Integrating breathwork with fitness workouts

A few days ago I read a post by Sharon Friedman titled “Running as Breathwork“, which I recommend to everyone wishing to improve fitness and health. Sharon speaks about stretching the inhale or exhale during running, as well as breathing solely through the nose and integrating these breathing exercises with awareness and focus on tensions in the face, neck and torso. To those familiar with Coherent Breathing, Systema Breathing or Pranayama-Breathing, the idea of breath control during physical practice is nothing new. The new aspect I would like to introduce to a wider audience is breath control and awareness under cardiovascular demand, especially fitness workouts.

As a practitioner interested in health, longevity and fitness you might see that focusing on breathwork and tensions will enhance the quality of your movement and performance. In addition, it releases stress. The reason why this automatically improves your performance is that you are not overfocused on the task itself but let the body and nervous system do their jobs.

If you even out and longly stretch your breathing, it balances your autonomous nervous system (you will gain a very good balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic states). Putting this idea in action with fitness-breathwork also allows you to gain a deeper understanding of how you will recover quicker and in much healthier ways.

The principles presented in Sharon’s post can be applied to many other fitness activities as well. Be it jump-squats with pushups in between, rollercoasters, inch-worms, pullups, pushups, situps, or simply dynamic mixes of sprints, calisthenic exercises and postural drills, which have a high cardiovascular demand.

In the following I will suggest a few adaptations to above principles. Take one fitness class (60 minutes) and solely focus on breathing through the nose during medium-intensive cardiovascular demand, when your heart wants to race and your thoughts begin to wander. Keep on breathing in and out through your nose during the recovery phases stretching your breath even longer and breathing ever more effortlessly as you recover. The goal is to inhale and exhale so effortlessly at the end of your recovery phase that no big and rapid movement is visible in the chest area, nor muscle spasms around the neck and throat. Some people call this method Coherent Breathing, others are familiar with it from the Russian Breathing System.

For all these fitness exercises you will do during these 60 minutes, breath is the primary concern, and movement the secondary. Use all of the cardiovascular exercises you normally do, but solely with nasal breathing, and recover by nasal breathing as well.

To go one step further, you can carefully and slowly also integrate breathholds under cardiovascular demand, with even more focus on emotional and bodily tensions and how they develop. There are two basic kinds of breathholds. Breathholds on empty lungs (after an exhale) and on full lungs (after an inhale). You can, for example, integrate breath holds, such as exhaling sharply through the mouth and then holding the air with dynamic cardiovascular exercises, such as six times a pushup followed by a long jumpsquat, and then recover after these breathhold phases with nasal breathing. During and after the breathholds focus calmly but strongly on tensions in your face, neck and torso. Take good time after these breathholds to recover and slowly start stretching your nasal breathing, which will easen your blood pressure, release body tensions and help you get rid of emotions.

You can do similar exercises with extended stretches during monkey movements on the ground, and you will notice that the panicky feeling of suffocating during the breathholds will quickly disappear when you recover with nasal breathing. Also use calm nasal breathing for extended monkey and ground movement drills and be aware of tensions in your face, neck and torso. During the recovery phases (also nasal breathing) visualize how the air flows in and out of different parts of your body and connects you to your environment. You will probably notice that focusing on the nasal breathing during these drills will make you much calmer and increase your performance almost magically, while bringing you in touch with yourself, your environment and your training partners.

A good way to critically assess your breathing and to find out which breathing patterns are really beneficial for you is to switch breathing patterns. You could do drills in which you solely breath through the mouth, or where you inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, or during which you inhale through the mouth and exhale through the nose. Notice how these breathing patterns affect your condition very differently from the nasal breathing. Try to stretch the length of your inhales or of your exhales, and finally stretch both inhales and exhales with different breathing patterns during medium cardiovascular activity. You will again notice which breathing pattern or mixture of patterns will calm you the best and will bring the best performance, recovery and emotional effects.

After such intensive inner explorations do postural exercises (for example, Egoscue Technique) for about ten minutes and then rest. Or simply visit one of my “AwareFitness” classes in Berlin, where I will teach you these principles. You can contact me through: focusflowbyphil@gmail.com

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