Anyone who comes to my yoga classes will know that I am constantly referring to the breath - so I thought it an important blog post to write.
I start and end every class with a time to connect to it, and then use it throughout to link poses and movement together.
I also refer to the breath a lot as an outdoor instructor. I encourage people to breathe slowly and deeply in the moments they are most scared - at the top of a climb or the moment they are about to abseil off a bridge.
Most recently in my own life, I have been reminded again of how powerful deep breathing is as I learn to reconnect to my core after pregnancy.
But it took me a long time to appreciate the power of the breath. In fact, I had practiced yoga for more than 10 years, including some of the breathing exercises below, without actually realising what a powerful tool I had at my fingertips.
The tipping point for me was a climbing accident.
I was bouldering - a form of low climbing without ropes - on a climb that I had already done a few weeks earlier. But this time was different.
I was very afraid.
This fear led to bad decision making on the rock and ultimately the outcome I had been fearing: I fell.
Even when I was falling, I was still scared and continued to make bad decisions - I tried to save the fall by jumping and ended up twisting in the air and landing badly one-footed on the mat below.
I heard a crack and sure enough had a broken talus - the round bone in the ankle joint.
It took 2 operations and 6 months on crutches to heal. I had a lot of time to reflect on how I could avoid such unnecessary injuries in future.
It was Arno Ilgner's book The Rock Warrior's Way, which applies eastern philosophies to managing fear whilst climbing, that finally made me understand that my breath was the superpower I had been neglecting all this time.
I really hope that it doesn't take a climbing accident for you to understand and harness the power of your breath.
So what is deep breathing?
Deep or diaphragmatic breathing simply refers to using your diaphragm to breathe.
The diaphragm is a big umbrella shaped muscle underneath your lungs. It is also one of the most overlooked parts of your "core".
Most of the time we do not even notice ourselves breathing and while this is happening, our diaphragm will be working alongside our intercostal muscles (the ones in between our ribs) to breathe.
When I watch my 8 week old daughter, she breathes like this.
Her tummy and her chest expand with every inhale and contract with every exhale.
She breathes through her nose.
Yet, somehow, as we grow up, many of us forget how to breathe this way. We often end up expanding our lungs by lifting our shoulders. We breathe through our mouths a lot.
There's nothing fundamentally wrong - we do still get oxygen into and out of our lungs - but like this, we miss out on the full benefits of our breath.
In fact, we inadvertently send messages to our brain that we are in danger. As a result, we might experience tension in the neck or shoulders, as well as higher levels of stress and anxiety.
When we consciously use our diaphragm to breathe, we help to retrain our brain and body to breathe deeply all of the time, even when we don't notice our breath at all.
Combine this with breathing in through the nose and you have a powerful tool at your fingertips.
Some of the benefits of practicing deep breathing:
Boosts your metabolism - you literally get more oxygen!
More energy for exercise.
Lowers cortisol (the stress hormone) and the subsequent negative impacts of it.
Can reduce pain (as a result of No. 3 - cortisol is known to make pain worse).
Activates the vagus nerve which promotes better rest, recovery and digestion.
Can lower or steady the heart rate.
Provides core stability (or reconnects you to your core after childbirth).
Better mental focus and concentration.
Improves your sleep!
How to breathe deep.
Find a comfortable position. You can be lying on your back, sitting or standing.
Bring one hand to your tummy and the other to your chest.
Start by noticing your breath.
Then take a big deep breath in, through your nose, counting up to 3 as you do. On the count of 1, imagine filling your tummy, and as you do, feel it expand underneath your hand. On the count of 2, fill your chest, feeling it expand in all dimensions - front, back and both sides. On the count of 3, see if you can draw just a little extra air in.
Then pause for a moment - this could just be a second the first time but you can build up to a few seconds as you get more practiced.
Then slowly start to breathe out - either through the nose or the mouth, whichever feels better for you. You can count down from 3 if you like - and again, as you get more practiced you can slow this exhalation down so that it is double the length of the inhalation.
Again, pause for a moment before restarting the inhalation.
Close your eyes if this feels good for you as it helps to bring more focus to the breath.
Take at least 3 breaths like this - or as many more as you would like - there is no limit!
The final words.
I hope that you have found this exercise helpful. I encourage you to take a few moments throughout your day to bring your focus onto the breath. I like to do it just before a meal - the meal serves as a reminder to do it. The more you are able to breathe deeply throughout your day, the better you will feel.
And may you discover the power of the breath - without having to have a climbing accident first!