In Kalaripayattu, students begin their warm-up routine by running for some time. While they are still panting for breath, they are then asked to stand in line and hold their breath for 10 seconds. Then slowly breathe out, breathe in and hold their breath for 20 seconds and so on until 60 seconds.

One beginner student fainted. Another beginner student temporarily lost vision, describing it as a phase where he was standing upright, his eyes were open, but he could see only grey all around him (probably a greyout due to cells in the eye not receiving enough blood/oxygen). After around 30 seconds the master asked him what was wrong, he said he couldn't see anything, and the master said a knowing "Ah". The student was asked to close his eyes and lie down on the floor. When he opened his eyes in around a minute, his vision was back to normal and he had no problems in subsequent classes while holding his breath.

A physical trainer friend of mine told me it's a sign that the master doesn't have sufficient knowledge about onboarding beginners.

In the long-term, does such an exercise of holding breath after intense warm-up actually help a martial artist? I saw a yoga explanation to it, but it didn't seem logical. There are some experiments done on lung capacity of Kalari students, but I guess that'd apply to any martial art even if holding the breath exercises aren't practiced.

Does it really help? Are there other martial arts where this is practiced?


3 Answers 3


Controlling breath is important in martial arts, and all exercise in general. Holding your breath is the opposite of that.

The short answer is; holding your breath would result in erratic breath to recover. This sounds ridiculous. No fighter would do this.

The yoga website explanation is nonsense. It's not a coincidence that they didn't post any scientific sources to back up their claims, but rather posted links to buy their DVDs.

The second website you posted is an extremely narrow study, where it compares people involved in athletics to people that we have no idea of their athletic involvement. So sure, people that exercise will have a higher lung capacity than people that might not exercise. That study is worthless without athletically comparable control cases. For example, one group should do their program with the breathing stuff, and one group should do their program without it. There are several other issues with that study, but we can throw it out based on that lack of control alone.

Conclusion: This is pseudoscience with no backing. Anecdotal evidence would say this specific practice might even be detrimental.


Breathing slowly is trained in Daoist-influenced martial arts

Martial arts with a Daoist influence (bagua, xing yi, taiji) train breathing to be relaxed, continuous, deep, and even. Training for these elements has the effect of slowing your breathing rate. Note that you cannot hold your breath while keeping it continuous and even.

This training results in increased breathing efficiency; you need fewer breaths in any time period. You do not starve your body of oxygen, you learn to need less breathing as measured by breath frequency. This breathing is sustainable indefinitely.

I have no idea whether this results in increased carbon dioxide in the body, or whether that is something you want. I do know that freediving has examined breathing and carbon dioxide, where mistakes can result in drowning.

Holding your breath to breathe slowly is questionable

I would rate this practice similarly to withholding water from athletes; it's a silly risk to take to "toughen" athletes. You can achieve the desired effects in much safer and more efficient ways.

The benefits from breathing better accrue over time; the 4 breaths or whatever you skip after a warmup has immediate negative short-term repercussions (passing out or losing eyesight), but the long-term effect will be negligible because you take thousands of breaths per day.


I've an alternate theory based not only on my 35 years of Chow Gar kung fu but also many years of figure skating. It may be about neurological conditioning.

We don't explicitly do any breath training in our style because, for most people, it causes more problem with tension in the body than just letting breathing happen. We do train to shout at some points.

More from my figure skating training, one of the hardest things is to cope with dizziness during spins and immediately after. You have to train to proceed regardless of the residual spin your inner ear is still registering.

I wonder if this Kalaripayattu training approach is not just about rapidly stabilising breathing but also about learning to ignore distractions from low oxygenation.

I have a fairly low heart rate and low-medium blood pressure. Chow Gar includes a lot of rapid rises and jumps from kneeling positions so one of the things I've had to learn over the years has been to ignore sudden drops in BP and oxygen. One of the common reactions to those is to stiffen-up which is the opposite of what you want to do in the middle of a form.

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    When I asked for clarifications from the guru, he used to take it as a personal insult and not explain it. I see logic in your point, but since the breath holding was done only before starting the main exercises, I can only speculate it came from an ancient yoga practice of getting the mind focussed for the exercises. If it was about low oxygenation, it should have been practiced during the main exercises, but that was never done.
    – Nav
    May 4, 2019 at 16:07

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