Note: This essay was written as part of a research presentation for the 2024 Hanshi Taikai.
👉 Hyperarousal and inefficient breathing hinder Taido performance and increase danger in competitions.
🤷♀️ We can’t know what works without precise measurement.
❌ Students won’t practice what they don’t understand, so simple, practical methods are required.
✅ Techniques to manage breath and arousal result in better Taido practice and competition.
✅ Consistent tracking of breathing efficiency can improve training methods and develop better Taido students and competitors.
Taido includes a theory of body energy (taiki) and methods for training via the -mei hokei series. In an effort to simplify the execution of proper breathing methods, I’ll introduce two techniques from current sports science research and a practical method of measuring overall breathing efficiency.
My hope is that practicing these techniques will allow students, instructors, and competition to better understand Taido’s taiki theory and methods and improve their performance to develop new and inspiring Taido techniques.
In my work with many thousands of athletes and coaches around the world, I’m exposed to many physical and mental training methods, both cutting-edge and time-tested.
The first technique gives us a measure of breathing efficiency, which has traditionally only been available in a laboratory setting, making it inaccessible for use in regular training.
I selected the practical techniques based on their ease of use and potential for immediate efficacy by the widest range of students and competitors.
1. Measuring Breathing Efficiency with BOLT
BOLT stands for Blood Oxygen Level Test, and the BOLT score provides a consistently available method for measuring breathing efficiency that isn’t impacted by will power or lung capacity..
Though the test is subjective, it’s easy to learn, and the precision of the measurement increases with practice.
Method of Measurement:
- Sit straight and relaxed.
- Take 3-5 deep and even breaths.
- When ready, start time and begin the test:
- Exhale to a comfortable level (85-90%~)
- Close your mouth and pinch your nose closed.
- Hold until your first sign up breath hunger, i.e., movement of the throat or abdomen or a feeling of wanting air.
- Stop time and breathe normally.
Note how long you can comfortably hold after exhaling.
- BOLT is not a test of maximum breath hold time. We can all push ourselves to hold our breath past the point of discomfort, but this is subject to differences in physiology and mood and ultimately fails to provide a useful measure.
- As a tool for self-knowledge and improvement, BOLT works best when performed in a relaxed state and without forcing oneself in the attempt to reach a higher score.
- In other words, there’s no trophy for getting a high score, so don’t fool yourself. Note the time at your first sign of breath hunger.
How it Works
Without air entering your lungs, your body must make use of only the oxygen already in your bloodstream, hence the name, “Blood Oxygen Level Test.” When your blood-oxygen level drops, your body will naturally want air, and you’ll feel the need to inhale. That signal from the autonomic nervous system is the key point of the test.
A body that uses oxygen efficiently can operate for a longer duration without taking in new air.
Tracking and Management:
For best results, the test should be conducted under similar circumstances on a regular basis. Ideally, test in a relaxed state, before training. A cadence of once per week should be adequate for monitoring progress from Taido training.
- <20: Unconditioned - Most people.
- 20-30: Good - Active adults and most Taido students should be in this range.
- 30-40: Athletic - This score indicates regular training at medium- to high-intensity.
- >40: Elite - Strong competitors engaging in regular high-intensity exercise.
*Note: We’re all adults and experienced in competition. We all know whether or not we’re at an elite level of conditioning. If your score is at odds with your understanding of your level of conditioning, it’s a sign of poor breath awareness.
With practice of effective breathing methods, we should expect to see the body’s utilization of available oxygen increase in efficiency. So someone training effective taiki should see their score increase over time.
Likewise, someone who has a long history of practicing effective breathing should have a score somewhere in the 30-40 range.
2. Overriding the “Fight or Flight” Hyperarousal Response for Improved Taido Training and Performance
As a martial art, Taido must balance survival instincts with our principles of control and creation.
In a defensive or combat situation, the hyperarousal response (best known as “fight or flight”) provides potential advantages for surviving mortal danger.
However, Taido competition is not true combat, and those same reflexive adaptations can be a hindrance in executing excellent Taido with clean, controlled, and continuous techniques.
The following chart outlines the positive and negative effects of several attributes of the hyperarousal state:
Increased blood flow to muscles
Decreased blood flow to brain
Increased cardiac activity produces energy rapidly
Increased energy use leads to tiring
Increased muscle tension increases power output
Tension restricts range of motion and increases likelihood of some injuries
Pupil dilation increases visual perception
Reduced fine motor control
Increased aggression can aid attacks
Defensive capability may be hindered
Reduced cognitive flexibility
So although the positive aspects of the hyperarousal response can produce elevated “fighting” capabilities, the are drawbacks in a Taido context:
- Hyperactivity and aggression make us susceptible to feints and impedes the fluidity necessary for rengi.
- Excess muscle tension, along with reduced motor control and cognitive flexibility, limits the adaptability of our techniques.
- Short-term power increase reduces endurance.
- Tension, aggression, cognitive inefficiency, and tiredness increase the chances of injury.
In practical terms, hyperarousal reduces our ability to perform rengi, execute fluid and controlled movements, and respond effectively to our opponents. This limits the variety of techniques and tactics seen in competitions. At the same time, it increases the likelihood of injury.
In order to develop a higher quality of Taido and improve competition results, we need to control the hyperarousal response.
