What can you tell me about breath work for times of self-defense? How would I prepare and train for a sudden ambush? There are current concepts I could call technology except it is in the form of skills and techniques, and principles and concepts. I have heard of James Nestor and also of Brian MacKenzie, current experts on breathing. They both teach that we need plenty of carbon-dioxide in order for the oxygen to be released to the body. Have any of you ever had a violent encounter and noticed your breathing?

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    Honestly, any time I have had to use self defence (or even situations that come close to it) - adrenaline spikes and I do what I have to do - the same applies to championship spars. Afterwards I am exhausted, mentally and physically. I don't focus on breathing, or even trying to stay calm as such. I've been breathing my whole life so far - and will continue for the rest of it - in those moments all concentration will be elsewhere.
    – Collett89
    Nov 3, 2023 at 9:20
  • People produce carbon dioxide as a waste product. You don't need any of it. You can breathe pure oxygen and get all the oxygen you need. Nov 3, 2023 at 12:34
  • @MichaelFoster I would not advise it. Breathing pure oxygen can lead to tissue and nerve damage, blindness in particular. Nov 3, 2023 at 19:41
  • @PhilipKlöcking, maybe long-term, but it is actually indicated in some medical situations, such as to counter carbon monoxide poisoning. The point is carbon dioxide isn't necessary for oxygen intake. I don't recommend sparring or self-defense while using oxygen tanks. Nov 3, 2023 at 20:11
  • @MichaelFoster You should look up what breathing experts are saying now. They are saying that carbon dioxide is needed to in order for oxygen to be released from red blood cells.
    – daniel
    Nov 4, 2023 at 14:30

2 Answers 2


If you are training breathing, don't focus on self-defense. You will not have the attention available for breathing when something happens, you will simply use whatever foundation you have built. You breathe all day, and improvement of this basic human function will improve performance, self-defence or otherwise.

Stress causes changes in breathing. In general, breathing rate goes up with stress, though it's often unclear which is the cause and which is the effect. At high levels of stress, however, it's common for people to hold their breath, which is not good for an encounter that lasts more than a few seconds.

we need plenty of carbon-dioxide in order for the oxygen to be released to the body

I have read James Nestor's book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. I would not characterize the message as this. Under normal circumstances, a person will get all the oxygen they need regardless of whether they are breathing well or not. Nestor argues that health improves with breathing slower/less. One explanation for this is the level of carbon dioxide in the blood goes up, which he explains can improve blood flow and chemistry.

I have personally trained in the Daoist style of breathing, which in the basic form is simply long, even, continuous, and quiet. It's simultaneously boring and life-changing. Anecdotally, I think breath training provides major advantages in sparring situations, but progress is slow initially and it's very hard to convince someone they should do it.

  • Fun fact: my breath rate in rest is between 6 and 9, "norm" is 10 to 14...I've been treated as a freak in my physiotherapist class when it came to breath work hehe Nov 6, 2023 at 15:15
  • @PhilipKlöcking 6-9 breaths per minute?
    – mattm
    Nov 6, 2023 at 16:29
  • Yeah, HR is equally low in rest (44-53) Nov 6, 2023 at 16:39
  • Huh. 14 is about my average breathing rate when sleeping. Never thought to test it while resting otherwise. I'm a singer, so long breaths are pretty much the norm. Nov 6, 2023 at 18:15

Just like muscle conditioning and flexibility, the best way to ensure available breath is to train in mild to moderate stress for your current health level. Build up your general cardiovascular health via exercise and drills, and train in situations where you have to react quickly to unpredictable stimuli via sparring. Short of actually training in a situation where you get attacked randomly, it's not a perfect solution, but it will get you 90% there.

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