It’s dawn and I’ve just drawn myself out of bed. I grab my yoga mat, sit down, and breathe. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. I think back to my to-do list, pause, and come back to the sound of my breath.
It’s almost noon and I’m looking at my detailed programming notes in the journal I carry. I check the movements and reps. I load the rack. I brace the bar against my back and feel it press into my shoulders. I inhale, brace myself, and lift off. Exhale. Inhale, I descend. Exhale, I rise, placing the bar back on its hooks.
I always like to tell people that I first started yoga through meditation classes. My first few experiences with yoga, in fact, had very little to do with poses and everything to do with breath work. Through these classes, I learned to quiet my mind, bringing my attention to the soft music of my own breath.
These days, I often come back to that sound, but in a different environment. In the middle of a metcon, sometimes the music drowns out and I hear myself — inhale, exale, inhale, exhale — breathing through the most challenging part of my workout. Or at the very end, with my back on the floor, I try my hardest to breathe all the way into my belly and pause before exhaling, hoping to bring my breath back into its natural, relaxed rhythm.
There are eight limbs of yoga, beginning with the yamas and niyamas (behavioral do’s and don’t’s, to overly simplify) and ending with samadhi, enlightenment/transcending the self that comes from practicing yoga. In the middle is pranayama, or breath control.
Prana, which can also be translated as life force, is controlled through the breath. In some teachings, it is believed that you only receive a certain amount of breaths in your lifetime and by controlling your breath, you extend your life force. Many yogis practice a variety of different breathing exercises that may involve holding the breath, breathing through one nostril at a time, or altering the length of either the inhale or the exhale.
This video has three different breath techniques taught by three different teachers. It’s a short and quick introduction to the wide variety of breathwork.
When it comes to breath work at the bar, pairing your breath and your movement is all the more relevant. When lifting heavy weights, you’ll often see athletes loudly breath in to brace their torso and then exhale after the peak of their exertion. This tactic, also known as the Valsalva maneuver, allows athletes to maintain control and stability in a challenging movement, like a heavy squat or snatch. Bracing improves efficiency.
In one of the most foundational yoga flows, a sun salutation, the breath is paired with movement in order to prime the body for a full yoga class. Inhale, raise your arms. Exhale, fold forward. Inhale, straighten your back. Exhale, step into downward dog.
In most cases, the inhale is paired with any rising or upward movements (upward facing dog, low-lunge twist, rise to stand, etc.) and the exhale is paired with any downward movements. For new students, it can be difficult to focus on doing each pose properly, while also making sure you’re following the same breath patterns as everyone else in the class. It feels much like trying to juggle and wash dishes at the same time.
In these two videos, we have a “heating” breath and a “cooling” breath, both of which can help regulate the body along with providing a variety of other benefits.
By practicing breath work separately from movements, you give yourself space to become familiar with your breath. You know how to breathe into your belly and exhale until it feels like you’re bringing your belly button to meet your spine. You know how to breathe deeply while maintaining your own rhythm so you don’t feel winded. You know how to breathe in and pause before releasing, just as when deadlifting of snatching.
It doesn’t take much to get started. A comfortable place to sit. A timer. You.
For a few minutes every day, close your eyes, and listen to yourself breath. As time goes on, try a variety of other breathing practices and observe how they make you feel. Some can help with energy, others with focus. As you experiment, take note and see how they affect your lifts. You never know what you may find.