How you breathe in the field under stress differs significantly from how you breath at rest in the sanctuary of protected walls.
The central nervous system cannot differentiate between a true physical threat and an emotional/symbolic one, so regardless of whether someone’s pointing a gun at you, or you’re facing infantile tantrums, belligerent co-workers or reckless drivers, your nervous system reacts with the same alarm systems.
The following method will be of use to both professionals and weekend warriors, no matter what sort of stress arousal you’re dealing with. It’s a little something I learned while working with Russian Spetsnaz snipers.
Many Sambo fighters, like myself, were called to special operations units due to their hand to hand fighting expertise. But the snipers had an unusual skill set to bring to the “think-tank” we were dropped into. Unlike the armies of other nations, the Soviet/Russian sniper backed up a squad with a long range semi-automatic rifle, for multiple shots on single and multiple targets.
The snipers faced long durations of ultra-slow crawling and even longer durations of motionlessness. One of their exams involved remaining in constant motion for one hour, but only covering 1 meter. Few people realize the stress of ultra-slow motion and motionlessness. They believe that if you move slowly or not at all, you couldn’t possibly be stressed. But the body is always moving even when lying motionless, because we are constantly resisting gravity’s pull.
Unlike yoga “corpse pose” (supinated) breathing meditations, the sniper pose (prone) presents stress challenges to the movement of the respiratory mechanisms: the ribs must widen rather than extend, and they must do so without disrupting the spine so as to avoid “noise” interfering with the rifle shot.
Lying on your back and moving your belly in yoga certainly helps you to de-stress, but the reality of managing a tactical lifestyle — or a modern lifestyle for that matter — involves not stress avoidance but stress management.
The sniper’s meditation is performed prone, with your arms overhead, palms flat, and your mouth on the ground. (Rest your mouth on a folded hand towel if you wish.)
You may adjust your elbows down to parallel with your shoulders if you feel sharp pains, or pins and needs from prior conditions of impingement. If you don’t have existing issues that prevent you from holding the pose, then keep your arms overhead. Holding that position will help you to realize just how much shoulder (clavicular level) breathing you do.
There are three depths to breath:
- clavicular - lifting your shoulders to relieve pressure to the lungs, and as a result “sucking” in air through the back pressure – which is what most people do
- intercostal – expanding your rib cage to create back pressure, rather than lifting your sternum in clavicular level
- diaphragmatic – moving your belly to allow the dome of your diaphragm to compress your guts, which allows air to be “sucked” to the bottom – rarely used – third of your lungs
The snipers meditation forces you to use the bottom third of your lungs, while minimizing the disruptions caused by the middle and upper thirds.
Instead of pressing your belly down into the ground (as you would press it up into the air in yoga’s corpse pose), feel the muscles of your exhale press down into the saddles of your pelvis. You’ll feel pressure into the earth, but it shouldn’t lift your back. Your ribs should widen, but you should prevent your sternum from “lifting” (pressing your back up by pushing into the earth.) With your arms overhead, keep your shoulders from lifting away from your rib cage, as you might if you were gassing out of breath and heaving your shoulders up and down.
Practice these mechanics until you feel as though you could balance a bowl of water on your back without spilling it as you breathe.
Once you have the basic mechanics mastered, it’s time to begin the real challenge: placing your chin instead of your mouth on the towel. If you have pre-existing neck injuries, you may not be able to do this meditation. If so, restrict yourself to the face-down version.
The typical rifle used by Russian snipers, the SVD-Dragunov, brought with it a particular challenge of eye relief when using the POSP 3-9×42 scope. To meet this, snipers practiced specific optical strengthening exercises. Some look rather crazy, and I use themto scare my kids when we’re playing zombie-chase. In this case, you’ll be practicing the “unblinking eye.”
The average blink frequency interval is approximately every 2 to 10 seconds for most people. When reading, the blink rate decreases to as long as 3 to 4 minutes. The sniper meditation works up to 10 minutes, which doesn’t sound superhuman until you realize you won’t have anything distracting you, like a book, television or computer. You will become fully aware just how much your frenetic mind chatters away as you try to keep one-pointed focus on relaxing your face, while simultaneously managing the stress of controlling your breath so as not to disturb your sniper position.
Begin with a goal of 30 seconds. Relax your forehead, jaw, lips and eyelids — in that order — and give yourself one last, long close of the eyelids. With your eyes closed, take one final large inhale. As you open your eyes, exhale long and go for 30 seconds before you blink.
Focus on a distance of at least 30 to 40 feet away from your current position. Keep your eyes open the entire time. The chattering mind can be disciplined much more rapidly and effectively with open-eyed meditations, because when you’re attending an external object, the mind goes into information gathering mode rather than into processing, strategizing or reflection mode.
When you can exhale for 30 seconds and not blink until the end of your exhale, then blink and begin over. Practice 5 inhale-exhale cycles in a row without blinking to reset the nervous system.
Your nervous system commandeers the “blinking center” of the brain when faced with stress. It’s a defensive reflex, which is why people reflexively blink during startle response, unless specifically trained otherwise. The stress of the sniper position with the objective of not disturbing the spine causes the nervous system to trump out the blinking center of the brain. It’s quite an ordeal.
Do just one set per day, and do it in the morning when your eyes are fresh. Don’t do more than that. You have 20 to 30 sebaceous, oil-producing glands located between your eyelashes, which are invisible to the naked eye. Blinking automatically coats the eyelid and eyelashes with lubricant from these glands to prevent them from drying out.
Roll out of your rack and onto the floor to perform your set before your mobility warmup for the day. What we were taught, and what I use to this day, is to focus upon my “mission critical” tasks for that day. With each exhale I visualize the successful completion of each objective, then move on to the next in sequence of importance, timing and scheduling.
The sniper’s meditation has helped me just as much — and perhaps more — than any yogic meditation, because it “checks” me to see how I hold my intent for the day under stress while remaining steady as granite.