Recently it has been found that carbon dioxide is not the useless waste gas it was once believed to be. It is necessary in an optimal percentage of total blood gases to allow release of oxygen from the oxyhaemoglobin bond, which the mitochondria then use to produce energy. Also, in the form of carbonic acid in the blood, it regulates blood ph, inhibiting the effects of alkylosis and related fatigue.
When the breathing rate is raised artificially, by deep breathing (hyperventilating) or by stress, the blood percentage of carbon dioxide decreases, due to increased expiration. Stress brings about a number of physiological changes, that have evolved to be dealt with by exercise, eg running from a predator, but today we often don’t do anything physical to eliminate, and are left with elevated blood sugar, increased fat levels and a higher breathing rate. Also, stress is addictive, as serotonin and dopamine are released into the brain, and adrenaline and cortisol into the body, making us feel good. Exercise relieves the negative effects of stress, regulates the breathing, and brings the blood carbon dioxide level back up.
Any breathing out through the mouth expels too much carbon dioxide, so breathing out through the nose is the only option, except in abnormal situations such as swimming or sprinting. It seems difficult at first, but as the respiratory fitness develops, the nose breathing can deliver quite effectively. It’s best to allow the body to breathe as much or as little as it needs, but if there has been a lot of training in hyperventilation or deep breathing, there needs to be a short-term corrective process to allow the brain to reset the breathing at a lower rate. I won’t go into that here because hopefully you haven’t done that kind of training. If you have, there are some exercises to boost the blood carbon dioxide level to normal (ibid). You really should already be accustomed to nose breathing, from training in VTK with the mouth closed to avoid shocks to the teeth and having the tongue thrown back in the throat, etc., however, my observations suggest mouth breathing is prevalent nonetheless.
Using the diaphragm to breathe, so that the abdomen distends on inspiration, is still recommended, because that is a relaxation issue.
Holding the shoulders up and breathing with the upper part of the lungs mimics a stress reaction, raising the breathing rate and holding tension in the abdominal muscles. In effect, this locks the waist with the upper body, and you learn from Chum Kiu (the second form in the Ving Tsun system) that the waist needs to be locked with the feet, while the upper body is relaxed and fluid, moving independently, and co-ordinated with, the legs and waist.
It’s easier to breathe in a relaxed way using the diaphragm, which allows the movements to be independent of the breathing. You don’t want the breathing to be timed with any movements in fighting or training, because when the movements get quick, you are hyperventilating, and the breathing is slowing down the movements, because you can’t breathe quick enough to keep up! Also an experienced fighter will time hits with your breathing, maximising the impact as you exhale. Better to keep the breathing as small as it need be, and as calm as possible.
Another factor in breathing low… if you have trained to breathe with the upper lungs, then when you need a huge increase in delivery of oxygen to the cells, such as in heavy activity, like a fight, it won’t be there. When there is a big demand for oxygen, the oxyhaemoglobin bond is broken more easily, so the carbon dioxide level is not so important, but if returning to gentle nose breathing after the activity, recovery is much quicker. I’ve tested this in the field, and it makes a phenomenal difference!
There is also a problem with the centre of gravity, which is raised if holding the breath in the upper chest due to the muscular contraction in the upper torso to achieve this. Better to let the centre of gravity to sink, by allowing the breath to be low in the body, when relaxation can allow the centre of gravity to sink to just below the navel. This is more of an issue for taller people, but a factor for all.
One thing requiring a mention is that with the blood more highly oxygenated, the formation of free radicals is much higher, and they are linked in a big way to cancer. So nose breathing can be seen as an anti-oxidant remedy for long-term problems, which may extend your training time later on…
Hope that helps a little. I’m not pretending to be an expert. It’s way too technical for me, and I don’t particularly enjoy reading respiratory science reports, but we need to use what they come up with. The education system is too sluggish, with people teaching what they learned years ago, and with it being such a convoluted process to change all the textbooks, retrain the teacher’s teachers, etc, etc, that it really is best to bypass all that and go straight to the cutting edge, wherever possible.
Best practice is to breathe as little as is necessary, through the nose, keeping the mouth closed, using the lower part of the lungs, distending the abdomen on the inspiration, and involving the whole torso.
So, don’t take a few deep breaths and relax; just relax!
David Jardine 2009
Resources: “Maximum Asthma Control”, Michael Cichorski, Michelle Anderson Publishing, 2003.
35 years of R & D in Martial Arts and Health Sciences, with 18 years training in the Barry Lee Ving Tsun Martial Arts Academy.