Never before have the applications of “fitness” been so vast in the realms of both group fitness and personal training. From restorative yoga practices to the complexities of high-intensity interval training, today’s fitness offers something for everyone. Interestingly, although breathing is a common thread that runs through these various modalities, rarely do we actually teach breathing in traditional formats. In fact, while breathing consistently is the most important aspect of any fitness environment, breathing continues to be one of the least-addressed disciplines of group fitness (Nyklicek, 2008). To be sure, many prudent instructors and trainers remind their clients to breathe, such as “exhale on the exertion,” but the following breathing tips may help you view the discipline of breathing as worthy of meriting its own structured instruction.
Indians often say that “to the degree that your breathing is limited is the degree that your life is limited,” advocating a sometimes-conscious attention to breathing. While breathing should be an automatic response that occurs in the background of life, an occasional focus on its various techniques can enhance our performance in various situations, from stress-free to stressful.
As we explore some of the following breathing techniques, try to stand or lie supine comfortably, preferably with the stomach empty. While sitting is a comfortable position, having the hips in flexion actually can inhibit the full breathing mechanism because full diaphragmatic movement can be restricted. This is because the diaphragm shares attachments with some hip flexors (Boyd-Wilson, Walkey and McClure, 2004). Extended hips promote better breathing, which is why we rarely see opera singers crouching on the floor or sitting down to sing. Keep tissues nearby in case you need them to clear the nasal passages, especially if you have a cold.
While there are numerous available breathing techniques, the options are limited by our anatomy. We can manipulate the orifices (three) and the speed (rhythm-based). We can breathe through the nose exclusively, through the mouth exclusively, or in combination with those two. Individuals without a head cold or deviated septum can enjoy practicing some of the breathing techniques using the nostrils, called “nares.”
The most common breathing technique is nose breathing. Yogis in India have long referred to the nose on the face as a source of respiration, stating that the mouth’s primary purposes are for feeding and communication. Of yogic pranayama, or breathing techniques, perhaps the most ubiquitous is ujaayi, used to bring awareness to the breath, improve concentration and actually warm the body a few degrees Fahrenheit when practiced appropriately for longer than five minutes (Ospina et al., 2007).
TRY THIS: Ujjayi
Get a small mirror from the bathroom and hold it in one hand. Sit comfortably upright without using the back of a chair to encourage an extended, active spine. Hold the mirror a few inches in front of your mouth and inhale through the nose deeply and comfortably. As you exhale, exhale through the mouth to fog up the mirror. Notice how your breath both sounds and feels in the back of the throat. Repeat this for three more repetitions. Next, put down the mirror and close your mouth. Continue inhaling and exhaling, but now exclusively through the nose, making the same sound in the back of the throat as if your mirror were still there. Notice how mindfully you must concentrate to be able to accomplish this technique, and feel your body grow warmer and more centered with each breath. Try to maintain this for up to five minutes. Someone within 5 feet of you should hear your exhalation in this technique.
USES: Use this breathing technique to center yourself, to increase concentration, to bring focus to a workout and to warm the body. Because the air travels so far between the nares to get to the bronchioles in the lungs, its passage helps to increase core temperature a few degrees Fahrenheit after five minutes of practice (Farhi, 1996).
When breathing becomes more labored, intense and faster, we need to involve the mouth because it allows more air to get into the lungs in a shorter amount of time as intensity increases.
TRY THIS: Complete Exhalation (as in Pilates)
Place your right hand, fingers spread open, over your chest so that the thumb points toward the throat and the smallest finger points to the belly button. Place your left hand just below this area, fingers spread open, touching the left thumb to the navel where the smallest finger of the right hand finishes. Inhale through the nose, but open the mouth naturally and exhale through it. For some, emphasizing a sound like a prolonged “shhhh,” “ahhhh,” or “chhhh” on the exhalation helps coordinate breathing with concentration. Without forcing the breath unnaturally, strive to inhale and exhale more slowly. Notice the feeling under the right and left hands as they rise and fall with inhalation and exhalation, respectively.
