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Observations placeholder

Hyperventilation: Trance States and Suggestion in the Martial Arts



Type of Spiritual Experience


Number of hallucinations: 1


This is an extract from a very good overall article which can be found on the Internet by followong the link

A description of the experience

Hyperventilation: Trance States and Suggestion in the Martial Arts

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 martial arts.
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 students, through inappropriate respiratory training, and an inability to use martial arts skills through encoding in: ‘State Dependent’ Memory, Learning and Behaviour (SDMLB).
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 emergency.

..............................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 of 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.

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 metabolic requirements.

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 unobtrusive, 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 current paper.

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).

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. 

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).

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 spasm, increasing 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 leading to sudden death through a fatal cardiac arrhythmia (9) I believe this is largely dependant upon the breathing pattern being too much chest/SNS.

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 conditions.

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 suggestion.

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. 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, as in the harsher breathing systems, and no am unt of talk about Chi or Ki can alter these physiological facts. 

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.

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 to assess their students metabolic and psychological fitness to undergo respiratory training.   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 of 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 trance state.

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 be prepared 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.   

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 death and 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 psychological suggestion.
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 based upon rational grounds, rather than the inertia of an hypnotic, trance state, belief. 

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’ martial arts 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 efficiency and results in training, and, protect against unwarranted influences from whatever source.

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 practice.  Consultant to the British Council of Complementary Medicine  (Psychotherapy Division) 
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.


The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



(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 U.K.)

(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 31-44.

( 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.