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Category: Breathwork

Breathwork is the practice of respiratory & physical exercises, aiming to improve one’s ability to control the breath. The 2 pillars of breathwork are: hypercapnia & hypoxia. It can be used to:

a. improve control of the Autonomic Nervous System (Improve body temperature control, activation of the Sympathetic or Parasympathetic Nervous System, slow down Heart Rate)

b. delivery of oxygen to working muscles and biomechanics during exercise (Release tension around the diaphragm, strengthen the diaphragm, improve oxygen delivery to working muscles during exercise, accelerate recovery time after training)

c. unconscious breathing (Improve respiratory function by enhancing Carbon Dioxide tolerance)

d. enter meditation (Help you enter into an empty state of mind)

Breathwork can be practiced in conjunction with physical exercises: dynamic; or on its own: static.

Under this category you will find articles discussing the use of breathwork through the Yoga tradition (Pranayama), Buteyko Method, and modern systems such as the Wim Hof Method. My aim is not to get stuck in the method but look into the effects each technique has on the body on a biochemical, biomechanical, and psychological level.

If you are interested in the role breathing plays in the Nervous System you should sign up for the #FreeBreathing mini-course.

Articles in this category

Breathing in yoga

5 things I learned from Wim Hof.

 

breathing in yoga

Breathing in yoga

The way we breathe during a yoga class is affected by many parameters including :

• our level of experience

• the style of yoga

• our familiarity with the sequence

• how tense we are on the day

• the phase of the menstrual cycle (in the 2nd half progesterone levels increase causing an increase in the pace of breathing)

 

Ref 1

 

If you have been practicing yoga for a while you may have noticed how your breathing changed with time. You may have also noticed that beginners and more advanced practitioners will be performing the same poses (even with the same technique/form) but following a completely different breathing pattern.

While experience is not the only factor to determine your breathing during yoga; in this article I will use that as a reference to suggest how to breathe during your asana practice.

 

HOW SHOULD NOVICE YOGIS BREATHE?

When one starts practicing yoga (especially in a group class), she/he has many challenges to face. I remember having to :

• perform poses on the limit of my flexibility, if not poses completely inaccessible to me

• hold poses for longer than my lactic acid tolerance allowed me

• learn the name of poses

• remember the alignment my teacher indicated

• breathe in and out based on my teacher’s queues

 

While the whole experience at the end can leave the novice student with a sense of relaxation, there is a lot to take in. For that reason I suggest if you are starting out now to follow the following 3 rules :

  1. If you are not feeling comfortable with the pose, make sure you breathe regularly. Things that will help are: remind yourself to breathe every so often & establish a slow breathing pattern.
  2. In poses that you are comfortable to observe your breath. Usually the moment we observe our breathing it is slowed down. Refrain from trying to alter it – just observe it.
  3. To the extent that you do not feel suffocated maintain nasal breathing at all times. The best way to achieve that is to refrain from mouth breathing at all costs. This may not be accessible to you in the beginning due to chronic poor respiratory habits, but it is the foundation of any breathwork, so do not give up.

 

HOW SHOULD AN INTERMEDIATE PRACTITIONER BREATHE?

By the time you consider yourself to be an intermediate practitioner you should be switching to ujjayi breath throughout your yoga (asana) practice.

Ujjayi breath in my opinion is: SILENT • SLOW • INTENTIONAL

This description is in line with that of Timophy McCall (author of the book “Yoga as Medicine”) :

“When you first learn Ujjayi, you will breathe with an audible noise. But as you progress, the sound may become so subtle that someone sitting next to you would not hear it.” Ref 2 

 

Maintaining ujjayi breath at all times will allow you to :

• stay focused

• maintain good energy levels throughout the whole practice

• oxygenate your muscles and brain adequately

 

HOW SHOULD AN ADVANCE STUDENT AIM TO BREATHE?

As an advanced practitioner you can work towards gaining control of your breathing, independent of the asana or vinyasa performed. Breathing can support your concentration and help perform the yoga poses but it can also challenge them. Advanced practitioners can challenge their asana practice through breathing.

 

The 2 pillars of breathwork are : hypoxia and hypercapnia and they can both be practiced during any yoga class.

 

BREATHING DURING AN ASANA PRACTICE

The way we should breathe during poses depends on how comfortable we are with the pose. Breath becomes primarily important when we are learning a pose or when we are holding a pose for long.

When learning a pose that requires stability in the lower back (lumbar) we should brace our abdominals, as opposed to hollowing.

 

Bracing our abdominals is achieved by holding our breath aiming for an isometric co-contraction of all abdominal muscles (as if we were about to receive a punch in the stomach. Hollow belly, often cued as belly or naval in achieves the activation of the transverse abdominis (TVA). When the 2 techniques were compared: bracing you shown to achieve higher lumbar stability compared to hollowing [ref 3].

