Hyperventilation: Mike's Comments In Bold Type

Hyperventilation: Mike's Comments In Bold Type


Hyperventilation: Mike's Comments In Bold Type

To me the secret of life is developing energy and then properly managing it. The martial arts as I think of them is about the art of martialing one's energy. Below is one of the most articulate writings related to energy management ala hyperventilation I have seen. I do differ slightly and note that in red. mgw.

Paper presentation to:
The Society of Martial Arts
1st International Conference and Graduation
Faculty of Sport and Exercise Science
Manchester Metropolitan University
11th July 1998
© 1998 Steven T. Richards FSMA

This paper examines the relationship between hyperventilation, defined as breathing in excess of metabolic (physiological) requirements, and the phenomena of ‘trance states’ and suggestion, in the practice of the martial arts.

It is proposed that martial arts instructors should become familiar with the fundamentals of scientific respiratory psychophysiology, and of hypnosis, in order to avoid potential harm to themselves and their students, through inappropriate respiratory training, and an inability to use martial arts skills through encoding in: ‘State Dependent’ Memory, Learning and Behaviour (SDMLB).

An understanding of these phenomena, would allow the martial artist to employ safe respiratory training regimens; to improve performance; and ensure an appropriate ‘release’ of learned self-defense skills, in an emergency.

The oriental martial arts are well known for placing great emphasis on the cultivation of breathing, in the training of both mind, and body. Indeed, this is so familiar, that it has become tacit knowledge, even for the lay person.

‘Correct’ breathing, is associated with strength, general health, and even ‘martial’ power.
Closely associated with these, is the concept of intrinsic energy, which is a modern westernized isomorphism for: Chi (China), Ki (Japan) and Pranja (India). So closely associated are they, that it is generally held as impossible to further cultivate our natural, intrinsic energy, without training in advanced respiratory techniques.

This is all very familiar, to the Western practitioner of the oriental martial arts, but what is perhaps less familiar, is that there are, largely forgotten, but nevertheless real western traditions, that make the same connections between breath and intrinsic energy.

The most well known is probably the Greek concept of pneuma meaning ‘breath of life’ which was to find clearest expression in Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, as the fiery creative force, intrinsic to human kind. This idea, due to Greek and Hellenistic influences, was also to surface within early Christianity (1).

Along with breathing, discrete states, and changes in consciousness, are commonly associated with the study and practice of martial arts. These may be passive, as in meditative contemplation, or, more dynamic as in the ‘moving Zen’ of traditional Karate Kata (2).

In the West, the study of consciousness has a long academic tradition. From the ancient Greeks, through Christian mysticism, philosophical Alchemy, renaissance syncretism, enlightenment rationalism, the psychology of the unconscious, and latterly, the humanistic and transpersonal psychotherapies (3).

One Western discipline however, excels’ in its ability to explore altered states of consciousness, that is: hypnosis.

The term ‘hypnosis’ (from the Greek god of sleep: hypnos) was coined in 1843 by the Manchester surgeon James Braid, who considered trance like states to be a kind of ‘nervous sleep’.

Braid was very concerned with refuting the older ‘animal magnetism’ theories of trance, such as those of Mesmer, and considered hypnosis to be a real physical state, affecting the nervous system: a ‘condition resulting from the mind being possessed by dominant ideas’. Braids’ theory was supported by the work of the Portuguese mesmerist; de-Faria, who proposed that the effects of trance were due to suggestion (4).

Over the intervening 150 years, much development and indeed, much controversy has surrounded the subjects of trance, hypnosis and suggestion. Some contemporary academics have built a reputation for denying that any such discrete state as ‘hypnosis’, exists at all. Nevertheless, the clinical use of hypnosis, and the investigation of trance phenomena, still continues.

Clinically, the most successful modern use of hypnosis, has been in the field of psychophysiology that is: the scientific study of mind-body relationships. Currently leading this field of research, are two Americans’: the psychologist E. L. Rossi, and the obstetrician and gynecologist D. B. Cheek.

They have applied Milton Erickson’s theory of naturalistic trance states to their work on the mind’s modulation of biological processes’, and, to the study of so called: state dependent, memory, learning and behaviour (SDMLB) (5).

