It’s not what you think. While the difficulty of Special Forces training around the world is known to be extreme, especially among the few who have actually endured it, what the Russian Spetsnaz goes through is on another level.
The stresses that such rigors impose upon those undergoing it would also likely be unbearable for them were it not for the psychological tools they are provided with to help them cope.
Where do these tools come from? They are found within the Russian Martial Art simply known as the “System” or Systema in Russian. While its core skills and training methods are believed to be about eleven hundred years old, it was scientifically refined into its current form in the later half of the twentieth century by Soviet researchers and engineers (think Ivan Drago’s trainers in Rocky IV).
However, the communist government restricted its knowledge and practice to only its most capable forces within the Spetznaz and KGB. It was not until the fall of Communism that this secretive system was revealed to anyone outside of these elite units.
One of the most respected practitioners of Systema and the man responsible for bringing it to North America is Vladimir Vasiliev. In his book, Let Every Breath, he lays out the secrets of stress management through proper breathing contained within Russian Systema. While there has been much written about the relationship between stress and breathing in recent years, the approach laid out by Vladimir is quite unique and arguably more effective. Systema breathing offers a number of other benefits as well, but we will only focus in this article on the principles that apply specifically to stress management.
“The Principle of Breath Continuity”
What is known as “the principle of breath continuity” refers to the action of never pausing our breath unless there is something that physically keeps us from doing so (like swimming under water, etc.). While this probably seems obvious, most people regularly break this rule. Whenever we are startled (startle response) or really concentrating on something (orientation response), our natural tendency is to hold our breath.
Test this for yourself. Try to notice your breathing (or rather the lack thereof) the next time you are engaged in some very mentally demanding task (like trying to thread a needle), or have something unexpected happen to you.
It is obviously not possible to obtain the calming benefits of proper breathing if you’re not breathing at all, so try to maintain cognizance of this phenomena throughout your day. You’ll likely be surprised how often you do it.
“The Principle of the Pendulum”
What is referred to as “the principle of the pendulum” involves breaking one’s breathing down into its four parts: inhale, pause, exhale, pause.
The idea of “square,” also sometimes referred to as “tactical” breathing, where you evenly stretch out each phase of the breathing process, is well known in other circles, but Systema takes the concept deeper. What this would normally look like in practice is you inhale for some amount of time, say, three seconds, hold it for three seconds, exhale for three seconds, and then hold again for another three seconds, repeating the process until you have regained your physical and mental composure. However, it is also possible to alter the length of any of these phases just as long as the breathing cycle itself remains smooth and steady.
So, for example, you could increase your exhale length to double that of your inhale phase to help you relax even more, or instead, similarly increase your inhale phase relative to your exhale phase for a quick boost. If you are exercising vigorously, you may have to dispense with the longer pauses between breaths. Everybody is different, so experiment and determine what is best for you in the various circumstances of your life. What remains the crucial point, however, is that you don’t interrupt the cycle by starting to inhale before you’re finished exhaling, for example.
“The Principle of Intake Sufficiency”
What is known as “the principle of intake sufficiency” does not mean to fill your lungs with as much air as possible, as many who try to improve their breathing mistakenly believe. Overinhaling, as it is referred to in Systema, causes tension in the area of your neck and collarbone which actually inhibits your breathing. It is preferable to take in only the amount of air your body needs, based on the aerobic demands of any given moment.
A related, but even more significant requirement is to make sure you get the air that is actually in your lungs out of them first, before adding more. If you think about it, not fully exhaling means that the “bad” air (that which is now oxygen depleted) is taking up the space in the lungs that should be available for good air to come in and exchange its oxygen. So, the fresh air you are trying to take in can’t come in, thus making it harder to breathe, which then increases your need to breathe, and so on until a full exhalation is eventually made.
“The Principle of Nose Inhalation and Mouth Exhalation”
Now that we’ve considered what’s going on within the lungs themselves, we turn to how the air should enter and exit. This comes under “The Principle of Nose Inhalation and Mouth Exhalation.” While Systema doesn’t have the exclusive on this idea, it is, nevertheless, important to note. Breathing through the nose performs several valuable functions. For one, those little hairs inside of it act as a filter. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it supports the phase requirements listed above. You can only breathe in so fast, when the air is constricted through the narrow nasal passages. This helps to smooth out and lengthen the time required to put air into the lungs, which in turn resists our tendency to overinhale.
We should breathe out of the mouth simply for the reason we already mentioned above regarding the necessity to expel all the air out of our lungs. The added air resistance of the nasal passages obviously works against us when we are trying to remove air most efficiently.
“The Principle of Non-Tension”
Whereas, everything we’ve covered so far has addressed the parts of the body involved in the process of breathing itself, we finally consider now how this process can be employed to establish relaxation over the rest of the body as well.
On the most basic level this means making sure that there is no unnecessary tension anywhere in your body. This idea, by itself, is certainly not revolutionary, but the challenge here that Systema well addresses is how to effectively detect and remove the tension that exists on a more subtle level within us, that we often are not even consciously aware of.
This is done by mentally moving the awareness of your breath throughout your entire body. As the author of Let Every Breath best explains it:
As you inhale, relax your body. At the same time, try to feel that the inhaled air is softly and smoothly flowing throughout your entire body. The breath will naturally flow to the softer, more relaxed parts of the body. It will avoid all tension and harder areas. After a natural pause, when you exhale, the air should softly and smoothly exit from all parts of your body, without any extreme force or stress.
Where tension is encountered, the author suggests to gently “push your breathing through any area where it is blocked or interrupted.”
Putting it All Together
Let’s say that you have just sat down to take a very important test like the EPPP. You know how important this is to your future and no matter what you tell yourself to try to ease your stress, you continue to feel flush and your heart is pounding in your chest like a jackhammer. It is difficult to think at all let alone effectively.
You then pause for a moment and resolve, enough is enough. You have prepared well by using good resources and studying them thoroughly. You know you are as ready as you are ever going to be; you just need to make your body cooperate now so that you can apply all of your knowledge and skill to the task at hand.
You remember the advice in this article and decide to take a quick moment to steady yourself before driving headlong into this challenging endeavor. You close your mouth and slowly take a relaxed but conscious breath expanding the air deep down into your abdomen while slowly counting to 4, afterwards holding this air in your lungs for a count of 2. The amount of breath you have taken into your lungs makes your stomach and chest cavity feel full, but not strained or tense in any way. You then slightly open your mouth and slowly allow the release of this breath for a count of 8, ensuring that you expel every last ounce of the air that is in your lungs over that time, and then holding again for another count of 2. After performing another of these breaths, on the next inhale, you also add in the mental awareness of feeling the effects of this air gently flowing out from the center of your body to all the other parts of it, and then on the exhale, out of your head, tail bone, and extremities. As the sense of this air continually moves through and beyond you, it gently pushes any tension it encounters out with it, like a hose that slightly straightens, expands and flushes any dirt found in it out by the pressure of the water flowing through it.
This process is repeated another several times until it becomes almost unconscious. At this point you are ready to go and apply all your potential to the task at hand. In the end, you ace the test with time to spare, and all of your hard work has paid off, all due to some help from the Russian Special Forces.
- EPPP Anxiety Part 2: The Power of Positive Breathing
- EPPP Anxiety Part 1: Anxiety and Your Brain
- The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain