Surrounded by snow drifts with an icy river trickling nearby, the assembly under the pavilion swung their swords and gasped for breath. Was the outdoor practice too vigorous? Was hypothermia setting in? None of the above. Actually, we were deliberately hyperventilating. Why?
On the final Saturday in January 2021, the DSBK dojo gathered for its annual winter intensive training, also known as Kan Shugyo.
When destructive pandemics aren’t separating people for safety’s sake, we usually assemble at the dojo, dress out in gis and hakamas, and then settle in for a full day’s misogi, or purification. To clear out any mental, energetic, or spiritual detritus or inner obstacles, we chant in unison for an hour. The rest of the day, we spend in rigorous, sweaty practice. Through fatigue, we drain ourselves of everything. We start afresh, empty, and pure.
I’ve also practiced at other dojos where the exhausting shugyo day concludes with meticulously cleaning the dojo (a literal purification of the practice space).
In a sense, shugyo represents the warrior’s New Year celebration.
This year, with pandemic restrictions in full force, we adapted to work harmoniously WITH the present moment and our present circumstances. Instead of gathering in person, we met online for some early morning ki breathing. Steve Sensei guided the group through a segment of unified breathing wherein the entire group inhaled and exhaled as one at the same pace.
All eyes closed. Laptop speakers whispered with the tidal rush of breathing as audible air traveled untold distances across an ocean of electrons. The sun steadily swung itself into view through our windows. On each little box screen, faces glowed in the swelling daylight.
Following this meditative segment of ki breathing, we transitioned to diaphragmatic breathing. At a pace slightly faster than a normal respiratory rate, we inhaled and exhaled 20 times. Then we took three lengthy, elastic respirations. Next, we took 30 “quick” breaths followed by three elastic breaths. Finally, 40 quick breaths and three final fluid and stretchy breaths.
Throughout this segment, I noticed my body sometimes seemed to wince. This is not what it preferred when breathing. This pace was abnormal. It lacked a clear pattern and seemed irregular, bordering on incoherent.
And yet, each time we arrived at the opportunity to stretch the inhalations and exhalations three times, my ability to do so improved. By the last round, I felt like Houdini chained in a straight-jacket inside a water tank. I had all the space and time in the world to breathe longer, slower, fuller.
Finally, our morning misogi closed with a long session of “free breathing.” Each participant simply had to sit and breathe naturally while returning to the present moment.
My senses buzzed like a church bell having knelled its last gonnnnnnggg.
In his book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, author James Nestor explains how breathing is so much more than a vehicle for transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the human body. Breathing triggers the nervous system. And it doesn’t do it by sheer accident. It’s designed to act as a trigger.
Rapid breathing activates the sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) system, or the chemical gas pedal tied to exciting/inciting survival hormones like adrenaline. Deliberate, slow, elastic breathing triggers the parasympathetic system. That is more like the chemical brake pedal for the body. It induces the hormones we need to feel calm, serene, and even sleepy. (I’m borrowing the gas and brake pedal analogy from Dr. Joe Dispenza’s Becoming Supernatural; and I promise to return it.)
Essentially, Nestor and other researchers have found that we can alter our chemical/emotional state by breathing. Whether the air enters through the nose or the mouth also has impact. Nose breathing is calming. Mouth breathing is more stressful. Furthermore, according to Nestor’s research, we can even go so far as to induce long-lasting health benefits from these altered states of breathing.
Not long after the morning misogi, the DSBK gang clustered under an outdoor pavilion — the one spot by the Animas River not caked in thick, crunchy snow drifts. Mark Sensei riffed off the morning’s breathing exercises and encouraged participants to incorporate diaphragmatic breathing while swinging the bokken or jo.
“Breathe in whenever you raise the sword or move backwards,” he instructed. “Breathe out whenever you cut with the sword or move forwards.”
We rep’d through different taisos breathing this way. Often, we reached the end of a series almost gasping. The in/out cycle was definitely not the body’s natural response or preference. Thus, it was like hyperventilating. We were deliberately inducing our physiology to step on the gas. The workout generated enough internal heat that many of us discarded our coats, gloves, and top layers.
Once again, my skin hummed like a bell. Only now, while swinging a weapon and cutting deeply into a squat, my heart auditioned to be Metallica’s new drummer.
Next we tried stretching each inhale or exhale to cover clusters of movements, whether they were up or down, forwards or backwards.
As I experimented with this stretchier style, I detected the physiological brake pedal gently pressing down. My heart rate settled into a manageable, regular rate. The whole system calmed into coherence. My awareness also stretched from staccato to vast and fluid. Essentially, it shifted from drawing dots to ribboning lines across paper; from raindrops to the ocean.
“Hiking or running is one kind of workout,” Mark Sensei said. “Training to hike or training to run is another kind of workout. Training makes you better at those other activities, but it is not either of those activities. It is different.”
And so we trained. Rather than breathe, we trained to breathe. We trained to breathe with more skill, more ease, and hopefully, less stress.
Thus exhausted, we left the pavilion ready to start this year afresh, empty and pure.