What’s the secret behind a fiery and transformative yoga class or an invigorating, muscle-making gym session? Is it the music playlist, the inspirational words from the teacher or the attractive man or woman you met while foam rolling? While all of those things can certainly help, at a foundational level, what makes a workout more than a chore for good health and vitality is the connection to yourself through your breath.
Harness the Secret to True Strength
The breath gives movements power and grace. When used properly, it can help you bust through plateaus and reach both your inner and outer potential. Unfortunately, many people have lost this vital connection because of stress, anxiety, trauma, poor posture and lack of awareness.
In yoga, practitioners bring attention to the breath and connect it to movement with full awareness and intention. Yogic breathing is called “pranayama,” which translates to “control of the breath.” Prana means life force, and yama means to regulate or lengthen.
“Learning how to breathe makes everything better,” says Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Sean Gray. “If we can open up our awareness starting with the breath, we open ourselves to so many things we didn’t even know existed.”
But proper breathing techniques aren’t just for yogis. In fact, connection to the breath may just be the modern-day magic you’re missing in the gym and in your life for coping with the challenges. It’s the difference between being able to sustain deep postures for an extended period of time, having the strength to deadlift more than twice your bodyweight or being able to remain relaxed in bumper-to-bumper traffic when you’re already 20 minutes behind schedule.
“Holding the breath and imbalances between inhalations and exhalations are the most common hindrances I see,” says Gray. “You may be overthinking your alignment, thinking about the person next to you or observing the piece of lint on the mat.”
Overthinking or losing connection to the present moment during training is when the ease and flow of the breath goes out the window. We usually don’t even notice these slight disruptions in our breathing patterns and how they affect us. With practice, though, we can restore this life force that connects us to and helps strengthen our core.
Develop Breath Awareness
Breathing is a function of the autonomic nervous system — meaning that it’s involuntary — but this doesn’t mean it can’t be compromised. Just because we take about 12 to 20 breaths per minute and receive approximately 10,000 liters of oxygen per day doesn’t mean the breathing pattern is correct.
Exercise physiologist Kristina Macias teaches athletes how to rewire their breath. “Many athletes I work with are not capable of breathing all the way down their spines into the deepest part of their bellies or exhaling fully,” she says.
Full exhales activate the diaphragm, a dome-shape muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. The diaphragm attaches to the sternum and the rib cage like a parachute and comes all the way down to the anterior portion of the lumbar spine. “This is a spot where I see a lot of slipped discs and back pain,” says Macias. “Imagine this: When you inhale, there’s a balloon that fills the entire pelvis and stretches out in all directions. Hold that inhale for a moment, and when you exhale contract all the muscles in and up the spine. Slowly hiss out through the teeth to lengthen the exhalation as long as you can, and notice which muscles contract in when you exhale,” Macias advises.
Balance Body and Mind
It’s not just about strength and stability, though. Full breaths along the entire spine promote balance in the breath and balance in your nervous system. Macias recommends thinking of your spine like a light switch with a dimmer. The higher the breath is into the chest, the more “on” the nervous system is, and the deeper into the belly it goes, the more relaxed you can remain.
Diaphragmatic breathing releases pressure and creates space for nerves like the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to the relaxation response and cultivating balance. The exhalations help pump nutrients to the muscles and massage the nerves. “It’s like you’re foam rolling the core. It’s core recovery,” says Macias.
In training and life in general, recovery time is a necessity. The best athletes know how to control their breath, and thus their nervous system, for optimal performance on and off the playing field.
Establish a Daily Breathing Practice
Exercise physiologist Kristina Macias recommends performing the following breathing exercises daily for 40 to 60 days to rewire your breath for strength. You can perform these exercises first thing in the morning at home or on your way to work or the gym.
1. Cannon Breath With Core Compressions
How to Do It: Sit tall. Think about a steel rod running down your spine, lifting you up toward the sky. Exhale as sharply as possible without rounding your shoulders or hunching forward. Hold on empty for a moment, bringing awareness to the muscles that helped you exhale. Then inhale slowly through the nose. Notice if you use your shoulders or neck muscles to inhale. With each breath, focus on squeezing the abs as if you’re contracting them in toward the spine. Avoid pushing out and down.
2. Strap Breath
How to Do It: Sit tall. Wrap a yoga strap around you, crossing it in front just below the sternum at the widest part of the ribcage. Inhale to expand the ribcage laterally and exhale fully. Keep the neck and shoulders relaxed.
3. Spinal Rotations
How to Do It: Sit tall and maintain tension in the body as you inhale into the belly and keep length in your spine. Exhale and twist deeply. You can place your forearm on the outside of the opposite thigh to maintain position. Take five full breaths here before rotating to the other side.
Breathing Techniques During Your Workout
The purpose of the daily breath practice is to make efficient and effective breathing the norm during movement. “With daily practice, you don’t even have to think about how to breathe during movement. You just do it automatically. That’s the goal,” says Macias. For movements like yoga postures or calisthenics, the yogic breath, or ujjayi breathing, is ideal. Literally, ujjayi means “to become victorious,” so keep that in mind as you breathe and move in the flow.
4. Ujjayi Breathing
How to Do It: Breathe in slowly and evenly through the nose with the mouth closed. Breathing with sound, exhale down the back of the throat. Pay attention to the balance in sound, velocity and length of your breath. Besides yoga and calisthenics, this breath is also excellent for maintaining focus and energy efficiency during sports like surfing, hiking, trail running or cycling.
When performing lifts for muscle endurance, such as bicep curls or ring dips, aim for a modified version of ujjayi breathing, exhaling on the exertion as you contract the muscles and engage the core.
For heavy strength training, such as deadlifts and squats, Macias recommends using the power breath. This breath will help engage your deep core muscles and create intra-abdominal pressure, which is like an internal air cushion to help protect your spine.
5. Power Breath
How to Do It: Before lifting the weight, contract your pelvic floor by squeezing at the very base of your spine. Exhale as you contract your core muscles, then take a half-inhalation while maintaining the engagement of the core muscles and pressure in the abdomen. As you lift the weight, exhale very slowly with a hissing sound, as if releasing a pressure valve.
Recovery and Relaxation
One of the toughest things for many people to do in life is to surrender. There’s a fine line between pushing through to achieve and letting go. If you never let your breath go, deeply filling and emptying the stomach and relaxing the core muscles, you’ll be left exhausted. Diaphragmatic breathing is how you balance your nervous system, your hormones and your life.
6. Prone Diaphragmatic Breathing
How to Do It: Lie on your stomach with your arms crossed out in front and your forehead resting on the back of your hands. Breathe into each segment of the spine, starting with three to five breaths into the chest and upper rib cage, middle of back and, finally, into the low back. With each inhalation, fill and lift the torso off the ground as if you’re on hydraulics. With the exhalation, feel the abs pulling away from the ground.
While it may seem simple, breathing consciously is more like an art or skill. Each intentional breath strengthens the connection between mind and body. With practice, this connection can be drastically improved. As you move forward with your breathing practice, workouts and life, remember this advice from Sean Gray: “The breath is like a language, and the only way to learn a language is to listen.”