It is estimated that 80% of your metabolic energy comes from breathing and only 20% from food. We can access a huge amount of energy at anytime, using our breath.
The ancient yogis spent a lot of time concentrating on breath control (pranayama), far more than the actual postures or ‘asanas’. They learned the beauty of breathing to manipulate their nervous systems, control their reactions, create strong, powerful lungs and respiratory systems and to help them connect their body and their mind. Actually in many languages, the words for spirit and breath are the same and the belief is that an infant literally breathes its spirit into its body with its first breath and the spirit leaves the body with the last breath – so our spirit is our breath and connecting with it, is the pathway to our deepest self.
That might sound pretty deep and spiritual, so another way of thinking about breath control is to imagine you are talking to your body on a cellular level and you have the ability at anytime to calm yourself down and enter another state of mind, plus fill your body with amazing oxygen, mess with your CO2 and HO2 – in a good way, and actually alkaline your body.
If you play sport, train for running events, cycling, swimming or all three, then breathing correctly and efficiently can play a huge part in your performance. The problem with most of us is that we ‘over-breath’ and we use our mouth too much, rather than our nose. Doing a weekly yoga class or indeed a daily breathing exercise allows you to access your breathing, connect to your breath and become aware of it when you move or breath. When you first start yoga, a bit like running – your breath is all over the place, it runs you, and it takes time to make the connection between breath and movement.
When you breathe correctly, slowly, through your nose and into your diaphragm, your body has enough time over the course of the inhale to produce carbon dioxide and when CO2 builds up it signals to the red blood cells that they need to send oxygen to the tissues and muscles.
The problem with today’s lifestyle (stress and fast living) is that we take shorter breaths and we use our mouth, rather than our nose. Using your mouth to breath means you take in more oxygen in a shorter amount of time, leaving no opportunity for the CO2 to build, so you get less energy – it’s counter-intuitive.
We first noticed the efforts of our yoga breathing years ago, about six months after we started our yoga journey. At the time, we were still actively competing in endurance events so we were able to see tangible results – one of them was ‘breath-control’ and better output. In the hot yoga room, you are encouraged to breathe in through the nose and out of the nose, mouth closed. To quote ancient yogis, ‘Nose for breathing, mouth for eating’.
When we were running, we started noticing that at the top of a hill, we were not gasping, but our breathing was more regulated and we could run off the top of a hill with more ease, rather than feel like we needed to ‘catch our breath’ before moving on. A simple example, but this took seconds and minutes off our running times and allowed us to move between disciplines such as running, swimming, biking and kayaking, during events, with more ease. When you are doing an event like an off-road triathlon or a Tough Mudder, you need to use different energy systems, and they will demand different oxygen levels – breath control from all the nasal breathing was a ‘game-changer’.
The yoga was beneficial of course, but in those early days, we would both say the breathing was the most tangible in our daily ‘sporting lives’ and also probably our personal and working lives. Once we’d mastered the nasal breathing in the yoga room we tried it when we went for a run, which is very hard and not always possible, but it was good to try and play around with it. When you ‘over-breathe’ or ‘mouth breathe’ you tire more quickly and this habit can affect your sleep and recovery. If you can spend more time breathing through your nose during the day, you will be able to exercise harder, and for longer periods of time and burn more fat for fuel – just by improving oxygen uptake. By practicing breathing through your nose, in a yoga class or doing actual ‘breath-work’ or ‘pranayama’, you start automatically nasal breathing more.
How do you know if you are over-breathing? Well is your mouth open now? Do you spend the day yawning even when you are not tired or during a yoga or exercise class? Do you snore and is your mouth dry in the morning? On your next breath, check if your shoulders and chest move – try to relax these and bring the breath from your diaphragm.
Breathing properly can make significant changes to our lives and it’s only in the last year or so that we’ve made breath-work a daily habit, working on our breath control – playing with our edges, holding our breath, releasing our breath slowly and using yogic breathing to do this. There are many styles of pranayama and it’s good to try several to see which one works for you, but even just incorporating yoga into your weekly schedule will make you breathe better (and move better!).
Most top athletes are now looking at ‘breath-work’ as an edge they can use in their competitive lives, a softer side of their training that will bring huge benefits, just as much as nutrition, conditioning work and physiotherapy.
Obviously if you are doing sprints or a high intensity workout, you will need to breathe through your mouth, but in between bouts of ‘hard work’, try to bring your breathing back to control using nasal breathing and even hold your breath after the inhale, and then exhale for a couple of seconds – this is highly effective on a bike when you are cycling and working ‘da hills’. The switch between the mouth breathing, on the way up the hill, to the nasal breathing once you are at the top of the hill, allows you to recover better.
Also at any time of day if you feel like you are stressed, short of breath, yawning, tired for no reason, then you can perform a 3 min breathing exercise to improve your energy, mood and stress levels. You can access the ‘rest and digest’ part of your nervous system and find some ‘peace and more energy’. It’s free and can be done anywhere and is much more effective than a coffee or a cream-cake for energy and vitality.
By balancing the lengths of the inhale and exhale we can balance our emotional state. Breath and emotion are really the same thing. When we get angry or stressed, our breath shortens, when we are calm and relaxed, our breath lengthens, but the more we stay in the ‘stressed mode’, the more we get used to ‘shortening the breath and over-breathing’.
Breathing, like any exercise is progressive and needs consistent work, but knowing that you have the ability to bring yourself to a place of complete calmness is pretty powerful. You are in control! Imagine walking into a presentation or before an event and you can slowly inhale for 3 and exhale for 3 for 1 to 3 mins – your body would respond in kind and calm you down. Using the breath as an anchor to still the mind is still one of the most effective forms of meditation.
Our favorite form of breathing and the one we do everyday is WIM HOF breathing, named after the man himself. It really resonated with us from the very first time we tried it, but just simple breathing is perfect – inhale for 4, exhale for 4 – maybe increase the exhale, maybe find some retention after the inhale. Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce a few into your yoga practice and maybe even do a seperate session just for breathwork and relaxation – this would be a very powerful thing to do as it would showcase how you can feel after 30 mins of concentrated breathwork – you’ll be buzzing for sure!
Try the test below and do it each week to see if there are any improvements?
- Perform the Blood Oxygen Level Test (BOLT): Take a full breath in and out through your nose, then pinch your nostrils at the bottom of the exhale. Time how many seconds pass until you get the urge to inhale. (You may feel like you have to swallow or notice contractions in your abdomen or throat.) At that point, release your nose and resume breathing. How long did you last?
Fewer than 20 seconds; Around 30 seconds; More than 40 seconds?
- Now, try the walking breath hold test: Do the same as the above, but instead of sitting or standing still and counting the seconds, pinch your nose while walking at a comfortable pace and count your steps. How many steps could you take before you felt the urge to breathe?