USES: Forced expiration breathing helps exercisers generate more force with concentric contractions (even when practiced quickly), helps exercisers work at higher intensities to process oxygen/carbon-dioxide exchange more quickly, and helps prolong the exhalation during certain exercises like Pilates (Rydeard et al., 2006; Grossman et al, 2004). In contrast to ujjayi breathing, this technique can help cool down the body.
This technique not only helps balance “chi” in the body (Chinese for “energy”) for those who practice t’ai chi, it also improves balance and stability of the upper core for anyone doing balance training (Chek, 1998).
TRY THIS: Pursed Lip Breathing
Pursed lip breathing involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, with the lips only partly opened, forming pursed lips. Inhaling through the nose and exhaling through pursed lips helps us regulate strength by stimulating the entire process of concentration. Breathing should be mindful and slow. We anchor the tip of the tongue at the palate, just behind the top teeth, and keep it there with the slightest possible pressure for the duration of our practice. In addition to being a point of meridian connection (called the “bai hwei”), this helps strengthen neck flexors, which contribute to upper-neck and head stability (Chek, 1998). This technique should be silent.
USES: This technique is believed to decrease the sensation of heat flashes, assist asthmatics in any stage of an asthma attack, and improve oxygen flow to the brain. In addition, this technique may also improve balance stability at the ankles, reduce neck tension, improve neck flexor strength, align the meridian pathways of energy in the body, and even contribute to better gait.
Furthermore, t’ai chi pursed lip breathing can help exercisers remain more comfortable when engaged in supine core-strengthening exercises when the head is unsupported.
Reverse breathing involves inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose, and makes the freestyle stroke in swimming possible. Alternate nostril breathing involves breathing through one nare exclusively for a set amount of breaths, and then changing to the other nare. This balances the energy in the body, helps induce a meditative state, and prepares the body for sleep. Laughing involves simultaneous nose and mouth inhalation and exhalation respectively, and produces endorphins and other positive by-products (Farhi, 1996).
For different effects, practice variations of the timing for any of the aforementioned breathing techniques:
- lengthen the inhalation (to produce a sense of increased energy and alertness)
- lengthen the exhalation (to heighten the relaxation response)
- explore matching the inhalation and exhalation (to increase breath awareness)
- explore a staccato-like inhalation and exhalation (to increase the strength of the intercostal muscles that conduct forced inhalation and exhalation)
Exploring just these common breathing techniques not only can deepen one’s sense of relaxation away from the gym, but can also transfer to the fitness environment where the breath can heighten one’s total workout experience by enhancing focus, visualization, relaxation response, and even intensity (Germer, 2005). If fitness professionals continue to dedicate more time to the common thread of breathing that connects us all in the industry, more of our clients and classes will reap the benefits of conscious breathing.
Boyd-Wilson, B.M., Walkey, E.H. and McClure, J. (2004). Serenity: Much more than just feeling calm. Advances in Psychology Research, 29, 3-55.
Chek, P. (1998). Scientific Core Conditioning. San Diego, C.H.E.K. Institute.
Farhi, D. (1996). The Breathing Book. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Germer, C.K. (2005). “Mindfulness,” in C.K. Germer, R.D. Siegel and Fulton (Eds.) Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (pp. 3-27). New York: The Guilford Press.
Grossman, P. et al. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 57, 1, 35-43.
Nyklicek, I. and Kuijpers, K.F. (2008). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention on psychological well-being and quality of life: Is increased mindfulness indeed the mechanism? Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 35, 331, 40.
Ospina, M.B. et al. (2007). Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research. Evidence Report Technology Assessment No. 155. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Rydeard, R. et al. (2006). Pilates-based therapeutic exercise: Effect on subjects with nonspecific chronic low-back pain and functional disability: A randomized trial. The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 36, 7, 472-484.