- Sit or stand in any relaxed posture.
- Breathe in through the nose to a comfortable volume (85-90% capacity).
- Exhale smoothly through either the nose or mouth, again to a comfortable level.
- Inhale, and on the next exhale:
- Stop halfway through the exhalation
- Pause for 1-2 seconds
- Continue the exhale
- Inhale again, and then pause twice during the exhale.
- Continue to add more pauses or increase their duration until you feel calmer.
This technique is discreet, effective, and dead simple for anyone to employ at any time.
You can experiment with longer pauses, more pauses, or both. In practice, adding more than three pauses becomes less effective. Longer pauses and longer exhalation overall will increase the calming effect.
Ideally, perform this technique immediately prior to performance or anytime you feel nervous or anxious.
How it Works:
The main point here is to focus on controlling the exhalation and increasing the pauses in which your body will adapt to reduced oxygen in the lungs. This signals a relaxation effect and restores proper oxygen balance in the blood.
Extended exhalation and held exhalation increase relaxation and heart rate variability, “down-regulating” anxiety and arousal levels in the autonomic nervous system.
Focused exhalation reduces excess oxygen for improved oxygen balance in the blood (vs nitrogen and carbon dioxide). Nasal inhalation adds nitrogen to the air in our lungs, which is essential for health and physical performance. It also restores the necessary carbon dioxide that’s expelled by forceful exhalation.
This breathing technique is documented in Pranayama Yoga as viloma, and more recently has been used in treating symptoms of PTSD.
3. Biomechanical Intervention to Regain Breath Control at Peak Exertion
During peak exertion and high nervous system arousal, it’s difficult to control our breathing.
But we can override the unconscious diaphragmatic reflexes with a simple technique that forces the air out of our lungs mechanically. By controlling the rate of this forced exhalation, we can trick the nervous system into down-regulating.
This can help counter the disadvantages to the hyperarousal state mentioned above. Competitors can then directly control their own mental state and nervous arousal level before, during, or after matches.
The same technique can also speed recovery after exertion.
- Stand straight and relaxed, with your mouth open and throat relaxed.
- Relax your shoulders so they move freely.
- Bounce lightly up and down with enough momentum to move your shoulders.
- As your heels contact the floor, allow a passive exhale as your shoulders depress.
- Passively inhale as they rise on the next ascent.
- Repeat until your breath is in tune with your movement.
- Gradually slow down until your breathing is under control.
Can also be performed during unsoku (for example, during jissen in gendo maai).
How it Works:
At peak exertion, the sympathetic nervous system hijacks control of the breath via the diaphragm and accessory breathing muscles. This helps prioritize oxygen intake to supply the brain.
However, the CNS doesn’t know the difference between active exertion and post-exertion. In fact, the nervous system doesn’t have strong deescalation or arousal-reduction reflexes (because it’s concerned primarily with survival). So our breathing is often erratic when we stop or pause our exertion.
Erratic breathing hinders performance and makes it difficult to recover.
Mechanically forcing the breath out allows us to reduce the breathing speed, which produces a relaxation effect. This reduces nervous system arousal and gives us greater control over our movement and cognition.
This video provides a short demonstration of each technique described above:
The ability to simply and easily measure and track breath efficiency allows instructors and competitors to understand the impact of their training and ensure continued improvement. By tracking results over time, we can improve the efficacy of our breathing training.
Techniques to control breathing and nervous arousal allow students and competitors to intentionally manage their performance. This will result in improved technique during competitions and few injuries.
Together, this contributes to continued development of Taido with clean and continuous techniques.
The true value of training methods can only be revealed over prolonged application and with a reliable means of measurement (which is why I lead with the BOLT test).
Although current competitors can immediately benefit from applying the two down-regulation techniques presented above, the future will reveal greater effects with consistent use. Specifically, both techniques are simple enough that university students - and even children - can learn them early in their Taido experience and enjoy compounding benefits.
Mindset for Introducing Breathing Methods
The first principle of Taido is to attempt to perceive reality accurately, without distortion from our emotions. In interpreting research, that means integrating all the available data rather than just the portions that readily fit our biases.
In developing Taido, Saikoshihan consulted medical texts in addition to traditional martial arts teachings to integrate a theory of budo fundamentals to suit modern society. If he were alive and creating Taido today, he’d have access to a much wider selection of sources, and his interpretation of those ideas would almost certainly be different from what he wrote in Taido Gairon. The past forty years have seen an explosion of sports science research that should be integrated into our understanding of Taido theory and our training methods.
It’s important for us to honor the spirit of Taido by accepting reality, free from our biases and opinions, so we can develop our art to remain useful and relevant in a changing society.
Efficacy & Practicality of Proposed Methods
None of these methods are hypothetical. They represent currently accepted methods from scientific research and are widely practiced by professional athletes and medical practitioners around the world.
Furthermore, they are easy to test and directly experience, so anyone who tries them can immediately grasp their value.
Finally, they are safe for long-term use and, unlike some breathing methods, not contra-indicated by any specific health concerns (including asthma or high blood pressure).
You should practice these techniques.
Taido’s taiki theory and method is one unique benefit of our art, so we can’t afford to neglect it. We should make use of any practical means to measure the effectiveness of our practice.