Waiting to Exhale: The Power of Engaging the Breath

Take a Deep Breath.Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. This phrase is an often used piece of advice to encourage relaxation. Fortunately, we don’t have to consciously think about every breath that we take, particularly since we breathe anywhere from 10 to 20 times every minute.

While our breath is automatic, the practice of bringing a greater degree of attention to our breath can have a dramatic effect on our state of mind as well as our physical performance.While physical and emotional factors can alter the natural rhythm of our breath, adjusting and modifying the way we breathe can facilitate a greater experience of ease of both body and mind.

In the 5,000-year-old yoga tradition, breath is considered to be of utmost importance. The word for breath in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the yoga tradition, is prana. Breathing practices are pranayama techniques, named for control of the breath. Prana also refers to our life force, referred to in martial arts or Chinese medicine as chi. Seemingly intangible, our sense of vitality is central to our well-being. According to yogic philosophy and practice, that vitality is carried on our breath and the breath is the link or bridge between the tangible physical body and the ephemeral life-force. Thus pranayama is control of the breath and also our vitality.

In our bodies, our breath also serves as a link thought and mind through the experiential nature of our nervous system. The breath and nervous system are linked through a feedback mechanism whereby one affects the other.

Breath Changes our Mind

When we are feeling the effects of acute stress, whether we are behind the wheel of a car running late on the freeway at rush hour, stuck in traffic, sprinting to the finish line, or negotiating a deadline at work, our breath may become shallow, short, and more rapid. In turn, the shallow breath further heightens our body’s stress response. On the other hand, when we are relaxed, our breathing is naturally longer and deeper. Consciously changing our breath to deepen the expression and lengthen the duration of the inhalation and the exhalation produces a state of relaxation in the body and mind. So the “take a deep breath” phrase is a common commandment for a very good reason.

We have two different mechanisms at work in our autonomic, or automatic, nervous system. These are the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (relaxation response). The breath is at work in the
feedback mechanisms described above. Long, deep breathing encourages the parasympathetic nervous system while taking short shallow breaths activates the sympathetic nervous system.

Yogic Breathing Off the Mat

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For this reason, chiropractor and athletic performance expert Dr. John Douillard recommends careful use of the breath, with practices he describes in his book Body, Mind and Sport. One method is a traditional and often-used breath in yoga called ujjayi breathing.

Ujjayi breathing is sometimes called the ocean breath, or even the Darth Vader breath, because the sound is deep and hollow. While most effectively learned with the help of a teacher, ujjayi is practiced by very slightly constricting or tightening the back of the throat (slightly as opposed to dramatically!) and breathing in and out through the nose with a sound like the swirling of the ocean’s rhythms through a seashell held up to the ear.

This type of breath is slightly heating, and therefore not appropriate for everyone. When used correctly, it helps the mind to focus on the present moment, an asset in improving athletic performance—or indeed performance in any endeavor.

An important aspect of this type of breath, and one Dr. Douillard recommends, is to breathe through the nose, especially during athletic activity. When we breathe through our nose, it also maintains the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, or relaxation response, rather than the stress-hormone increasing sympathetic activation. If you feel that you are not able to maintain your current pace running, for example, while breathing through your nose, then the recommendation is to slow your pace until the flow of breath is smooth. From there, through systematic training, increase the pace while maintaining a steady inhalation and exhalation through the nostrils.

A few years ago, I added this practice to my regular running routine. As a long-time yoga practitioner, I already felt that incorporating this type of slow breath not only made sense but was even almost easy in an asana, or yoga pose. Pounding the pavement and putting in miles was another matter entirely. My first few days integrating this technique were frustrating, until I learned to slow down and cultivate a new relationship with my breath, body, and stride. Then each day, I could increase my pace and even distance, while maintaining a slow easy pace for my breath.

Calming the Mind with Breath

While slowing the breath, incorporating ujjayi and favoring breathing through the nose are all techniques that can be used, even simultaneously, during any type of physical activity, other practices are even more directed toward calming the body and focusing the power of the mind.

Alternate nostril breathing is used before or after practicing poses on the mat or engaging in physical activity. This type of breathing is particularly helpful to induce a meditative state by quieting the mind. Alternate nostril breathing can be used before an especially intense workout or even a competition to remove nagging distractions.

First sit in any comfortable position to prepare. This breath is practiced by first closing one nostril by placing a finger gently on the side of the nose. Traditionally, the right nostril is closed first and you initially exhale through the left nostril, and then inhale through the left nostril. The alternation occurs when you close the left nostril to exhale and then inhale through the right nostril. Cycling through a full breath on each side is one round and several rounds can be practiced. Close your eyes to enhance the calming effect of this breath.

While breath is natural and automatic, if we take the time to stop, to pause, to slow, to focus and bring a greater degree of consciousness to our breath, this practice has the potential to dramatically change our mind, improve performance and facilitate relaxation. So breathe, deeply, slowly, and often.

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