YOGA FOR SPORTS RESOURCES

BREATHING

In this section we will explore what we can learn from free divers, mountain climbers and yoga masters about breathing.

THE ANATOMY OF BREATHING

The PRIMARY RESPIRATORY MUSCLE is the diaphragm. At rest, the diaphragm does all the work of drawing air into the lungs.

THE DIAPHRAGM

 

SECONDARY BREATHING MUSCLES include accessory muscles of inhalation and exhalation, intercostals, scalene, abdominal obliques and the other global movers. Under physical exertion virtually all the muscles of the trunk are involved in some capacity in the function if breathing.

The breath has a direct relationship with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and therefore is a primary factor in the performance of athletes: physically and mentally.

We all intuitively know how to regulate our breathing, holding it when we need to or sighing with relief for example. In this section of the course we will explore some of the more advanced practices where they are appropriate and also practice teaching these.

BREATHING IS THE “DIRECTOR” OF THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM

My Australian Teacher, Simon Borg-Olivier, is a long term practitioner of pranayama and has demonstrated amazing feats of control over his Autonomic Nervous System functions such as the ability to drop his heart rate from 88 BPM down to 32 BPM in a space of 45 seconds.

He can do this by manipulating has breathing pattern.
In 1971, shortly after the invention of the first biofeedback devices, a New York Times article entitled, ‘Mind over body, mind over mind’ described biofeedback as a medical revolution as one Indian yoga master proved amazing abilities to control his autonomic nervous system functions at will. This yoga master was Swami Rama, who had trained from an early age in the tradition of a lineage of Jnana Yogis in the Indian Himalayas. Swami Rama showed the ability to be consciously aware while his brain rested in deep sleep (delta wave) mode usually associated with REM sleep.
He was also able to put his heart into a state of ventricular fibrillation (300beats per minute) just by concentrating which appeared to stop the heart.

How is it that the breathing can have such a direct impact on the autonomic nervous system. The simple and key point to keep at the front of mind is this; there is a measurable reduction in heart rate while exhalation happens and a measurable increase in heart rate while inhalation happens. That’s why we inherently know how to sigh! We sigh either when something is irritating, (Sympathetic Nervous system has been triggered and we wish to moderate it) or as a sigh of relief when we know that something has passed and we can relax (signal to the parasympathetic to kick into gear)

The sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system is the one that brings the conditions of fear, anxiety, and aggression to the surface. The well-known fight, flight or freeze responses, which, while are useful at certain times, will in large and sustained doses, have a detrimental effect on one’s system and lead to illness or burnout.

Since we have volitional control over the rate and depth of our breathing, it is the most straightforward way to gain access to the nervous system and therefore to many aspects of our health and mental state.

 

Part of the value of practicing pranayama and physical Asana is that it systematically ‘tones’ autonomic nervous system to make it more responsive. It challenges us to experience these natural reflex responses repeatedly, to be aware of them and to gradually, over time to become the master of them.

The simple example is the holding of breath out. In yoga terminology this is called Bayah Khumbaka. The following experiment is not for people who have any blood pressure issues, and must be done sitting or lying down because if you pass out, there is minimal risk of injury. Try this. Breathe out all the residual air in your lungs, and don’t breathe in. Wait as long as you can before breathing in. Imagine doing this underwater. Just imagine. Do not actually do this or any other breath holding technique in water without proper training and without a buddy. It is dangerous.

Now, note what the feeling was like and what was it that made you eventually give up and breath? There was a deep need to breath that came from a survival reflex. For many people, and almost everyone who has never tried this, there is a kind of panic. The heart rate spikes, and the muscles tense. Also the mind begins to race. All of these as a result of an uncontained sympathetic nervous system response which is actually quite easily trainable.

Holding the breath is a very direct way to access this fear response and therefore a very direct way to begin to work with our ability to control it.

The popular Wim Hof Method uses a simple yoga breathing technique of fast deep breathing followed by a long exhale retention and a shorter inhale retention. Part of the purpose is to deliberately experience this state of challenging. Challenging the minds and body and then deliberately relaxing into the sensation. It is a very empowering technique. Ultimately while there may be a feeling of panic or strain, it is completely self-regulated because one can breathe freely anytime.

Everyone seems to have a sense that yoga is about breathing or that breathing is an important part of yoga, but remarkably few people actually understand how it works and even less how incredibly valuable it is to breathe well.