Naturally occurring trance states, include any focus of attention, such as watching television, driving, or daydreaming. Rossi & Cheek have found that individuals become more susceptible to suggestion, that is influence when their sense of self awareness, becomes attenuated (lowered or loosened) during such activities. Further, that at regular times of the day, both mind and body go through phase shifts known as ultradian rhythms.

These phases last from about 90 to 120 minutes (one and a half to two hours) in between which are characteristic ‘rest phases’ of around 10 to 20 minutes.

The ultradian rhythms themselves are regulated by a further system, that has a 24 hour period. This is the circadian rhythm. This area as a whole is known as: chronobiology, that is, the famous ‘body clocks’ of popular science.

By drawing these diverse elements together, Rossi & Cheek were able to demonstrate that there are definite psychological and physiological states, within which things may be learned, and later reproduced.

Further, that by manipulating the same state, it is possible to update prior learning efficiently. Naturally, it follows that some forms of learning are not efficiently reproduced, if the requisite state is not activated.

The particular form of learning in question, is then said to be: state dependent (sine qua non). The most familiar example from everyday life, is intoxication. Something learned, said, or done in that state may not be recalled at all, or only in part, when sober. However, get drunk again, and it all comes flooding back!

In psychophysiology, the natural ‘encoding’ systems for learning and memory, and, for the initiation or reproduction of behaviour, are: the nervous system, the endocrine (hormonal) system, and the immune system.

Technically, these are known as: the psychoneuroendocrine system, and the psychoneuroimmunological system. Beyond these, there is the possibility, that the acid-base (that is pH.) regulatory system of the body, is a vital encoder and releaser of SDMLB (6.) (enter breathing-mike) 

This has particular importance for martial artists, and we will return to its consideration shortly.

Well then, what relevance do such trance states, suggestion, and indeed hyperventilation, have to do with the martial arts? As it turns out, rather a lot...

Martial arts training and practice, is a psychophysiological process, reliant upon many separate elements, being efficiently learned, remembered and acted out. Some of these components are obviously skills based, others are less openly manifest, and instead rely upon discrete mental states, such as ‘attitude’ and focus of attention.

Much of martial arts training, occurs in a variety of trance states, and involves ‘suggestion’ delivered by another person, usually an instructor or a teacher (this is hetero-suggestion), or perhaps originating within the practitioner him or her self (this is autosuggestion). The training may involve rituals, the wearing of uniforms, and a dominant hierarchy.

A traditional ‘culture’ may be imparted to the practitioner, which if not indigenous to the practitioners culture, can be a powerful, alien, but ‘dominant idea’ in the manner described by James Braid. The ritualized imitation of animals, and the invocation of spirits ( such as the: Sun-Gung and Sun-Dar, found in some Chinese systems) clearly involves trance states and suggestion.

However, this clarity should not paradoxically, obscure the role of trance and suggestion in apparently ‘modern’, Westernized interpretations of martial arts practice. The ‘pragmatic’, practical approach to martial arts training, offered by some contemporary Western martial artists, appears, at least on the surface, to be free of traditional ritual, and even of uniforms, ranking, or ‘style’.

Nevertheless, rituals, and more subtle rankings and distinctions of dress, are to be found, as are the naturalistic trance states, and state dependent memory learning and behaviour, found in all martial arts systems.

However, some martial artists (Geoff Thompson for example) seem to have a keen, and developed conscious awareness of SDMLB, even if by another name, and endeavor to introduce training methods that limit state dependency.

A familiar example of state dependent learning, for all martial artists, is the black belt who can’t land a punch when he is attacked for real, because, he’s always trained in a state of non-contact. His skill is locked in, and can’t be accessed, in the new and threatening state, of a real fight.

But, what of hyperventilation, aren’t martial artists expert breathers?

At school, most people are taught that carbon dioxide, is just a waste gas, a by-product of respiration, and therefore of no value to the body. This, is False. It turns out that C02 (carbon dioxide) is essential for maintaining a healthy mental and physical state (7).

