13 Mei 2010

Nafas Melayu: Key to locked doors

Several years ago, I was triply privileged to work at SENI BELADIRI magazine. The triple privileges were the fact that the founder and managing editor of the magazine, guru Azlan Ghanie, was also the founder of Silat Melayu Keris Lok 9 and Senaman Tua.
During those amazing years, I felt like a live-in student, and if there was ever any martial art that was deeply imprinted onto my psyche and neurological system, it would have to be Lok 9. Senaman Tua was a second bonus, and since both of them shared the same root and founder, it made both easier to learn (Working at the magazine was the third, since I was academically trained as a journalist).
Of the many things within my studies, I have found that there are two key methods that underlie both systems: Nafas Melayu and Tapak 9. As guru Azlan explored Lok 9 on a monthly basis in the magazine, I began to worry that he might eventually publish what I jealously regarded as the core of his system.
I selfishly asked that if he wanted to share Lok 9 on paper, that he avoid revealing these two outside of teaching it personally in class, to avoid it being 'stolen' by others. For awhile, he seemed to agree with the request, but later on decided that it belonged to everyone who wanted to learn it and published both of them in full glorious detail in his gem of a book, entitled Senaman Tua (Melayu). Since then, people have sat up and taken notice.
Among the two, the more practically interesting one is Nafas Melayu, simply because it provides a very effective method to focus breathing for a variety of purposes. I have studied a few other breathing methods, but none so far as comprehensive as this.
I don't intend to teach Nafas Melayu in this article, nor explain it too deeply, for fear that someone might practice it incorrectly. I only want to share in the ways that Nafas Melayu has helped in my life. Thus, I reserve the right to absolve myself of all responsibility.
Nafas and muscle groups
The Nafas involves inhaling deeply and compressing the abdominals as if you were doing crunches while standing. Immediately apparent is the posture-correction that happens. There are two key muscle groups involved in this: the transverse abdominus (TA) and the erector spinae (ES).
The erector spinae are located at the lower back while the TA wraps around the lower abdomen in a tube-like shape. For many years, sports scientists disregarded the function of the TA and only recently realised its role in keeping the back straight. Unfortunately, when the abdominals become weak, it puts pressure on the the ES and causes lower back pain. Therefore, good posture doesn't actually come from the back, but from exercising the TA via the Nafas.
I was unaware of the role TA played until it was brought to my attention by Mohamed Azlan Zain, one of the few ST instructors who has an ACE (American Certificate of Exercise).
Increasing capacity
The breathing mechanism of the lungs also incorporate the ability to increase in size and absorption rate depending on the environment and condition of the body. For example, a child who grows up in high altitude has to extract more oxygen from the thin air than his brethren who live further down. His lungs first adapt, increasing in capacity, later in the ability to absorb more and more oxygen from the air, in order to meet his body's needs.
Pesilat who can only train close to sea level, simulate this by practising holding their breath for extended periods of time under water, breathing while running or as in the case of Lok 9 and Senaman Tua, holding the breath compressed in the lungs while performing a set of bunga or a wardance.
In reality, this method is dangerous and can cause many physiological problems including rupturing blood vessels, damage to the lungs, brain cell death and many others. There is strong scientific research against breath holding and I greatly recommend that anyone who wants to learn this, properly train with qualified instructors.
The traditional Nafas Melayu is taught in staggered stages over a period of six months before progressing and many pesilat don't even get that far. It is definitely not a rushed process.
The first time I learned Nafas Melayu, I was surprised by its simplicity and wondered if it was everything it claimed to be. Unfortunately, I was a lazy student and didn't practise it much. I realised much later, that if you wanted to learn to swim, you needed to be thrown in the water.
Over the next several years, I was provided opportunities to put Nafas Melayu to work. When I started becoming involved in physical fitness training with a local wellness company, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the link between glucose and cholesterol levels caused by stress and breathing.
Fight or Flight
I decided to research deeper into the matter and found that Nafas Melayu provided a powerful stress buster compared to other breathing methods. The more traditional Oriental breathing called for inhalation and expansion of the abdominal (stomach) muscles while Nafas Melayu called for a contraction, a totally inverse reaction. I soon discovered why.
Oriental breathing aims for calmness by relaxing the body, breathing in slowly and exhaling slowly. This helps to relax the body and mind. Unfortunately, when faced with a perilous situation, the body experiences panic and unlocks the Fight-or-Flight mechanism, which increases the heart rate, dumps glucose and adrenaline into the blood stream, dilates the pupils of the eyes (creating tunnel vision) and more. This causes the body to go on a high state of alert.
One of the key responses of the body is that the stomach suddenly contracts, in Melayu, called kecut perut, or a sudden abdominal contraction that indicates fright, fear, surprise or shock. In reality, it is a totally physiological response, not an emotional one. But it could be, if we allow it to.
Because of the speed of this reaction, relaxation breathing techniques are pretty much useless, unless you have time to avoid and oncoming truck. The sudden contraction prepares your body for action, a sort of spring load that is ready to be channeled to the rest of the body.
Now, when you practice purposely contracting in Nafas Melayu, you gain greater control in separating the emotional reaction from the physiological reaction, and the more familiarity you have in using it, the easier your body and mind will recognise that it is a signal for you to take action.
Fight-or-Flight also causes two related problems: it drains blood away from the brain and into the body and it causes hearing to shut down and tunnel vision. The biological need is apparent. It allows you to focus your brute strength on one target and shuts out other irrelevant stimulus, but in a pesilat, the decision making process needs more oxygen and blood to the brain and sharp sense provide more options. Nafas Melayu takes care of both of this as it returns control to the brain.
Physical/ psychological reeducation
The one thing that surprises almost everyone who comes into contact with ST is how much of a physical reeducation system it is. By this, I mean that ST is not just an 'exercise' in the modern sense of the word, but it encapsulates everything good about the physical training of silat.
Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the Feldenkrais Method of physical reeducation was of the opinion that the adult human has been modified so many times by social pressure that they no longer walk, talk, act and breathe the way they naturally should. He believed that by reeducating the physique, you could potentially modify the psychological self-image and return it to its natural state. This is also true for ST.
For many years, I chimed guru Azlan's idea that ST was a way to return to one's natural physique. It didn't occur to me how true this was until many years later. When taught in class, the physical/ physiological benefits are apparent. But when you have those quiet moments with the exercises, you are able to work through what is truly part of you and what isn't.
The Nafas plays a guiding role for the body to identify what is right and what is wrong about your current physical makeup. It allows the correct tendons to tear and heal itself, and it tells you when you're in your danger zone. The only difficulty that many will face in doing this, is to cultivate a listening ear to actually hear it speaking to you.
More than can be said
In reality, there is too much left unsaid about ST, and every instructor will give you a different view from different experiences. As for me, Nafas Melayu has allowed me to be acquainted with myself, both physically and physiologically. At times, what it has shown me was shocking and other times, comforting.
It's been a long 13 year journey, but I'm glad to see that I am now part of a larger community of practice. Hopefully, it keeps growing, and more people gain benefit from this effort.
Original Article by Mohd Nadzrin Wahab

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