Even among yoga teachers there is confusion and since the fast boom in yoga’s popularity, there are hundreds of mixed up breath exercises flying around in a fairly random way.

The yoga tradition speaks of directing and harnessing energy both to apply in a focussed way to a mental or physical task and also to irrigate the body with pranic energy.

WORKING WITH PRANA

Pranayama is a Sanskrit compound of prana and ayama which means extension or expansion.

It is important that we approach these breathing exercises in a nurturing way. We must approach all of the breathing techniques in a spirit of relaxation and introspection, so that the sympathetic nervous system does not become overstimulated. The sympathetic nervous system shows itself as an increase in heart rate or pressure during the exercises and later in the day it may create a general or specific feeling of irritability or emotional fragility. There is a good reason that the yoga texts place warnings against doing the advanced pranayama exercises without the presence of an experienced teacher.

Rather than taking an achievement focussed attitude, develop an attitude of curiosity and sensitivity towards gradually becoming more aware of subtle feelings. There are many warnings that come in the texts about the dangers of Pranayama and certainly the more advanced techniques are not for ordinary people.

The techniques explained here are only the basic, safe and introductory practises. You will find that, with regular practice their effect is strong enough. The other advanced practices are to be done with the direct guidance of an experienced and trusted teacher and only after several years of preparation through physical yoga and adopting a sattvic lifestyle.

IMPROVING RESPIRATORY MUSCLE FITNESS

Slowing the breath is the simplest and best starting point. This is also an important part of endurance training. Many Athletes use nasal breathing throughout their training and then apply mouth breathing for events. The ease of open mouth breathing after training with nasal breathing allows more energy to be spent in the legs on race day.

As a teenager, my first breathing coach was my own father. He was once a first grade rugby player, an expert swimmer, body surfer and a lifelong athlete. He insisted that we breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth and to keep a steady rhythm of the 4 steps in and 4 steps out. Teenagers always know better than their elders so I would usually give up on the 4:4 count and switch down to 3:3 count when it started getting tough.

UJJAYI PRANAYAMA

Seated and reclining stages of learning

Ujjayi Breath also known as victorious breath is a technique that both slows the breath and applies some light resistance to the flow of the breath. A soft whisper is created by the glottis which has the effect of engaging more of the secondary breather muscles, if we do this slowly to a full inhalation lifting the ribs and a full exhalation ‘squeezing the breath out ’it makes use of most of the musculature. It is important to do this with good technique. Poor technique and too much force can lead to other issues, particularly a rise in blood pressure and an over stimulation of the parasympathetic aspect of the autonomic nervous system (the fight or flight response).

When I have taught this technique, the exhalation with sound is very easy to create but most people find it difficult to master the smooth sound during inhalation. this is the ‘sucking’ air part which would train the external intercostal muscles as well as a concentric diaphragmatic action. When it is done correctly in combination with yoga postures , it has the effect of developing a greater range and control amongst both the primary and secondary breathers.

Notes on Ujjayi Pranayama:

  • Teaches how to take deep, smooth breath with awareness. It trains optimal function of the diaphragm (antagonist to abdominal obliques) along with the intercostals that open the thoracic cage.
  • Hypertension in the obliques inhibit the function of the diaphragm – using ujjayi breathing taught properly helps to counteract this.
  •  This is a commonly known and practiced technique in Vinyasa yoga classes where students are encouraged to make a loud noise with their breath. This is actually not the correct way to use Ujjayi. A loud sound on exhale can only be made by pressing the air against a restricted glottis with some force. This encourages strength and tension of the exhalation muscles especially the internal intercostals and the obliques.
  • The pressure against the heart with this pressure of a laud sound will raise blood pressure at least temporarily. A sound on inhale on the other hand helps to develop the ‘pulling’ musculature which is a useful performance enhancer.
  • Ujjayi should be learned after diaphragmatic breath has been established. It is important that pre-existing ineffective breathing patterns are not superimposed onto the Ujjayi breath.
  • As a classical pranayama technique the idea is that the abdomen is drawn in by the lift of the ribs. This is an example of a negative pressure bandha around the heart. The breath is lengthened by the slight and gentle restriction of the glottis and because there is a sound in the skull, this becomes a good point of focus for the mind.
  • If it is practiced correctly, there is a lightness and energetic feeling but if it is done forcefully there is pressure to the head and chest, tension in the abdomen and may create more anxiety.

Teaching Ujjayi Pranayama

This should be taught in stages:

Reclining:

Stage one – mastery of  a smooth, long and controlled Ujjayi while reclining on props first train only the exhale with five easy recovery breaths between attempts.

