Updated 16 May 2014

The breath of life

Did you know that breathing correctly can improve your health, as well as your performance both on and off the sports field?

Breath and breathing are an essential part of all disciplines designed to lead human beings to mastery of body, mind and spirit.

Deep breathing is core to hatha yoga – the ancient Indian practice that helps the practitioner to withdraw the mind from the outside world and integrate mind, body and soul through the practice – as well as to almost every other meditation and relaxation method practised around the world.

But why is breathing correctly so important and how will breathing properly improve your health and your performance both on and off the sports field with virtually no extra effort on your part?

First, understand that oxygen – the most basic fuel for life on this planet – is the reason we breathe. To understand this fully, try holding your breath now for two minutes and see what happens.

How did that feel? My guess is that you didn’t manage the full two minutes. After 60 seconds without oxygen, your mind and body start to go into a state of alarm and, finally, panic. Your mind and body function less and less efficiently as you become more oxygen-starved. Finally, the vital organs will completely shut down and die.

Logic would dictate that if less oxygen has this effect, more oxygen should have the reverse effect, right? Test the theory now by taking 10 really deep breaths through your mouth.

How did that feel? If you feel a little light-headed or dizzy and somewhat nervous, don’t worry. This is completely normal and to be expected.

The 'fight or flight' response

You see, taking large gulps of air through your mouth causes hyperventilation, a condition where the blood becomes super-oxygenated and the carbon dioxide levels in the blood fall below their optimal levels, causing a fall in blood pressure, tingling of the extremities and sometimes even fainting. Your sympathetic nervous system, which reduces digestive secretions, speeds up your heart and contracts your blood vessels, has been activated.

This reaction is more commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response because it is exactly what happens when we face an emergency situation. We evolved this response over the course of millions of years to help us deal with threats to our lives as primitive hunter-gatherers.

It puts us in a state of high alertness and gives us a sudden burst of adrenalin-fuelled energy to enable us either to fight the threat or flee from it at rapid pace – a useful reaction when a hungry predator is bearing down on you, intent on making you its dinner!

However, the problem with this reaction is that it is no longer appropriate for most of the situations where we tend to experience it in modern life – when a taxi cuts you off, when you fight with your boss or when you exercise.

If the blood flow to your muscles and brain is restricted and you are feeling faint, you are not in a state to do anything terribly productive, least of all perform at your peak in any activity requiring as much blood flow to your muscles and brain as possible.

Breathing through your mouth when you exercise (or any time, for that matter) is clearly not the optimal way to breathe.

So what is? How do you normally breathe when you are not exercising? Stop now and become aware of how you are breathing. You should be breathing through your nose, which is the natural way of breathing for homo sapiens.

If you have just discovered that you normally breathe through your mouth, keep reading, as the solution to most of the health troubles you are no doubt experiencing is literally right under your nose!

Focus on nasal breathing

Breathing through your nose activates the diaphragm and helps you to draw the air into the deepest part of your lungs, using your full lung capacity to absorb as much oxygen per breath as possible.

By passing through your nasal passages, the air has also been filtered and warmed, so it is in the best state for maximum oxygen exchange to take place.

It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system that does the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system – it slows the heart rate, dilates blood vessels and stimulates digestion. This induces a state of relaxation and a feeling of integration between body, mind and soul that explains why deep, nasal breathing is so fundamental to yoga and other relaxation practices.

Breathing through your nose is clearly the correct way to breathe and so much more efficient when exercising, as it results in more oxygen getting to your muscles and brain, a lowered heart rate and a sense of relaxed calmness (sometimes called ‘the Zone’ by athletes) when compared with breathing through your mouth, which leads to oxygen-starvation and panic.

Learn to slow down

If it is our natural way of breathing, why don’t we do it when we exercise?

As in many other aspects of life, we have lost touch with our own innate abilities and have fallen into ‘bad’ habits. Part of the problem is our achievement-driven minds, which always want more of our bodies and drive the body to the point where it has no option but to breathe through the mouth, an emergency mode of breathing, in order to get enough oxygen.

We need to learn how to slow down, set aside all our expectations of performance for a while and practice breathing correctly while exercising in order to master this new way of breathing.

In this way, exercise will become a ‘meditation in motion’, a deeply rewarding spiritual practice and a stress reliever, relaxer and rejuvenator instead of a source of stress, which for so many people it is.

And perhaps best of all, you will begin to function in everything you do with the same poise, grace and ease with which you exercise.

If you are a serious athlete, you are probably wondering if this will work for you and if you will ever be able to perform at the same or a higher level than you are currently performing when breathing nasally.

Perhaps my own experience will give you the confidence to give this a try. When I learnt to breathe through my nose as a professional squash player, I was amazed at the difference it made.

After about six months, training or matches that would have completely exhausted me six months earlier were far easier. Within a year, I was able to perform at the same level as I had previously with half the perceived effort, or at double my old performance level with a similar perceived level of effort (yes, I did say double!).

But don’t take my word for it – try this for yourself and see what happens. Just remember that it takes some time for all the unused lung capacity you have to start working again. So, be patient with the process and simply enjoy it without demanding any minimum performance level from yourself in a set time at first.

'Darth Vader' breathing

Exactly how do you breathe when you exercise? It’s a technique called ‘Darth Vader’ breathing (the reason will become clear soon). Try this now:

  • Take a deep breath through your nose, making sure that your stomach expands as you do so (this is also called ‘belly breathing’ for this reason).
  • Make the inhale breath last at least 5 seconds, preferably even longer.
  • Exhale through your nose (keep your mouth closed), contracting the stomach muscles slightly and constricting the throat so you make a deep sighing noise that sounds a bit like the breathing of the character ‘Darth Vader’ in the ‘Star Wars’ movies.
  • If you struggle to make the sound, imagine you are making the same sound as you make when you fog glasses you want to moisten so you can clean them, except you are doing it with your mouth closed.
  • Repeat the above steps for each breath – you should be breathing at 10 breaths per minute or less.

When to use it

Practise this breathing whenever you are sitting or walking and whenever you exercise. The best types of exercise to practise this breathing are jogging, cycling or any other kind of exercise where you find it easy to breathe rhythmically while you are doing it.

At the beginning of all your exercise sessions, exercise at a slow rate that you gradually increase over a period of 15 to 20 minutes until you are warm and ready to go into the performance phase of your workout.

If you are running, this would be a brisk walk for about 5 minutes, followed by jogging at a steadily increasing pace until you are running fast enough to feel like you are not getting enough air and want to switch to mouth breathing.

At this point, you will reduce your performance level by about 10% so you can comfortably continue breathing through your nose for as long as you choose to continue exercising and feel like you are in the ‘Zone’ of relaxed, effortless performance. This will be a great deal longer than you are used to being able to exercise without wanting to quit.

Finish your workout with a 5-minute cool-down period where you exercise at the same intensity as you exercised when you warmed up in the first 5 minutes.


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