When in solution, inside the bodies fluids such: as blood, cerebro-spinal fluid, and the internal fluid medium within nerve cells, C02 is an acid. This acid, helps to balance the alkalines within the body, and thus maintain a normal pH. (percentage hydrogen) value.

The bodies first line of maintenance of pH. is through regulation of breathing; if it is too acidic then C02 is ‘blown-off’ through an increase in respiration, if too alkaline, then respiration is reduced.

Specialized nerve cells in the brains ‘respiratory center’ continually monitor the acid-base level of the body, and adjust respiratory rate and depth accordingly. All of this is automatic and outside of conscious awareness. (But it can be conscious and accurate with the use of our breathing training instrument-mike)

Humans can and do, modify their breathing for various tasks, and for the most part this is achieved successfully, with no adverse affects on the acid-base (alkaline) balance of the body. However, in the martial arts, there are many training, and other ‘ritualised’ breathing regimens, that have the potential to seriously compromise acid-base regulation.

For example, the harsh and forced hyperventilative breathing of Okinawan Karate’s Sanchin kata, and the sunken chest posture, with associated restricted respiration, found in some southern Chinese systems. Yet, these systems and others, can and do promote health, in most cases.

So, just what is hyperventilation, and what are its effects?

Hyperventilation, or ‘overbreathing’, can be simply defined as: breathing in excess of the bodies physiological needs. Physiology is here emphasized, because it is through psychology, that individuals have the potential to consciously, and purposefully modify their breathing, beyond their metabolic requirements.

To the lay person, hyperventilation is associated with ‘panting’ and is connected in some way with ‘panic attacks’, so in the clinical setting, it often comes as a surprise to patients to find that their apparently unobtrusive, and habitual patterns of breathing are hyperventilative, and, responsible for a wide range of physiological and psychological disorders. The physiology of respiration is complex, and is beyond the scope of this current paper.

The essential things are: to appreciate that there is more to hyperventilation than rate of breathing, it also involves the depth of respiration and the tidal volume, and crucially for our purposes, the effects of loss of C02 through expiration (breathing out). (Add whether it is ANS or PNS dominant and how to address the Law Of Mass Action-mike) 

The immediate effects of C02 loss through hyperventilation occur centrally, in the brain. The loss of C02 from the lungs, blood and extra-cellular fluid, means that carbon dioxide molecules flow out from nerve cells in the brain, and down their concentration gradient, until an equilibrium point is reached.

This loss of acid from the brain, automatically leaves it in an alkaline state. Various perceptual, intellectual (cognitive) and emotional (affect) changes follow. Initially, there may be a quickening of reactions, as in ’psyching oneself up’ by rapid breathing, and, an increase in pain threshold (witness for example the testing during a performance of ‘Sanchin Kata’ and the 'Iron-Shirt' training of some Kung-Fu systems).

However, depending on the initial condition of the person, dizziness, palpitations, panic states, hallucinations and even unconsciousness can routinely follow.  Add whether it is ANS or PNS dominant and how to address the Law Of Mass Action-mike)

Even schizophrenic symptoms, and, as a result, a psychiatric diagnosis of psychosis have been reported, due purely to over-breathing, and C02 dis-regulation ( 8).  AMEN

The ‘state’ produced by an acute period of hyperventilation, is known as: respiratory alkalosis. This ‘state’, can dangerously predispose, the bodies smooth muscular tubes (arteries, lining of the lungs etc.) to spasm, increasing blood pressure, restricting breathing by an ‘asthma’ type attack, and by coronary artery spasm, increasing the likelihood of a heart attack.

The nerves that control heart rate can become hyper-stimulated, perhaps leading to sudden death through a fatal cardiac arrhythmia (9) I believe this is largely dependant upon the breathing pattern being too much chest/SNS.

Of course, all of this depends on the initial conditions present in the person concerned, but my own clinical research in the National Health Service (10) supports that of other workers, in suggesting that any regimen of breathing training can be dangerous, if, the physiology of the individual isn’t up to it, temporarily or otherwise. Dangerous to the degree it is not properly understood and managed as with most anything. 

It is not just the hasher styles of breathing in the martial arts that can be potentially dangerous to health, again it all depends on the initial conditions.

