We often hear about breath control in the martial arts and how important it can be. Proper regulation of exhalation and inhalation can help a practitioner strengthen their technique, defend their body from attack, and center their mind on the objective at hand. Truly breath control is critical to becoming a skilled practitioner.
Less talked about is spirit control. It’s unfortunate that in an equal arc of body-mind-spirit, one component can be overlooked so readily.
What is Meant By Spirit Respiration?
Spirit, in the martial context, refers to a strength of character and personal “being”. Will, confidence, determination, and fortitude are all pieces of this larger concept. Spirit respiration is the cyclical rising and falling of spirit throughout our day to day lives. For instance:
There are certain times when we need great strength of will to persevere. Examples can be as monumental as childbirth or as menial as a grinding day at work.
Other times we feel as if we are gaining strength and resolve. Some catalysts for this could be a good night’s sleep, a promotion, or even an unexpected compliment.
It is this constant flux that creates spirit respiration – in and out, in and out, autonomously without our conscious control.
The Dangers of Bad “Breathing”
Consider breath again for a moment: if you exhale too much, you become weak. The body cannot sustain itself for long after the initial push. If you inhale too much, the body becomes weak. The oxygen begins to deplete and the body needs to expel the toxins brought in with the oxygen. It is only through the repetitious inhale and exhale that breath powers the body.
Much in the same way, the spirit cannot be pushed too far one way or the other.
If you must constantly exert yourself, the power of spirit breaks down with no chance to regain itself. This is often seen when soldiers come back from difficult wartime. They’ve spent so much energy and concentration on survival and completing their missions that long term (even permanent) damage can be done.
On the contrary, some people who spend their lives getting their ego inflated with compliments, easy success, and luxury soon become poisoned by it. They turn to destructive behavior and habits to try and expend that energy.
Without the flux of good energy coming in and the healthy release of effort and will, people cannot sustain themselves to their maximum capacity.
The Dojo and Spirit Respiration
Regular breathing and spirit “breathing” occur all the time, but it is in the dojo that we can learn to understand and maximize the potential of the two. Some people wonder why ‘crazy’ martial artists put themselves through rigorous training week after week. And when the martial artist tries to explain it, they are often at a loss. After all, there are thousands of easier and more quickly rewarded hobbies out there.
What many martial artists feel but can’t put into words is the satisfaction of effort. In a civilized society, there are few quests to be undertaken. There is no way to travel from town to town, testing your skill and proving your mettle. There is an inherent part of the human condition that wants to test limits, to see how far we can push ourselves. The martial arts are one of the last proving grounds of that human spirit.
Unfortunately, all too often people get caught up in their own enthusiasm and don’t realize that they are “exhaling” too much. The martial arts can be a rush and it is easy to overtrain. When this happens, burnout quietly sneaks up and takes ahold of an otherwise great practitioner. Someone who was training 5 nights a week for 2 years will suddenly realize that their will to continue is gone, and they will be gone.
That’s why it’s critical to find ways to “inhale”. Many traditional dojo would have tough workouts, but they would also have times of meditation. They would quietly sit and listen to stories from the Sensei about years past and martial arts theory. They would take serene walks through undisturbed nature.
Unfortunately, with everybody having less and less time to inhale and more time required to exhale, there is an off-balancing occurring. This is true both in day-to-day life as jobs are demanding more hours, and in dojo life as classes are being squeezed in with just enough time to practice techniques and then run off to the next task.
However you decide to do it, find time to inhale. Find what it is that fills you, and use the dojo to its fullest potential.
The term ikigai generally refers to ‘that which makes life worth living’, and can be something very specific to your life. It can be a hobby, a person, or some other passion that drives and fuels you. (I wrote more about the concept here).
Recently I was reminded of a sister concept that is equally important – appreciating what is around us. Things might not be perfect, but the truth is we live in an amazing society during amazing times. If we don’t take time to stop and appreciate what’s around us it’s like we have nothing at all.
