The other day, in the midst of instructing a circuit training class, I realised I'd used the phrase "Keep breathing" about six times in the space of 10 minutes. It was the final 10 minutes of the class. People were struggling. It was hot, and those box jumps weren't looking quite as spritely as they did during the first round.
Was I stating the obvious? Were the participants expecting a slightly more enlightened motivational spiel from their instructor?
After the class, a lady who had been giving it her fullest effort came over and thanked me for the reminder. Thinking she might be having a bit of a giggle at my 'Captain Obvious' statement, I asked what she meant. "The reminder to breathe," she said. "Every time you said it, I deepened my breathing, refocussed, and managed to keep going for a few more repetitions."
Whilst it might seem like I shout out random, meaningless phrases in the throws of a sweaty HIIT class, that's honestly not the case. As anyone who's made it through 90 minutes of hot yoga or a particularly intimate bikini wax might tell you, your breath is your strength. Just when you think that you can't go on any longer, you use your breath to ground you, take energy from and carry on.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
I'm talking deep belly breathing. Not the shallow, snatched breaths that come from high in your chest and make you feel panicked and anxious. But big breaths, starting low in your abdomen and expanding your ribcage to its fullest.
The idea of breathing (properly) isn't a new phenomenon. Breath is the foundation of any yoga practice - a form of exercise that dates back over 5000 years. Breathing in yoga is deliberate and observed, and has a biological effect on the mental, emotional and physical state. It is said that,
'A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years.'
which, when you consider the impacts of your breath on your body, makes a lot of sense.
Breathing is one of the few mechanical procedures of the body that we can bring under our conscious control. Unconscious breathing patterns tend to be anything but smooth and rhythmical; they're usually tense, shallow and erratic, sometimes leading to hyperventilation. When we're afraid or upset, we often inhale and hold onto that breath. When struggling through something difficult (like a tough HIIT class), we're likely to breathe in ragged gasps.
The body's oxygen requirements change depending on our actions and it's a no-brainer that those requirements are amongst their highest during exercise. The intensity and duration of the exercise will, of course, dictate how deeply and slowly we're able to inhale and exhale, but it's a useful practice to maintain awareness of that rhythm regardless.
Poor breathing in itself is enough to create feelings of anxiety or tension, and tension causes deficient and limited movement. We need oxygen to perform any movement, particularly any movement that requires a certain level of skill. A focus on breath while making movements also helps to control them, thereby reducing the chances of injury.
When controlled, the muscles work in a systematic way, with greater coordination with the nervous system. For example, inhaling during the less strenuous phase and exhaling on the effort whilst strength training is a useful tool for bracing the core, protecting the spine and ensuring good posture throughout the movement.
Some other benefits of conscious, controlled breathing during exercise include:
an increase in cardiovascular capacity, leading to an increase in the body's efficiency when performing an exercise
providing the muscles with much-needed oxygen and increased blood flow, meaning a quicker recovery between sets
being an effective form of pain relief
increased focus, encouraging us to stay present in the moment (a.k.a. 'mindfulness', to use the word of the moment)
Take a moment
The next time you're sitting on a train, stuck in traffic or find yourself with a rare moment of quiet, take a moment to consciously focus on your breathing and try one of these exercises:
Make it deep
Take a moment to get comfortable and relax your muscles
Place a hand on your abdomen
Take a deep breath in through your nose that comes all the way from the diaphragm, so that you can feel your belly rising before your chest starts expanding
Count to six whilst you're inhaling, to a point where your lungs are almost ready to burst
Exhale deeply through your nose, once again counting to six. Make sure your lungs feel completely empty at the end of the six counts
Keep your focus on breathing and counting
Continue this pattern for at least five minutes; 10 if you can
Repeat at least once a day or before a particularly difficult meeting, presentation or conversation
Slow it down
Make sure you're relaxed and sitting comfortably - we're going to try some alternate nostril breathing
Hold your right hand in front of your face and use your thumb to close off your right nostril
Inhale deeply and slowly through your left nostril, for six counts
Then close off your left nostril with your ring finger and remove your thumb from the right nostril
Exhale for another six counts through the right nostril
Repeat this pattern for between five and 10 rounds in total
Don't breathe from the mouth at all during the exercise
When you next feel anxious, under pressure, tense, lacking in concentration or like you can't possibly carry on for another five minutes, try to harness the incredible power of your breath by consciously controlling it. Either that, or knock back a whiskey, bite down on something hard and grin and bear it - bikini waxes rarely last as long as circuit training classes!