Bridging Chi Kung for Maximum Health
by Matt Furey
When you first begin working on doing the back bridge as shown in Combat Conditioning you may experience a bit of fear and trepidation. Not only are you turned upside down and backwards, but from this position it is impossible for you to see what you are doing.
Not only that, but if you're stiff in the lower back, upper back and/or trapezious regions, you'll wonder why it's so hard. Trying to bridge in the midst of this stiffness is similar to trying to do the splits when your groin and hamstrings are tight. If you can't make it all the way down in a splits, you're afraid that trying to go further will rip you apart.
The good news is that your spine and the muscles surrounding it are a lot more pliable and forgiving than your groin. Your spine was designed with maximum mobility in mind.
Just think what you can do with a healthy spine. You can bend forward, backward as well as from side to side. You can twist, turn and shake. You can put your feet behind your head in the plough position; you can put your chin on your knees from standing or sitting (you can even go into the latter position while doing flips and somersaults off diving platforms, trampolines or good ole Mother Earth - boy that sounds sort of hippyish, doesn't it?).
In many styles of Chinese chi kung (which is another term for concentrated deep breathing exercises), the student is taught to circulate energy throughout the spine. This practice is referred to as the microcosmic orbit.
Being I live in China part-time, I get to see a lot of different systems of Chi Kung. So I know a little more than something about the so-called microcosmic orbit. And after much research and testing with other methods of deep breathing, I can tell you, without reservation, that when you combine deep breathing with the bridge, the effect is FAR more powerful than sitting cross legged in the lotus position, contemplating your navel.
The dynamic energy and personal power you can gather from proper bridging combined with deep breathing ... ah, there's no comparison! What's more - when you "bridge and breathe" you get the added benefit of increased flexibility; something you DON'T get from sitting on your rump.
When talking to those who study eastern martial arts, I am often asked if I practice any type of chi kung. To this question I say yes.
"What type?" they ask.
"Bridging chi kung," I reply.
"What in the world is that?" the person asks.
"Well," I say, "It's a system of training that will allow me to bend over backwards and touch my nose to the floor. It's also a system that gives me the ability to fall backwards onto my head and land so softly that I don't harm myself."
At this point most of the eastern practitioners run away.
I don't usually refer to bridging as chi kung as I prefer to use western words. But it could probably be packaged and sold as such (hey, that gives me another capitalistic idear), because the strength, vitality, energy and well-being you can derive from bridging is truly mind-boggling.
Bridging is the king of all bodyweight exercises, and when done properly, from four different positions (front, back: with hands and head, head alone and hands alone), you'll not only become physically fit, but your brain will start working better. The increased blood flow to the head will help improve memory, and the concentration involved in holding the bridge for varying amounts of time will make you a cooler, calmer and more focused individual.
These benefits, however, are hard to imagine when you're struggling away, not only fighting to get your nose down, but feeling useless when trying to hold for time. Well, all that is going to change when you integrate the big secret involved in the mastery of bridging. And that secret is .... deep breathing.
Fair enough, you might think, but how do you go about it? What's the technique, the cadence, the rhythm? Do you breathe through your nose or through your mouth? And what can you expect to happen as you practice bridging this way?
I will now address all of these concerns, one by one.
First of all, in the beginning I taught to hold the bridge for time, usually to the count of 200, which if done right, is around three minutes. This in and of itself is a hard thing to do. It is hard no matter how you do it, but when you only count the seconds, you tend to be more focused on the pain you feel as your muscles shake and ache, as well as the time you have left, than you are on holding the bridge.
After using the same method I have just decribed and suffering for months, a light went on when my teacher, Karl Gotch, told me to "relax in the bridge." He told me to think of myself as if I were a contortionist, someone like Houdini.
I got on the Internet one night and watched some archived clips of ole Houdini and the guy was amazing. Talk about muscle control. He could literally move his body any way he wanted. What also struck me, though, when reading about him, was the time he was locked in an air tight coffin for over an hour. When asked how he survived he said that you needed to know how to breathe deeply. Another light went on. Maybe this deep breathing was also "Farmer" Burns' secret to staying in the hangman's drop for three minutes.
So I got into the bridge and relaxed as best I could. Then I realized that I relax best when I breathe deeply. I'd inhale and hold for a count, then exhale and hold for a count. Guess what happened? Like any other stretch, the deep breathing and relaxed mindset allowed me to go further and to hold it with remarkable ease. At that point I wondered if I should just forget about the time and count my breaths instead. The first time I did this I counted 40 breaths, then came out of the bridge. To my utter amazement, I had been in the bridge for three minutes. I was astonished. It felt like no more than a minute. I went into my front bridge and did the same thing. 40 breaths. This took four minutes. Again, the time went by in a flash.
For the next week I continued to do the same, inhale, hold, exhale, hold. And in one week's time I was only taking 20 breaths in three minutes. I had cut the number of breaths in half. I couldn't believe it. So I started testing the method with my students and they got similar results.
One student went from 70 breaths in three minutes to 20, and again, he did this in one week.
How valuable is this to an athlete? Well, what I found was this: When I wrestled, I was much more relaxed. My lung power had dramatically improved and muscular stamina was greater. Additionally, I started to sense and feel what was happening on the mat far sooner than before. My reactions were keener and my speed and timing improved.
Those are the type of results you can expect as well.
Now, regarding the type of breathing I used. At first I breathed in through my mouth and out the same way. Later on I experimented with nasal breathing. In through the nose, out through the nose. This was even better and it is my method of choice right now.
To summarize, get into the bridging position and relax. Breathe in for a few seconds, hold for a second or longer. Breathe out for a few seconds, and hold for a second or longer once again. As you get better, inhale and exhale for longer periods, and hold the pause in between the breaths for longer periods.
Do this beginning today and I can guarantee that you'll benefit from your bridging practice like never before. And when you are finished and feel energized beyond belief, you'll know why I tell the eastern practitioners that I practice "bridging chi kung." With this method, you'll run circles around those who practice the microcosmic orbit.
In my Gama Fitness program I go into much more detail on how to integrate deep breathing into your regular routine.