Comedian Louis CK recently went on the Conan O’ Brien show and talked about this very phenomena. But, like only a good comedian can, he puts it in such a way that it seems blatantly obvious and hilarious how we take our world for granted. Check it out:
(or click here to check it out on youtube)
That video is extremely funny and true. “How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.”
Even the smallest things in our lives are astounding if we stop and think about it. Clean water, fresh food, instant communication (like so)…the examples are endless.
As ikigai increases, appreciation for everything increases. As appreciation for everything increases, ikigai increases. They are connected and equally important.
This is not a recount of personal experience, just an exercise in theory.
As martial artists constantly endeavor to increase their knowledge and ability, they make internal connections that hadn’t existed years, days, or even seconds before. Just as memories and experiences burn new pathways through the psyche, so does every moment pursuing “the martial way”.
Furthermore, no living thing starts off matured. Even the tallest redwood tree begins as a tiny seed. The same is true when practicing the arts. In karate, there is a symbol known as Mitsu Domoe that can be used to demonstrate the kernel of knowledge that every martial artist begins with -
In dojo all over the world, instructors are sitting down with fresh beginners and stating very simply, “your training is a combination of body, mind, and spirit!”
Unfortunately, the prongs seem woefully far away from each other. As the beginner struggles to punch and kick properly, he/she is hardly concerned about character development. Truly, body, mind, and spirit appear perpetually separated.
Of course time goes by and diligent training continues. Practitioners learn more and more about each portion of their art, and eventually come to understand that there is more to each piece of the Mitsu Domoe than initially stated. For example, body doesn’t simply mean physical fitness. It involves a complex combination of movement and ability. In fact, it could be broken down inside the “body” prong like this -
Here we see “body” made up of speed, power, and technique. If the martial artist maintains a balanced perspective in his training, soon his understanding of mind and spirit will grow as well. He’ll begin to think like this -
Arriving at this stage is noteworthy because it can be very tempting to make training lopsided. For example, it would feel rewarding to achieve a deeper level of knowledge in the body aspect of the arts. In order to experience that feeling more often, a practitioner might focus predominantly on body, leaving mind and spirit behind.
But let’s say time and dedication has allowed the practitioner to acquire skill in all three aspects of his training.
Despite his efforts, there is still a disconnect. As you’ll notice above, there are substantial white gaps in his knowledge and understanding. He must continue to dig and explore, which can be intimidating. Having achieved a level of ability (and maybe even a black belt), he could easily “accept his limitations” and call it quits.
But should growth continue, it would look something like this-
An odd tapestry begins to develop and connections are made where there were none before. Navigating between aspects of the arts becomes easier, and body/mind/spirit doesn’t seem so impenetrably separated.
Of course, there are still plenty of white gaps, agitatingly prominent inside a finely woven web. Should they ever be filled, the shape would turn into this-
Dazzling and intricate! It’s funny to think that this was built one piece at a time.
As he’s dug deeper and deeper, more gaps in knowledge have been revealed to the practitioner. Where the beginner saw one gap, now the experienced exponent sees many. Perhaps more than he could ever tackle. Of course, the joy is in the journey, so the exploration must continue.
Hereafter something fascinating happens. Technique, mental acuity, and keenness of spirit have become so interlocked and interwoven that the Mitsu Domoe has taken on a unique form-
Unusual – this phase seems less impressive to the eye and actually has some bumps and ridges. The crisp definition of one aspect from another is gone and it’s tough to say where one prong ends and another begins. The center seems to permeate outward.
What exactly are we looking at here? Is this the same karate that we saw our beginner practice?
No, this is a bugeisha’s art. An art that has followed the way of balance, and is taking on its own form. At any time this art can be broken down into basic elements, but when used fully, can barely be recognized as anything other than unique.
At this point, it is a matter of will more than anything that allows the bugeisha to continue onto the next phase-
It’s everything, and it’s nothing. Through decades of filling the mind with techniques, theories, philosophies, and strategies, the bugeisha eventually arrives at nothing at all. This nothingness cannot be achieved by lesser means, and it cannot be penetrated by anything lesser than itself.
The bugeisha and his art are one thing, which is no-thing.