Updated: Oct 17, 2019
Why is it important to focus on breath while exercising?
Why should breath-work be a part of my practice?
What are the benefits of breathing properly while exercising?
Watching an athlete perform is stunning, it’s beautiful, and it is downright mesmerizing. Athletes often move with grace, precision, intention and focus. Athletes come in many different shapes, forms and ability levels, but the ones that have become elite, that have committed their lives to pure athleticism are the ones that we idolize and hold close to our own goals. One of the many things we don’t consider when observing an athlete is the way they breathe.
If you are watching someone run a 10k race, if you are watching your favorite quarterback make a beautiful pass, if you are watching your favorite baseball player hit a home run, your favorite cyclist win a summit finish or your favorite yogi master fold into a beautiful backbend your first thought probably isn’t to look at the way they are breathing. How are they remaining so focused in the eye of a storm? How are they able to relax their face and jaw, to know exactly what they want to do next when there is so much going on around them? How are they just so good at what they are doing?
In yoga, asana (movements) without pranayama (breath-work) is like building a house without a foundation or without load bearing walls. It will look pretty for a while and hold up against some storms but eventually it will crumble. Eventually there will be too much pressure and things will start to fall apart. Each and every athlete looking to better themselves also learns how to breathe. This does not however only apply to athleticism; this applies to life.
When we are faced with major challenges we often take a deep breath. Whether it be standing in front of a crowd to make a presentation, to take an important phone call, deliver good or bad news, or simply to stop from losing your patience. Now I would ask you to take a deep breath.
Now do it again but this time – think about where it is going.
Are you breathing into your chest or into your belly? Is your belly falling in when you inhale or is it pressing out? Is it through your nose or through your mouth?
You may be wondering why so many questions about how you take a deep breath, because come on, you’ve been breathing since the moment you were born. Well here is some of the science:
We are often in a state of fight or flight. Our sympathetic nervous system is triggered and we are just trying to survive. We are panicking, freaking out, stressed out, overwhelmed and who has time to breathe anyway?!? Well, let’s trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and bring our bodies into a state of rest and digest. Let’s, just for a moment, imagine that we can have a peaceful minute, day, week or year because we are constantly breathing to live not to survive. Let’s take a slow, intentional breath in through the nose and into the belly. But wait…your deep breath only goes to your chest?
This is called being an opposite breather. Once full grown we can never change the size of our lungs. No matter what, they will remain the same. However, we can give our lungs the maximum amount of space that our bodies will allow so that our lungs can expand to their fullest potential with an in breath. When we don’t breathe into our belly and only breathe into our chest we are not contracting our diaphragm. So as we inhale through our nose and start pushing our belly out it means our diaphragm is contracting and pushing down on our belly so our lungs suddenly have more room to be filled! Voila!!
As we bring our bodies into this rest and digest mode our body is restored to its normal functioning. This helps us to conserve energy, our pupils constrict, our bronchial tubes constrict, our heart rate decreases and our stomach enzymes increase (improving digestion). If we remain in fight or flight our heart rate is increased, our pupils are dilated, our bronchial tubes are dilated our stomach enzymes go down and eventually stop being released, we are at risk for adrenal fatigue because our body is constantly making hormones and we are constantly preparing for action. This is simply exhausting for our body. So, a breath where the exhale is longer than the inhale brings us into parasympathetic functioning faster. For example, an in breath at a count of four and an out-breath at a count of 6 will quickly help bring your body into rest and digest mode, a place your body is much happier to hang out, but don’t forget to bring that breath all the way down into your belly.
So how does this apply to the athlete? Don’t we want them to be on cue and constantly ready for action? Yes, physically we want to be in tip-top shape and prepared for anything. However, we want to be there mentally as well. Without learning to control our breath, we are left flailing without focus, direction or a sense of internal calm. Pranayama, which can be translated in many ways but ultimately means the practice of controlling the breath, “has the power to soothe and revitalize a tired body, a flagging spirit, or a wild mind.” Prana is the “vital force” circulating though all of us (yama meaning the restraining of that life force) and it can be refined and focused through breathing exercises and should not be ignored in well-rounded training.
Breath-work serves as an important bridge between the outward, active practices and the internal, conceding practices that lead us to a deeper state of concentration, focus and intention.