Trance States and Suggestion in the Martial Arts
Mike's comments in Red
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
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
inappropriate respiratory training, and an inability to use martial arts
skills through encoding in: ‘State Dependent’ Memory, Learning and
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
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
‘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
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
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
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
Clinically, the most successful modern use of hypnosis, has been in the
field of psychophysiology that is: the scientific study of mind-body
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
These phases last from about 90 to 120 minutes (one and a half to two
in between which are characteristic ‘rest phases’ of around 10 to 20
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).
it is ANS or PNS dominant and how to address the
Law Of Mass
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
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
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
to sudden death through a fatal cardiac arrhythmia (9)
I believe this is largely dependant upon the breathing pattern being too
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
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
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,
the harsher breathing systems, and no am unt of talk about Chi or Ki can
alter these physiological facts. AMEN.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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’
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
and results in training, and, protect against unwarranted influences from
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
Consultant to the British Council of Complementary Medicine
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
(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
( 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
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