Written by Sarah Loogman
As thoughtless of an act it may seem, the mechanics of breathing have a profound affect on our physical health and even mental or emotional wellness. A gateway “hack” into the nervous system, a mindful breath practice can help improve athletic performance and decrease the risk or impacts of chronic disease. With diligent practice, the potential for improvement gains by simple use of the breath is tremendous for our present culture.
Our autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the body’s unconscious actions and is defined by two parts – the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic system, known for it’s “rest and digest” functions, stimulates activities such as a decreased heart rate and improved metabolic and digestive function – you conserve energy. On the other hand, the sympathetic system is nicknamed for it’s “fight or flight” response in which energy is massively expended. The sympathetic nervous system is also aid to most of the body’s internal organs.
In nature, these two systems work in harmony to maintain homeostasis of any living organism. In humans, however, the governing of modern society (especially Western) has generally tipped that scale – anxiety has become a national, if not global, pandemic. And it comes in many forms.
So how does this relate to breathing?
Imagine the same lion. As it chases down it’s prey, it will be breathing hard. When it stops, you will likely see it’s chest and shoulders rise and fall as it hunkers over it’s fresh meal. Contrast this to when you see the lion lying at rest in the sun after its meal – it is calm, and you may barely notice it’s long breath give rise to it’s belly.
When we breathe through our chest, particularly in short and shallow breaths, we are generally being controlled or influencing the sympathetic nervous system – the system associated to stress. Conversely, diaphragmatic “belly breathing” through the nose calms the agitation or nervousness of the system or will be influential to the control of the parasympathetic nervous system.
By understanding this and actually training our breath control, not only can we reduce the impacts of stressors to our lifestyle and health, but improve athletic performance as well.
One of the reasons that such a simple practice such as breathing has such tremendous impact is that our culture is ridden with “mouth breathers” and chronic anxiety. When we sit for long periods of time, our torsos typically collapse and experience little tension. By decreasing the strength of our core, our diaphragms also become immobile and giveaway to more upper-body breathing. Stress from work, relationships, or even family life can impact our breathing as well. Whenever we feel threatened, our instinct to act with aggression or to flee from the situation is directly correspondent to how we will breathe in the situation. In times of stress, our breath automatically turns shallow and comes from our chest and shoulders.
As our breath moves away from our belly, our core becomes weaker. The increased activity of breath in the upper body creates tight and weak thoracic spines and shoulders. We slump forward over desks, cell phones, and laptops only feeding the spiral.
Even if you’re not feeling in the blues, stress consumes our culture and the impacts of it are a reality we have to face. If you feel that you are not improving in your athletic performance, your health is declining, you’re chronically tired, you’re losing mental clarity, or that you have daily aches and pains, these are not meant to be acceptable to a “normal” life. The simple act of giving some mindfulness to your breathe can go a long ways in improving your human function:
Here are 3 steps you can take immediately to start building your breath practice:
1. Daily routine – Set aside time each day that you can dedicate your entire attention to your breath. Even 5-10 minute habits will make drastic improvements. It will be easy to forget, so construct ways to remind yourself to set a routine. Start with this simple routine from the Whim Hof Method:
A. Take 30 deep “belly” breaths. Inhale through the nose, and exhale through a relaxed mouth. You should be aiming to take in and breathe out “full” breaths. You could even place your hands on your stomach here to ensure that your stomach rises and falls with each breath instead of your chest.
B. On your last breath, empty the lungs on an exhale (though not fully) and hold until you feel the breathing stimulus. You should be trying to “push” out all of the air, but simply stop at the end of the exhale. You are not trying to hold your breath as long as possible, only until your automatic instinct to inhale kicks in.
C. As soon as you feel the breathing stimulus, breathe in fully through the nose then hold at the top of the inhalation for 10 seconds.
D. Exhale and return to part A. Repeat for 2-4 rounds.
This exercise should be done while lying down on a flat surface. If you feel dizzy at any point, return to your normal breathing. It may take some time to be able to follow this routine.
2. Nose breath your warmups – The goal eventually will be to perform most of your training through nose breathing, but start with just your warmups. If this means you have to slow things down a bit, use it to focus on better movement as this will also benefit your breathing as well. In fact, you will find that using nose breath will actually help to improve your mobility and posture through each exercise. You may find that your immediate response to any physical activity is to start heaving through your mouth – take a moment to calm down (it’s just a warm up!) and return to your nose breathing.
3. Track your BOLT score – Patrick McKeown’s book, The Oxygen Advantage, was the first resource I turned to in learning about the physiology of breath. This simple “test” can help you have some measurable progress to your breathing practice to keep you motivated or provide a system of assessment or goal setting. You can find a guide to testing your BOLT score here: http://oxygenadvantage.com/measure-bolt/
It may seem too simple – it’s just breathing! You may assume this too automatic to be worth thinking about. On the other hand, you may find it too difficult. We literally breathe for every moment of our existence and determining to be conscious about it can sound too big of a task. With these simple and time-efficient practices, however, you can effectively incorporate a mindful routine that will benefit many rewards for your health and performance.
Try it for one week. Be deliberate to this practice for seven days with a BOLT score right now and at the end of your trial. Take notice of how you feel during your warm-ups or after your new morning routine. Give it genuine effort for one week before you decide if its worth incorporating into your lifestyle or exploring further.