 

Once someone is comfortable with a pose, hollowing the abdomen and maintaining lateral breathing is good idea as this will maintain a calmer Nervous System and the ability to hold the pose longer.

 

HOW TO BREATHE IN INVERSIONS?

When learning a new inversion, in most instances I suggest one tries to find balance while holding his/her breath (on the inhalation or exhalation depending on the transition/ pose). By doing that he can get the following benefits :
• increase of abdominal pressure
• maintaining of the chest & abdominal area unchanged
• increase concentration
 
It also allows the practitioner to establish a pattern through which he approaches the pose. Too often every attempt is completely different which can slow down the learning process.
Once balance is established regular or even better ujjayi breath can be maintained.
 
Breathing regularly • or try to breathe continuously • or to synchronize the breath with the movement: when learning a new inversion or inverted transition is in my opinion very counterproductive & often sabotages practitioners’ efforts to learn a new pose.

HOW GOOD IS YOUR BREATHING?

Your ability to breathe right during a yoga class is determined not only by your experience in yoga but also by your respiratory capacity. If you want to find out what is your respiratory capacity at the moment do the following 2 tests:

Controlled Pause

Breathlessness Test

 

References :

  1. Saaresranta, T., & Polo, O. (2002). Hormones and breathing. Chest122(6), 2165-2182.

2. McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine: the yogic prescription for health & healing: a yoga journal book. Bantam.

3. Grenier, S. G., & McGill, S. M. (2007). Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation88(1), 54-62.

 

5 things I learned from Wim Hof

It’s not every day that you meet a 20 times Guinness record holder. When you come to meet him though [ & you train under his supervision in the method he developed], the chances are you will get some insights. Wim Hof (the “iceman”) is an amazing person – like we all are. However, there are 2 good reasons why you will hear this expression about Wim all the time:
i. he has stripped himself off what he calls: “the programming”. He doesn’t dress his true self with a politically correct behavior (i.e. he encourages people to breathe, breath deep – not caring which hole the air comes in) neither takes himself seriously.

 

ii. he didn’t hold back in life. He “went deep”. I cannot pay justice to the importance of this comment but basically what it means is he went where he didn’t feel comfortable.

 

1. Nature is the teacher

Nowadays, science is, unfortunately in my opinion, perceived as the only source of truth. Science started as an attempt for humans to systematically understand nature.

“Nature is the teacher.” ~ Wim Hof

 

science-then-now

 

He encourages students to go to nature and learn everything he knows.

“Nature is merciless but righteousness” ~ Wim Hof

 

2. Train your body to adapt not tolerate

Up until recently cold exposure was for me similar to weight training. I lift weights → I get stronger → I can carry heavier bags from the supermarket [ i.e. I expose myself to the cold → I become more tolerable to cold → I am less likely to get sick in the winter (or something among these lines anyway) ]. While partly true there is a 2nd degree of benefits more significant.

We can moderate our body temperature whether we are exposed to cold or not. Cold offers feedback but the environmental temperature should not determine our body temperature. The day prior to the ascent of mount Snezka Wim told us: It will not be very low tomorrow* but you should go high.

* meaning the temperature will not be very low

 

3. Zorba the Buddha

Osho Rajneesh (1931-1990) spoke about how life should be a meditative practice, which should be equally enjoyed at the same time. Zorba the Greek (according to Osho) is the foundation and Buddha is the palace, on top of the foundation.

“If everything goes according to me, every man will die as Zorba the Buddha. Between the Greek and the Buddha there is not much distance, but first you must be the Greek.” ~ Osho

Wim is such a model. The word joy is not foreign to him, yet every breathing practice and exposure to cold is an opportunity to go into meditation.

 


 

 

4. The body’s calling, pick up the phone

Have you heard the phrase holistic approach? Well I do all the time and I have become more allergic to it than Dracula is to garlic. The reason is that while in principle the idea is good, it has become a marketing hashtag for pre-prescribed (usually expensive) protocols.

What’s Wim approach then: He gives you 3 basic tools (breathing, cold exposure, focus), encourages you to practice regularly and focus on the problem at hand. If you now think that’s one size fits all approach, I encourage you to go try some visits to a local cold lake or some deep breathing sessions. You will only go as far as you can. And why I am so confident about that?

These approaches are engaging. They are on the opposite end of the spectrum where drugs, vitamin supplements, or massage treatments will deal with the problem without your participation.

 

change

 

5. Be humble to be great

Wim is a warm-hearted man prior to being an iceman, in my eyes at least. I could list myriad examples I witnessed in 1 week which confirms that. Instead I would bring to your attention the reason WHY he does what he does: To empower people.

He is not competitive or tries to be an illusionist. In his own words:

“What I can do, everyone can do.” ~ Wim Hof

I remind you: 20 Guinness Records.