magazine are replete with such conversations. Systema works instead to normalize the knife, treating it as just another tool, something like a fork, a hammer, or a shovel. We are practicing martial arts and we just happen to be holding a knife while we do so.

Fight Club, despite its name, tries to keep things light. Professionals, Emmanuel often remarks, are playful on the outside but serious on the inside were it counts. He encourages us to play with the knife—the sharp and flat edges, the butt, the hilt, everything. We move it around and over bodies, tracing the space around us, or trace the bodies of others. We move and roll with the knife; throw it away from us and leap to grab it before someone else does; drop it on the ground and pick it up without looking down. We practice being attacked from all angles and on numerous surfaces. Generally, we do not over-worry about being ‘cut’. Our training knives are, in the end, just toys. Human creativity is closely associated with the spirit of play.

This is Emmanuel’s perspective anyway. I happen to share it with him. Having in the past both worked with a real knife and spoken to numerous victims of stabbings, I have come to believe that a real knife requires a steady mind and great mobility to survive. That cold steel is unforgiving. I know that, if faced with a real knife, I would want to do nothing more than get away as fast as I could. Otherwise, I would reasonably have to expect to get cut. Probably very badly. A knife is unpredictable, especially if wielded by a very tense, very nervous individual. Assuming that you even detect it before the attack begins! I’ve heard consistent testimony from and seen video evidence of people who were stabbed multiple times before they even realized that a knife was in play.

If you really want to be safe from a knife, learn how to detect who has one and to keep your distance from such people. Or carry a gun. Otherwise, just practice keeping mobile and calm so that you can increase the probability of your survival in a worst-case scenario.

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Good & Poor Skills

Hey FC Crew,

When I watch most of your training during classes I notice lots of good things and of course some things that are not so good.

It seems like you are practicing the poor skills/moves with the good ones. I guess if they “work together, they are wired together”. It gets harder to benefit from the good moves because they’re bound to the bad ones.

I wish I knew how to surgically remove poor skills/moves from the good, you would not only avoid injuries, you’d be able to continue to progress and grow much faster.

The most important goal in all training is to fix poor form. Not every aspect of your form is bad; only a few. Remove those parts and practice them as individual exercises until they’re smooth and strong. Perform the whole exercise again, train that refinement, and you’ll always be self-correcting.

Systema Training at FightClub, as a movement science, teaches you how to extract the poor quality components, through proper breathing and movements you will learn how to remove a faulty part, retool it and insert it back into the whole, for increased efficiency and performance.

It’s time to say goodbye to poor skills, habits and moves forever!


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