Rickson Gracie - Yogic Breathing

In the world of fight sports, not many have such a legendary status as Rickson Gracie. This is partly due to his origins. He is the son of Hélio Gracie and the nephew of Carlos Gracie, the founders of Brasilian Jiu Jitsu. (Although you could also argue that the foundation actually lays with Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo.)

But above all Rickson is being perceived as a legend because of the things he achieved. Rickson did not limit himself to focus on one sport in particularl. He competed in many martial arts: MMA(valetudo called at the time), BJJ, Sambo, Wrestling,… In all of these fights, he has been undefeated. He has a record of approximately 400-0. Rickson Gracie fought multiple MMA matches in his home country, Brasil, and won them all. Together with Rickson, MMA entered an international stage when the ‘Valetudo Japan’ event was organized. Rickson was invited to participate in the event and ended up submitting all of his opponents to win the tournament. The next year he did the same thing in the second ‘Valetudo Japan’ event. After which he fought three more times in international events, he won all three times by submission.

Rickson always had a very strong aura that radiated confidence, focus, knowledge and maturity. You can see a glimpse of it by watching the documentary “Rickson Gracie: Choke”. This documentary follows Gracie during his preparation for the second “Valetudo Japan” event as well as during the event itself. We get some insights into Rickson as a person, his diet and his training. What stood out about his training and what got people talking were his breathing exercises. The clip below is a short piece from the documentary. We can see there that Rickson is breathing very fast while seated in a lotus position. He also contracts and expands his diaphragm while doing his breathing rhythmically at a high pace.

It is a method of breathing that Rickson learned from Orlando Cani. Orlando Cani is a Brasilian movement coach and yoga teacher. Rickson spent years as a student of Cani. About this period Cani said in an interview:

“Rickson Gracie was the best student I had. He was the one to assimilate best the process. He's very serious and deeply concentrated. He stares at me hearing, and what I say penetrates him like a glove. He assimilates it deeply. It's very impressive."

So what would be the reason for Rickson to spend so much time training this technique? What are the benefits of this practice? To find out, we’ll have to take a look at various interviews with Rickson and other people who practice this technique. Let’s take a look at a few possible explanations.

Mental Benefits

In the documentary clip he mentioned the meditative aspects:

“Sometimes when I make my routines, I get in very special stage of meditation. And this is beautiful because I’m able to exercise and totally clean my mind and keep myself in the present moment. When you control your breath, you can actually control yourself mentally and physically. You can really understand your fears and your emotional stress”

In 2016 VICE made a short documentary about Kron Gracie(left), the son of Rickson Gracie. Kron is, like his father, a BJJ and a MMA fighter. In the documentary we see him using the same breathing technique as his father used. Kron mentions the same mental benefits the technique has.

Focusing on the breath is indeed the most practiced form of meditation. The idea is that you keep your full attention on the in-and out-breath. Every time your attention drifts away, you bring it back to your breath. It is this repetition of bringing your attention back that builds focus. It also builds the capacity to see things objectively and not to get swept away by them. However, in the most known meditative practice, mindfulness, you don’t control your breath, but you rather let it flow naturally. That being said, the keys aspect of the meditation practice is the focus on the breath and not on whether you control it or not.

The cultivation of this focus and attention helps a fighter to stay balanced in a fight, also when the situation is unfavorable. This prevents a fighter from making stupid mistakes or to gas early as a result of excess cortisol. Research has shown that regular meditation lowers cortisol levels drastically.

Furthermore, it’s not only the meditative part of the practice that calms a person. If you apply the technique outside the practice, in daily life, the way of breathing will calm the body and the mind, Rickson explained during a seminar in Japan. Here he states that breathing with the chest gives a claustrophobic feeling and makes people panicking. Breathing with the diaphragm calms people. During a fight or any stressful situation, people start breathing heavily with their chest. Next to the meditative purposes of the exercises, the exercises also have the goal to change a person’s breathing outside of the practice. The breathing technique he applies during his exercises, he applies during his fights as well.

Diaphragmatic breathing has indeed been used for quite some time as an effective method to counter hyperventilation and anxiety disorders. It is a method that has been well supported by science.

Physical Benefits

The main physical benefit is an increase in endurance and cardio. Partly this increase is intertwined with the mental benefits. The breathing technique makes it easier for a fighter to keep his/her calm and not to panic. Since panicking makes a fighter gas out faster, the breathing techniques help with cardio enhancement.

But are there also other ways that diaphragm breathing benefits cardio?

The answer is yes. When using the breathing technique, that the Gracies use, you breathe with your diaphragm instead of with your chest. Rickson states that with the diaphragmatic breath you inhale two times more air. The reason being that part of the lungs is situated lower in the belly and behind the lower back. This part does not get activated when only the chest is used to breathe. When the diaphragm expands and contracts to inhale and exhale air, the total volume of the lungs is used. As a result, the body takes up more oxygen, which results in better cardio. This claim is also supported by science.

While writing this article I came across another interesting benefit of diaphragmatic breathing. It’s a benefit that isn’t mentioned by the Gracies (as far as I know). This study suggests that the body doesn’t suffer as much from physical exercise when the person breathes with his/her diaphragm. When doing strenuous physical exercise, the body produces free radicals which cause oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress damages cell membranes in the body. In the long run free radicals in the body increase the risk for many forms of cancer, heart diseases and strokes. The study found that when breathing with the diaphragm, the body’s antioxidant defense status is higher. The antioxidant defense of the body fights free radicals. Hereby you could conclude that doing physical exercise is overall healthier when breathing with your diaphragm.

Origins of the breathing technique

So far we have taken a look at the various claims that the Gracies make about the benefits of the technique. All of those claims appear to be supported by scientific research. This can make us wonder, where does this knowledge come from. Rickson Gracie is performing these techniques since the early 90s’, while many of the studies I mention are only performed very recently.

If you are familiar with yoga, you probably know all about this breathing technique. At the end of most yoga classes, this exact exercise is performed. Rickson Gracie learned this technique from Orlando Cani, who himself is a Hatha Yoga student. Breathing techniques have a very prominent role in Hatha Yoga and are called “Pranayama’s”.

This use of old techniques enlarges the mysterious and legendary status of Rickson Gracie, which goes by the suitable nickname “The Last Samurai”.

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