Stage two – mastery of  a smooth, long and controlled Ujjayi while reclining on props. Train only the inhale with five easy recovery breaths between attempts. 

Stage three – mastery of  a smooth, long and controlled Ujjayi while reclining on props. Train the inhale and exhale in short bursts of practice using recovery breathing between.

Stage four – mastery of  a smooth, long and controlled Ujjayi while reclining on props. Train the inhale and exhale to find a continuous flow without strain.

Seated:

Stage one – mastery of  a smooth, long and controlled Ujjayi while seated first train only the exhale with five easy recovery breaths between attempts.

Stage two – mastery of  a smooth, long and controlled Ujjayi while seated. Train only the inhale with five easy recovery breaths between attempts. 

Stage three – mastery of  a smooth, long and controlled Ujjayi while seated. Train the inhale and exhale in short bursts of practice using recovery breathing between.

Stage four – mastery of  a smooth, long and controlled Ujjayi while seated. Train the inhale and exhale to find a continuous flow without strain.

SPECIFIC BREATH REQUIREMENTS AND TECHNIQUES FOR ATHLETES

Researchers measured Vo2 max, and lung volumes of athletes one comparing the running position and two different cycling positions. One very dropped down and one more upright. (Duke, J.W 2014) what they found was that the difference in breathing capacity and quality was not related to the hip angle.

“While running, the athletes had a greater vo2 max but were able to access lessor lung volume.”
Duke, J.W., Stickford, J.L., Weavil, J.C. et al. Eur J Appl Physiol (2014) 114: 2387.
https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-014-2956-0

There are other aspects to fitness and there are different forms of fitness. We all know that to be ‘walking fit’ is not the same as being fighting fit or swimming fit. Training is always specific. Getting fitter is a matter of S.A.I.D. (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) But respiratory fitness is to a large degree, a transferable fitness. If the cardiovascular system is in a well-trained state there are many knock on benefits in other activities.

NASAL BREATHING

Athletes use nasal breathing throughout their training and then apply mouth breathing for event day. They say this is like fitting a turbocharger to a car on race day. The body is accustomed to drawing the air in through the nasal passage which is a small series of tubes, and requires both the primary and secondary muscles to ‘pull’ then on race day it’s just straight through and open mouth.

So what is actually being trained in nose breathing? Awareness, rhythm, the diaphragm as well as the external and internal intercostals and some of the other auxiliary breathers like the scalenes, serratus anterior and posterior.

Increasing the strength of the respiratory Muscles (e.g. Power lung trainer device) doesn’t raise VO2 max, but expanding lung volume, the mobility of the thoracic cage and the function of the diagram are all effective ways to improve breathing strength and efficiency.

Slow Breathing

    Due to the Bohr Effect, a consistent hypo-ventilation creates a a build up of Carbon dioxide in the body which will improve oxygen uptake in cells by effective breathing: high levels of CO2 in blood allows 18 times more transfer of oxygen.

    Nauli – Yoga’s negative pressure abdominal workout

    “Agni Sara and Nauli abdominal churning and the negative Uddiyana Bandha are useful as core stability training, for strengthening the transverse abdominis and increasing thoracic mobility.” Borg-Olivier S. , Machliss B (2005)

    The elevation of the rib cage without inhalation creates a partial vacuum causing the abdomen to be ‘sucked in’ and upward which provided a manipulation to the organs of the abdomen and by reflex action the deeper spinal muscles are engaged.

    The upward lifting lock “Uddiyana Bandha”

    Recent surge of popularity in this and another old yoga exercise known as churning “nauli kriya” has come with Instagram. The benefits include a toning of the transversus abdominus, deep intrinsic spinal muscles, and a positive effect on the breathing function.

    Alternate Nostril Breathing – a basic version

    The Himalayan Yoga tradition teaches that the practice of alternate nostril breathing, often described as Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma Viloma act on the two hemispheres of the brain to bring them into a more balanced state. This is the basic practice to be well established before other more complex practices are shared.

    This is an extremely immediate and effective technique that brings a mental calm and steadiness to the mind.

    There are many different forms of this technique and it is very safe as long as the breath is not forced. I recommend learning from an experienced teacher.
    Each set includes three rounds.