Quite a disproportionately large number of my own client/patients, have been Yoga teachers, people who believed that they knew how to breathe properly!

Many factors contribute to the outcome of a given period of hyperventilation, including general health, age and inheritance. Two factors are of particular interest here, these are chronicity, and suggestion.

Chronicity refers to the duration of the over-breathing. It is quite possible for a person to be ‘trained’ to overbreathe, so that their tolerance of respiratory alkalosis is increased, and again I would refer you to Sanchin Kata, as a prime example.

Negatively however, chronicity can refer to an habitual state of hyperventilation, with depletion of the bodies natural buffering systems against alkalosis, and, the re-setting of the brains respiratory centre, in the manner of a thermostat, so that the individual is compelled to over-breathe. 

YES.Typically, persons suffering in this way have a chronic  background exhaustion and inability to concentrate, they may lack confidence and feel nervous, just the kind of person who may seek training in a martial arts school. For such people, breathing training, even of the ‘internal’ Tai-Chi-Chuan’ variety, can be dangerous.

If they attempt to slow down and deepen their breathing, their respiratory centre reacts with an acute hyperventilative attack, to return the respiratory rate to its now abnormal physiological setting. The results can be just as dangerous, as in the harsher breathing systems, and no am unt of talk about Chi or Ki can alter these physiological facts.  

AMEN. Qualified whether it is ANS or PNS dominant and how to address the Law Of Mass Action) The "toleration" ala W. Reich  increases dramatically when the PNS is dominant. This is largely the goal or proper results of martial arts and classical voice though it is not often stated as such. 

What of suggestion?

We have seen how trance states naturally occur in everyday life, and that they are also typical of martial arts training regimens. When paired with breathing techniques, these trance states become powerful vehicles for delivering suggestion, both hetero and auto.

Hyperventilation has been incorporated into many esoteric practices, and is used by cults to create a receptive and compliant state, within which to receive indoctrination. This is far from implying that martial arts training is a form of cult, just that there is some common ground with respect to the utilization of trance and breathing techniques.

What martial artists, and instructors and teachers in particular, should understand, is how hyperventilation, trance states and suggestion, can leave them vulnerable, both physically and psychologically, to ill-health and delusional beliefs about their skill and abilities. 

Agreed on the positive side, many people enter martial arts training, precisely to enter trance like states, to wear a uniform that signifies belonging to a group, or to be inducted into a 'traditional' culture. All of this has its own merit, but, it may not extend to good health, or to workable self-defense. 

Instructors should become familiar with the basics of state dependent learning theory, and acquire the necessary techniques from modern, western science, specifically: respiratory psychophysiology, in order to be able to assess their students metabolic and psychological fitness to undergo respiratory training. 

I have developed a program for this using the capnometer. Precise measurements require infa-red mass spectrometry, beyond the means of most teachers, but a little research into the relevant literature, will allow good ‘lay’ assessment to be practiced.

Non-state bound learning requires an understanding of trance states, and the role of suggestion, that is: influence. Trance states open a window for suggestion that is much more efficient than at any other time.

Systems of training that involve: ritual, uniforms, breathing regimens, dominance hierarchies and group-identification, are hypnotic for all participants, whether, instructors, or students.

The power of such systems to create SDMLB extends to individuals even when they are away from direct, outside influence. Martial artists’ have to enter the ‘right frame of mind’ in order to train, particularly when alone, and, this defines a naturalistic trance state.

Psychotherapists’ with training in psycho-biological hypnosis, understand only too well how important it is to enable patients to productively change their attitudes, beliefs and behavours, in order to successfully adapt to the demands of everyday life.

Martial artists’ tacitly claim to be prepared for the extra-ordinary demands that a violent assault may place upon them. Yet sadly too often, their skills are locked into an unrealistic and inaccessible ‘state’ of dependent memory, learning and behavour.  Yep. Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau is a comedic but clear example.  

