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The recent “Asymmetric Response” seminar by Ryo Onishi (hosted by Systema Jogjakarta Indonesia) and the surrounding events gave me something I cannot forget – it gave me a much deeper understanding into the foundational nature our breath plays in our lives and how it not only permeates but forms a natural basis for everything we do in Systema.

In the days leading up to the seminar I found myself starting to be a little unwell which really bothered me because I wanted to be at my best form and also because I wanted to join in for all the other activities aside from training. I knew what I had to do as I had been in similar situations before – I used my breath to sustain myself for the training so that I would be able to be at my best possible form. True enough, with some continued focus on my breath I managed to participate fully in the seminar and get just as frustrated as everyone else in not being able to comprehend the work that Ryo was presenting! It was subtle but I was able to, through my breathwork, recover fully for all the training, other activities and even go on late night coffee hunting skirmishes (some coffee shops in Jogjakarta close past midnight) despite not being able to sleep properly due to bed bugs and having excessive caffeine (oops).

All’s well that ends well, right? Except I had recovered so much that I neglected my rest and inevitably started to feel unwell again. Yet work commitments abounded and now that I was back in Singapore, I had to resume holding Systema classes. So back to the breath I went, holding up my external appearance of “Systema instructor” with copious amounts of breathwork to make up for my weakened body. I also, as all good Systema instructors do, started to use that as a premise for the content that I was teaching. It was about that time that a very strange thing started to occur – I started to have a preference for the work that I was doing by breath than I did for the work that I did with breath. It could at first look seem little more than a pedantic choice of words, but I think it is worth expanding upon.

When I talk about doing something by breath, I mean at a lower level that a movement is made by connecting our bodies to the change in our body form that occurs when we breathe. To understand this, we simply need to make a fist and place our hands on a table and breathe. If your hands are connected to your body, you will easily find that any breath you take will cause a movement all the way down to your fists. The movement that happens during an inhale is different from that which happens during an exhale and it is clear by extension that it will also be different depending on how you choose to take your breaths. My epiphany was as simple as that. It is possible to shape your breath to make such movements – movements led entirely by breath. The sort of movement that takes place with this sort of breathing is entirely different from the sort of movement that begins by initiating tension in a body part that merely takes place at the same time you inhale or exhale.

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This concept extends very far. If your breath can create movement, it can also create form. If it can lead movement, it can also hide movement, since it is tension that telegraphs movement. If it can rid tension, it can also likewise create tension which you can give to your opponents. This leads me to consider something I frequently tell my own students: If a movement you make is not helping you to perform an action, it is probably hindering you from performing it as well. That is the nature of your body being connected (at least in a very literal and material sense, if not in the more abstract or martial art sense). The same thing probably is true for the breath – if it is not aiding your movement, it is likely hindering your movement. A lot. If you understood what I was trying to describe earlier about just how much work you can perform through breath you will also realize just how much poor breathing could likewise be dampening your performance.

With this newfound revelation I began to pursue this sort of training and before long found that I could actually begin to be able to perform some of the work that I had struggled to do at all in Yogyakarta! Surprise, surprise! I was so carried away with this that I stopped noticing that once again I was recovered from my illness and once again neglected my rest! For two or three whole weeks I was teetering on the edge of falling ill but being held up and healed through my breathing. It took me that long to begin to make the clear connection between my breath and my performance which naturally led to me wondering what would happen if I did that sort of breathing when I was fully well.

This is as far as I have managed to experience, but I suspect there is a whole lot more to explore in this. I know from my experience training with the masters that using the breath directly in our movements is not even necessary, but I think it is not only out of my depth to describe it, it is also presumption for me to think that I could attain that without first building a strong foundation on my breath. Perhaps at a more fundamental level, there is a naturalness to movement that precludes the need for breath even and thus challenges the “foundational” aspect of it – I think I have at certain moments felt a glimmer of such possibilities in my exploration. Maybe there are other ways there, but as far as I can see, the clearest most obvious path for me is forged through the simple act of inhaling and exhaling. Things that I would be doing anyway, God permit.

A big thanks to Dhany, Rey and Ryan for hosting the amazing seminar and making it so enjoyable! Looking forward to meet you guys again!

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