      Round 1:

    –          Start with both

    –          Out L (Round 1&3)

    –          In R  – Out L

    –          In R  – Out L

    –          In R

    –          Change direction

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Sit quietly for 6 breaths  

    Round  2:

    –          Start with both

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Change direction

    –          Our L  – In R

    –          Our L  – In R

    –          Our L  – In R

    –          Sit quietly for 6 breaths

    Round 3:
    (same as round one)

    –          Start with both

    –          Out L (Round 1&3)

    –          In R  – Out L

    –          In R  – Out L

    –          In R

    –          Change direction

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Sit quietly for 6 breaths  

    One study that was done by Polish researchers Stancak and Kuna  ‘Although reports dealing with the effects of nostril breathing on EEG and lateralized cognitive performance are not conclusive, they allow us to assume that alternate and proportional use of the left and the right nostril during forced nostril breathing might increase the balance between brain hemispheres’ (ELSEVIER International Journal of Psychophysiology 18 (1994) 75-79).

    The study used a method almost identical to the one that I suggest here.

    And the measured a brain wave activity at the various frequencies.

    They mapped the effects on five frequency bands:

    • delta (0.39%; 3.9 Hz),
    • theta (4.3-7.8
    • Hz), alpha (8.2-11.7 Hz),
    • beta 1 (12.1-16.0 Hz),
    • beta 2 (16.4-30.0 Hz).

      Round 1:

    –          Start with both

    –          Out L (Round 1&3)

    –          In R  – Out L

    –          In R  – Out L

    –          In R

    –          Change direction

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Sit quietly for 6 breaths  

    Round  2:

    –          Start with both

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Change direction

    –          Our L  – In R

    –          Our L  – In R

    –          Our L  – In R

    –          Sit quietly for 6 breaths

    Round 3:
    (same as round one)

    –          Start with both

    –          Out L (Round 1&3)

    –          In R  – Out L

    –          In R  – Out L

    –          In R

    –          Change direction

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Our R  – In L

    –          Sit quietly for 6 breaths  

    The results showed that the ‘hemisphere asymmetry in the beta 1 band decreased in the second half of FANB suggesting that FANB has a balancing effect on the functional activity of the left and right hemisphere.’

    But what does that actually mean in term of performance? What a good question. I am not too sure about that and perhaps that isn’t even the most important effect of the technique but what I do know from teaching this techniques to hundreds of people is that it brings instant calm. Consistently the feedback is (I always ask How does that make you feel) that they feel calm and that the mind chatter is reduced.

    The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says that when the two opposing channels are balanced, then the great bird of prana rises up through the central channel. The movement of Prana though a central channel may seem a bit on the esoteric side but that is what the old texts say. Now that we have the equipment to measure brain activity in different regions, we may one day soon discover a medical explanation for this central channel and the effects of raising the prana.

    RECOVERY & RELAXATION TECHNIQUES

    These may be used to prepare for Pranayama. The effect will be to quickly bring the body and mind into a state of relaxation which is essential for the practice of pranayama.

    Viparita Karani

     Legs up the wall (passive partial inversion)

    Makrasana

    Crocodile Pose

    BRAHAMARI PRANAYAMA

    The humming bee breath

    This is a useful simple and very effective starting point for any person unnaccustomed to regulating the breath. Either by reclining over a support to open the ribs or for more experienced practitioners an upright seated position is used.

    The exhalation can easily be drawn out to between 15 and 30 seconds and with practice it may be a minute or more.

    Humming breath with San Mukhi Mudra – a symbolic act of pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)

    By creating a humming sound the flow of exhalation is regulated and by blocking the ears with the thumbs or fingers the sound is intensified providing an instant biofeedback loop. Any jerks or irregularity in the flow are instantaneously heard as an alteration in the tone of the hum and therefore it is a very good way to practice smoothing as well as lengthening the breath out.

    Physiological effects 

    Because the breath out is slowed by humming, the out breath is naturally significantly longer than the inhalation. Hence the effect is to induce parasympathetic dominance.

    The practice has been shown to increase levels of Nitric Oxide in the blood which is a vasodilator and is important for the health of the circulatory system. 

    In addition the slower breathing will lead to a higher levels of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. 

    Muscular effect

    With the intention to create an even tone, the abdominal muscles of exhalation are trained to slowly release the air. The diaphragm which generally contracts to draw an inbreath now acts eccentrically to slow the release of breath. The external intercostal muscles which draw open the ribcage are also required to work eccentrically to lower the ribs with control.  Towards the end of the exhalation the abdominal muscles will be recruited to actively squeeze out the last of the breath.

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