Are you ready to work more closely with your breath, to help improve your performance? Last month I discussed some of the reasons why athletes should spend time focusing on and training their breath, including that more efficient breathing can lead to measurable improvements in performance.
This month I’m sharing some simple breathing exercises that can help you tune in to and connect with your breath, and control it more.
These are some basic yoga breathing exercises that you may find in a yoga class.
You can do them sitting up or lying down, so long as you are comfortable and relaxed. If it’s not comfortable for you to sit on the floor, try sitting up on a bolster or cushion, or in a chair.
Breathe in and out through your nose as you do these exercises.
Exercise 1 – Simple breath awareness
In a comfortable seated or lying position, bring your focus to your breath. The idea of this exercise is to objectively observe your breath. Don’t worry about doing something ‘the right way’ – simply make observations.
As you inhale see if you can get a sense of where the breath moves in your body. Where is the origin of your inhalation? Can you get a sense of the air entering through your nostrils, travelling down your windpipe and into your lungs? What movements does this create? See what you can feel through your collarbones, shoulders, all around your ribcage, your back and your belly. Does it feel like you are breathing fully into your whole lungs, or is the breath primarily in the upper region?
How evenly do you draw your breath in? What sound does it make? Can you feel the coolness of the air coming in through your nose? When does your inhalation begin and then end?
That’s a lot of questions about simply breathing in!
Then look at your breath out. How do you exhale?
See if you can notice when the inhale finishes and begins to transition to the exhale. What is the movement of the breath in your body as you exhale? Go through those same areas of the body again and observe.
Where does the breath empty from first? How complete does the exhalation feel? Does the air coming out feel warmer? Then notice what happens at the end of the exhalation, before you breathe in again.
Observe the length of your breath in and breath out. Are they even, or is one longer than the other? Which part takes more effort?
As you go through this exercise you may notice yourself changing how you are breathing. That’s fine. Notice what is changing. Perhaps your breath is becoming softer, fuller or more relaxed simply by paying closer attention to it. You may be surprised at just how much there is to observe in an action that you usually give little or no attention to.
This awareness of the breath is the first step to finding a more efficient breath that can help develop more efficient form in your sport.
Exercise 2 – The breath in time
A longer, fuller breath encourages relaxation in the body and the nervous system. This can help you maintain a greater sense of equanimity when under mental or physical pressure. This exercise looks at the timing of your breath.
As you breathe in, count silently to yourself 1, 2, 3, 4,…. Do the same as you breathe out. See if you can make the inhalation and exhalation even with each other. As you continue, try to lengthen out the breath – without labouring it too much. You are looking to deepen the breath, to breathe more fully – adding an extra count to each part.
Next, see if you can add a further one or two counts to the exhalation, so the breath out is longer than the breath in. Creating a deliberately long exhalation encourages the relaxation response in your nervous system.
Finally, look for the natural pauses at the top of your inhalation and the end of your exhalation, before the change begins. Give these one count, without ‘holding’ the breath.
You will begin to observe your breath lengthening out. With practice you should be able to maintain a longer, relaxed breath with more ease.
Exercise 3 – The breath in space
This exercise is about ‘directing’ your breath to different areas, increasing your control over your breath, developing a fuller breath, and growing greater awareness.
Place one hand softly on your upper chest and your other hand on your belly. As you breathe in and out fully, you should observe each hand moving to reflect the movement of the breath.
On the breath in, try to fill the lungs from the bottom to the top – looking for your lower hand to move first as your belly moves out, then the top hand lifts you fill the upper chest. As you exhale, breathe out from the top to the bottom – feeling your top hand lower, then your lower hand move in as the diaphragm contracts in and up to help empty the lungs.
Give yourself some time to learn this exercise, it may not come very naturally at first.
Once you feel you have the hang of this, you can change the breath pattern around. Try reversing the above – filling the lungs from the top to the bottom, then emptying from the bottom to the top.
Other variations include:
– Filling from bottom to top, then emptying from bottom to top, and;
– Filling from top to bottom, then emptying from top to bottom.
Try these exercises in other situations
Start working with these exercises in a place where you can really focus on them without distraction. Once you are familiar with them, you can perform them just about anywhere, and even begin to incorporate them into your active sports where appropriate.