I would classify my biggest skill in BJJ as an understanding of my own energy in relation to my opponent (and vice versa). This understanding of my own physiology and that of my opponent is based paramountly on the breath.
I know that simply being aware of my breathing — regardless of if it’s a stressed breath — brings a sense of detachment and bird’s-eye view of the situation. This is where emotion and reality are detached from one another. I can see all that is occurring in the roll (to the best of my knowledge and skill level).
What Does Breath Awareness Do?
By having this breath awareness, it will naturally lengthen and kick the nervous system into a more parasympathetic (relaxed) tone driven by the diaphragm: the deep muscle in the lower belly that is the generator of our breath cycles.
Being able to cue the relaxation response in BJJ is a a pertinent skill to reach your full potential. The chaos of an event like BJJ should easily target the sympathetic (fight or flight) system, but by being aware of our breathing, we set the stage for a more observant and “flow-like” response, making it especially important for the BJJ practitioner.
All of the above is predicated on you breathing through the nose and cueing the in breath through the lower belly. Breathing through the mouth is a direct activator of the sympathetic fight or flight response. When this occurs in your physiology you become lost in the moment rather than soaring above and seeing it clearly.
Breath and Rolling
When you’re rolling and you’re aware of your own breathing, you have a leg up because odds are the other person isn’t. And if they are, at least you’re not a leg down!
By being aware of your breathing, you have the freedom to be aware of their breathing and the muscular tension in their body. This hyperawareness will allow you to read and redirect their movement naturally because your body (since it’s relaxed) is taking what is being given, not mindlessly looking to impose a will with its ego.
It can offer spontaneously the proper creative and coordinated action that is necessary to sort out the puzzle at that moment.
Final Considerations on Breathing in BJJ
Simply having more awareness of this essential function will make you more aware on the mats and in your life. Don’t overthink it so much and get caught up in controlling your breath. Awareness of it will bring a natural self-correction to it.
It’s when you’re unconscious of your breathing that it truly begins to affect your physiology in a negative way, as your physiology will have a tendency to kick into the “fight or flight” mode. This isn’t inherently bad, but we want to be conscious about flipping this switch, too.
I cover more performance training tidbits at Mobility Training that will help you prepare, recover, and perform better on the mats.