Breath control, or pranayama, is integral to yoga. Yoga traditionally has eight limbs, with the physical asanas we tend to practice in the West being only one arm of the overall system. Breathwork is another.
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Breathing to lift heavier and run longer
When we talk about breathwork, we’re really talking about engaging in conscious breathing patterns, says yoga teacher Felicity Wood. “The way we breathe is directly linked to our mental state, energy levels and physical health. The word ‘prana’ means lifeforce, which shows how important breath was – and still is,” she explains.
“Our motivation for doing breathwork today isn’t typically finding enlightenment but relearning how to breathe properly and undoing effects of dysfunctional breathing.”
Working with your breath is useful for many types of exercise away from the yoga mat. “The way you use your breath will be different depending on what you are doing and wanting to achieve – whether it’s endurance or going for a personal best,” says Ajaye Hunn-Phillips, head coach at The Project PT, who specialises in strength training. “Having even a general awareness of your breath or an understanding of how it works is a great foundation for lots of movement.”
Nasal breathing can make us more efficient
“Many people default to breathing through their mouths, which creates stress when working out,” says Hunn-Phillips. “A natural way to breath is through your nose into your belly, but often people think taking a deep breath means breathing through their mouth into their chest.” Mouth breathing causes shallow fast breathing, more stress and anxiety, increases dehydration and uses more energy.
Yoga breathwork comes in many forms with most focusing on nasal breathing (there are some exceptions, but few encourage habitual mouth breathing). “In yoga we are generally learning functional breathing – which is breathing through your nose slowly, allowing breath to travel low into the lungs,” says Wood.
This allows your central respiratory system to calm down, helping you speed up or keep going, Wood explains. “The body prioritises breathing muscles, so when there is less effort in our breathing, there is better blood flow to other areas of the body.”
Practising nasal breathing helps you stop switching to mouth breathing mid-workout, according to personal trainer Alex Henderson from Fired Up Fitness. “It allows more oxygen to enter the active tissue, meaning we are less likely to become fatigued, and if you make a conscious effort to do this as much as possible, it will eventually become a natural habit when exercise intensity increases.”
Using breath for focus and mental strength
Ujjayi breath (also called victorious or ocean breath) is used in vinyasa or flow yoga and can help focus and concentration. It involves slightly constricting the back of your throat, so you make a raspy sound as you breathe through your nose.
The sound and rhythm are often helpful in a challenging yoga pose and work in a similar way when you are holding a plank, bridge or squat. “Because tightening the throat is a conscious action, it can help with mental focus and it can help ensure a regular breathing pattern is maintained,” says Wood. But, she warns, this might be one to keep for conditioning work rather than cardio, where you don’t want to restrict air flow.
Wood often teaches coherent breathing, inhaling for a count of six and exhaling for a count of six. This can slow the brain and mind down, helping create a flow state that is useful during repetitive movement practices like jogging or hiking.
“Breathwork helps with the mental challenges of exercise,” explains Henderson. “Focusing on breathing when you feel like giving up can distract your mind and helps with focus and motivation to keep going.”
Yoga breathing can help increase core strength
A stabile core often improves form. Central to this is the diaphragm – a muscle at the bottom of the lungs, which, just like any muscle, can be strengthened. A strong diaphragm improves breathing efficiency and functional breathing strengthens the diaphragm.
“When we breathe functionally, on the inhalation the diaphragm moves down and the lower ribs expand. This creates pressure in the abdominal cavity called intra-abdominal pressure, which stabilises the lumbar spine and pelvis,” says Wood. A stable spine is useful for almost every form of exercise as it can improve posture, balance, core stability, gait and alignment. Dysfunctional breathing habits have the opposite effect, reducing intra-abdominal pressure, which can cause instability.
“There is a commonality between people breathing incorrectly and having back issues,” says Hunn-Phillips. “It’s important to take a holistic view of everything you do – your breath affects your body and your body affects your breath – both positively and negatively.”
Awareness of breathwork can be helpful with a technique called bracing, which is often used when lifting weights, says Hunn-Phillips. “The most common way to do it is by taking a big breath in, driving the diaphragm down and engaging core muscles to support the lumbar spine while completing something like a squat or deadlift.
“This protects your back and creates better strength and stability when lifting. Learning the technique can be challenging, but having a breathwork practice often means people come in confident and competent about using their breath.”
Yoga teaches us that body, mind and breath are connected, and understanding how breath and movements work together is useful off the mat too.
“Exerting on the exhale is a common way to breathe but it’s not always the best way – it depends on the form of exercise,” explains Hunn-Phillips. “If you were using a bracing technique, for example, you’d lose stability as you exhale, so it’s about balancing endurance, stability and effort, and understanding how to use your breath to help you do that.”