Movement and breath are inseparable. Trying to have one without the other is impossible. Breath is contradictory because it is both conscious and unconscious, automatic yet controllable. Breathing can be used to induce a state of activity and a state of calm. Breath is vital. We only last a few minutes without it. However, most of our lives we go completely unaware of it. Here, we will take a few moments and consider the breath, and how it can be used to vastly improve our lives.
Breath in movement. We need to have a habituated breathing pattern during movement to induce flow. Breath is the origin of all movement. Humans can go weeks without food, days without water, and only a few minutes without breathing. When the breath and movement are timed and correlated, things flow. This is easy to imagine for very repetitive sports like running, swimming or biking. Inhale for 3 strides or strokes, exhale for the same time those motions require. Synchronizing the breath with something like weight lifting is also fairly easy to execute. The old adage is to inhale during the eccentric phase, when muscles contract while lengthening, and exhale during the concentric phase, when muscles contract while shortening. However, if we are engaged in a more complex sport like soccer (football), yoga, or parkour, we need a new model of how to breathe. There are moments where we need to hold the breath and brace (a Valsalva maneuver) to create intra-abdominal pressure. There are also times we need to take several rapid breaths to saturate the system with as much oxygen as possible. Perhaps most importantly there are times we need to consciously slow breathing to lower the metabolic needs of the body. Through training and conscious effort, learning how to regulate the breath through the complex movements of sport will improve performance, reduce energy costs, and help create a state of flow.
The mind leads the body and the body leads the mind. Over the next 15 seconds take 15 deep breaths. Do it now! I guarantee that at the end of that you feel a little strange. Perhaps lightheaded, warm, and the lights in the room may have gotten brighter. If you are very sensitive, you may have felt your heart rate increase. These are autonomic nervous system responses. Your body senses that your breathing pattern has changed significantly. Fast deep breaths mean danger, preparing a flight or fight response. Your blood vessels dilate bringing more blood and nutrients to the extremities, sweating and heart rate increase to prepare for action. Your eyes dilate to bring in more light and information about the coming danger. Now do just the opposite of the last exercise. For the next minute try and take just four or five deep, slow, and controlled breaths. The response is the opposite in a lot of different ways. The perception seems to widen out. Your visual acuity decreases and sounds become much more prominent. Your heart rate will decrease, and you begin to feel relaxed. Your body is recognizing that the breathing pattern is entering a rest and recovery state. Both of these are conscious actions that induce unconscious responses.
Using breath to induce a state of activity. We used to have outdoor parkour practices all over downtown. On the occasions that I miscalculated the traffic and knew I would not make it in time to partake in the warm up, I would use breathing to create a state of preparedness for activity. Over the course of 5 to 10 minutes I would change my breathing from regular resting breathing to a state similar to the first exercise described above. Try this next time you do a training session. Instead of a traditional warm up, sit in a chair and over 5 to 10 minutes increase the breathing rate to that of full activity. It is very interesting to notice that while sitting still the heart rate can increase and a full body sweat can occur.
Using breath to induce a state of calm. The final breath technique in this article, but by no means the final breathing technique is using breath to induce a state of relaxation and calm. I suffer from clinical depression. I do not manage this with medication, but with breathwork and meditation. There is nothing special about my practice. I try to meditate every morning, but usually only do about 4 mornings a week. I sit for 20 minutes and focus my attention on my breath. When my attention wanders from the breath, I gently lead it back. Being present with my breath has made me a better friend, coach, and person.
This is by no means an exhaustive look at breath. However, this is in large how I use it to improve my performance as an athlete and a person. Learning more about your breath will enrich your life by understanding the relationship between your mental state and the impact it has on your physical being.