By Neil Crenshaw
In my experiences of running track and playing football as a teenager, weight lifting as a young adult, and now doing yoga as a senior, I have learned that breathing is a very important component in my performance. I see a very close relationship between breathing, energy and body movement, including flexibility. I might add that breathing also can be very closely connected to emotions.
When I ran track I noticed a direct correlation between how I breathed to my speed and endurance (energy). When I breathed in cadence with my legs, both speed and endurance were better than when I did not concentrate on breathing. The cadence was a breath in and out on the same leg, usually the right leg. When my right foot came down I would take a quick breath in, the left foot came down and the right foot again as I breathed out. The faster I breathed the faster I would run. My breath and body were in cadence while running. I remember the coach telling me that I ran “like a deer.” I took that as a compliment.
In lifting weights I discovered a correlation between how I breathed and how much weight I could lift and the number of reps I could do. When doing squats, for example, I noticed I had much more power (energy) and stamina when I breathed out on exertion – coming up from the squat, than breathing in on exertion. The same was true with the bench press. When I breathed in while lowering the bar to my chest and breathed out while lifting the bar I could lift more weight than when I reversed the breathing process.
Breathing in yoga is very similar to weight lifting in that it is much easier to move while breathing out during the exertion part of the movement. Many of the yoga classes that I have attended over the years have stressed the importance of correct breathing – primarily to breathe out on exertion and breathe in during recovery. This type of breathing is called concentric and eccentric movement with breath. Concentric (shortening) action is when the muscle in question is shortened overcoming the resistive force. For example, the quads move concentrically in pushing the body up from the floor from a squat. In this case you would want to breathe out on the concentric movement, not in. Eccentric (lengthening) is when the muscle is returning to its resting length from a shortened position. The physiology behind this type of breathing is that the muscles in the core of the body contract on exhalation providing greater tensile strength in the body and therefore to its movement. The contraction of muscles also produce energy in the form of heat.
One of the movements we often do in yoga is uddiyana. Uddiyana involves the contraction of three core muscle groups: the perineal muscle located between the genitals and the anus, the diaphragm and the oblique abdominal muscles. These three muscle groups are contracted while coming up from a squat during exhalation. The perineum is drawn up wile the stomach muscles are drawn in and the diaphragm up. All of this is done while breathing out coming up from the squatting position. This movement does take practice and sometimes takes years to master. However, once mastered, the energy during the maneuver can be felt throughout the entire body. An ancient yoga text states that this movement “sends the life breath rising up into the body like a great bird soaring without effort.”
Learning to exhale during exertion and inhale on relaxation not only provides strength to the body’s core but also increases flexibility. Let’s examine one pose, the triangle pose (Trikonasana); to illustrate the point. When you are going into a mildly strenuous pose like the triangle, you are going from a fairly relaxed pose, the star pose (Suksyma), standing with the legs spread apart and arms stretched out, and then bending down sideways with one hand to the ankle while stretching the other arm up toward the sky. If you exhale during this strenuous movement the core muscles are strengthened making the movement easier than if you were to inhale. Once in the triangle pose the body can relax more and more with each exhalation, releasing tension and allowing muscles and connective tissues to stretch. The difference may not be that noticeable at first to a beginner because he/she is focusing mainly on doing the movement rather than noticing how easy or difficult it is. With practice not only will the triangle pose be easier but the rest of the poses will become easier as well because breathing and moving become one. When the movement becomes easier the body becomes more relaxed and when the body becomes relaxed, connective tissues become lengthened and flexibility increases. Flexibility cannot occur when the body is tense and rigid.
I try to stress the importance of breathing and relaxing in yoga class without getting into the nuts and bolts like I did here. My hope is that over time students will grasp the idea, and the value of proper breathing will become apparent to them. However, having said all that, yoga is much more than learning to breathe properly while moving from pose to pose, stretching and feeling energy. To me yoga is a lifestyle that encompasses not only the body, energy and breath but also the spirit, the world and the universe, which are topics for another discussion.
Neil Crenshaw, Ph.D.