Martial artists need to update traditional oriental knowledge, with contributions from modern occidental science. The mixture of cultures is inevitable, and so is therefore best addressed consciously, and with positive purpose. The syncretism of east and west need not be based upon a confrontation between opposites, doomed to cancel one-another out. AMEN AGAIN

The solution to that problem lies in a translation between the surface structure differences between east and west, based upon a hidden, deeper structure similarity of view. For example, the famous Dim-Mak (delayed death and time of day striking discipline) of Chinese martial arts, can be translated into the western scientific discipline of chronobiology, where it seems, there are times of day when people become more vulnerable to certain kinds of attack, as well as to illness, and to negative psychological suggestion.

Only where no direct isomorphic that is: one to one translation between the cultures in question, is present, should the martial artist decide in favour of one explanation over the other. Then, it should be a decision based upon rational grounds, rather than the inertia of an hypnotic, trance state, belief.  I love it. 

If these criteria are carried over into training, then, it will be possible to enjoy the positive affects of immersion into a martial arts culture, with the safety valve of a rational, correcting feedback system, guarding against SDMLB. Of course, this applies just as much to ‘Western’ martial arts developments, as it does to the oriental systems.

Any system that involves human memory, learning and behaviour, can fall victim to state-dependency. Understanding and utilizing trance and suggestion, consciously and intelligently, can make for improved efficiency and results in training, and, protect against unwarranted influences from whatever source.

In conclusion, martial artist teachers need to be aware of the effects of hyperventilation, trance states and suggestion, particularly on SDMLB, but also on the physical and mental health of their students. They would be well advised to educate themselves at least in the fundamentals, of respiratory psychophysiology, and of hypnosis.

Steven T. Richards FSMA MIPSA BRCP (Psych).

Consultant psychotherapist & psychophysiologist to the NHS and in private practice.

Consultant to the British Council of Complementary Medicine
(Psychotherapy Division)

Fellow of the Society of Martial Arts (FSMA)

Recognized instructor: British Council for Chinese Martial Arts (Sports Council governing body). (BCCMA)

Life Member: Chin Woo Athletic Association of Hong-Kong.

Biographee: Who’s Who in America (World, Science and Medicine editions)


(1). Flew 1979) A dictionary of philosophy. Anthony Flew, Pan Books London 1979 p 278.

(2). (Nicol 1975) Moving zen: karate as a way to gentleness. C. W. Nicol Published by The Bodley Head, London, Sydney, Toronto p 45.

(3). (Tarnas 1991) The passion of the western mind, Richard Tarnas Pimlico London 1991 p 443.

(4). (Cavendish 1974) Encyclopedia of the unexplained: magic occultism and parapsychology. Richard Cavendish (ed.) Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Henley 1974 pp 114-121.

(5). (Rossi and Cheek 1989) Mind-body therapy: methods of ideodynamic healing in hypnosis. E. L. Rossi and D. B. Cheek. Norton New York

(6). (Richards 1995) An outline of psycho-systems analysis psychotherapy and dialectical syncretic philosophy: Steven T. Richards (unpublished) thesis submission to the Institute for Complementary Medicine (London U.K.)

(7). (Lum 197 8 Respiratory alkalosis and hypocarbia: the role of carbon dioxide in the body economy. L. C. Lum. The Chest Heart and Stroke Journal, Volume 3. Number 4. Winter 1978/79 pp 31-44.

( 8. (Allen and Agus 196 8 Hyperventilation leading to hallucinations:Thomas E. Allen, Bertrand Agus, American Journal of Psychiatry. 125: 5, November 1968 pp 84-89.

(9). Kaplan 198 8 Death without pain, disease without pathology: silent ischaemia, hyperventilation syndrome. Norman Kaplan editorial for Cardiology guide, Core Series Journal Division of Excerpta Medica
Pub. Melissa Warner (USA) June 1988 pp 5-7.

(10). (Richards and Richards 1993) Counselling and capnography: an integrated psycho-systems approach in general medical practice.

Richards P. A. and Richards S. T. paper presentation to the XIIth International Symposium on Respiratory Psychophysiology, London: September 1993, Abstract published in; Breathing: newsletter of the International Society for Respiratory Psychophysiology (2) Summer 1995 p 21.  www.tibetankungfu.com/research_papers.htm

Self help for hyperventilation.  Learn how to teach others at the Optimal Breathing School.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published