Can we adopt a breathing technique that can help our athletic performance? Or a technique that can bring us to a deeper state of relaxation? The short answer is Yes. But lets start from the beginning.
It’s all about the breath.
Ideally we breathe in through the nose rather than the mouth. The nose filters incoming air and the smaller passage slows the natural breathing rhythm and allows optimal gas exchange and vice versa. When we go for a run or train at a high intensity, the gas metabolism is faster and the breath increases. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it!?! Due to stress, bad posture and muscle tension, just to name a few, we get into the habit of shallow breathing, compromising our oxygen intake. More importantly, our inability to fully utilise our breath to its optimum over long periods, can lead to illness.
Fear no more! Techniques like meditation and yoga asana and pranayama practices bring awareness to the breath and can gradually improve its quality. Why you ask? Because slow, deep breathing engages the diaphragm and the abdominals, stimulates the body to pump more oxygen and prana into the cells and tissues, exercises our lungs and promotes the release of carbon dioxide out of the body.
The importance of breath in Yoga practices.
In Yogic terms the vital life force is called Prana. Breath is one of the most important vehicles for Prana and has therefore special attention. The movement through a specific sequence of postures combined with the breath, prepares for more focused breath (prana) work, called Pranayama. It has its focus on the space between inhalation and exhalation. The life force or energy is further divided into five main parts (Vayu) which make up the Energy Body (Pranic Body) and have each a specific function for Pranic and Physical Body. So if one of the Vayu’s is ‘out’ or not working properly, it will influence other Vayu’s and pull them out and prevent optimal function. This will have an impact on the Physical body and create further imbalances and can lead to illness. Vice versa different physical postures in Hatha Yoga class influence different Vayu’s and help balancing the Pranic Body.
How breath work helps athletes
Deep breathing will help to quiet the nervous system and sharpen your focus on the task at hand. When you inhale deeply, the lungs expand and the chest wall stretches, stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain down into the chest and beyond. The pressure on the vagus nerve triggers a feeling of relaxation. This, in turn, is what will help you focused on the task at hand.
Still not convinced?
Researchers assessed 30 healthy individuals, placed into 2 groups. The yoga group practiced Pranayama for 15 minutes and the control group went running for 15 minutes. Researchers found there was a significant change in the lung efficiency and capacity of the yoga group, as they had more maximum ventilation volume, more forced vital capacity, more forced expiratory volume, and higher levels of peak expiration flow. Researcher suggested that incorporating yoga in sports training could enhance the efficiency and performance of an athlete by enhancing lung function capacity. Check out the research here.
Here are some simple and safe exercises we recommend to improve breathing patterns.
Full Yogic Breath
Sit up right or lay down flat with a long erect spine and a slightly tucked chin. Become aware of the air entering the nose, moving down into the lungs, the expansion of the diaphragm; exhale the diaphragm arches up, air leaves the lower lungs and travels up through the nose. Pay attention to the diaphragm and belly movement. Is the belly moving with every inhalation and exhalation? It is a sign of shallow breathing if not, so this exercise will be perfect and improve the breathing process with 5 minutes every day. Bring your awareness with the inhalation to the extending belly, lower ribs and top of chest; exhale belly, lower ribs and top of chest. In time your normal breath capacity will improve and will find its seat in the diaphragm (belly).
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana Pranayama)
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged seated position, press sit bones into the floor/cushion and sit with the spine long and erect. Take a few deep aware breaths. Bring your right hand in front of your face and bend middle and index finger into your hand, so thumb and ring/little finger are straight. After you have completely exhaled, cover the right nostril with your thumb and inhale slow and full only through the left one and exhale in the same manner still using the left. Repeat up to 9 times. After completing the last exhalation block left nostril and repeat process 10 times (same number as left) on right side. Try to focus on a slow, steady and full breath and adjust inhalation and exhalation to the same length, eg. Inhale for four counts and exhale for four counts.