In the interests of maintaining an open mind, Nanna read Sunday’s sports pages. She discovered the Sydney Roosters hired an “alternative” breath-work specialist to teach them deep breathing techniques for staying calm under fire. It worked. They won the 2018 rugby league premiership.
Call me crazy, but I think breathing is anything but “alternative”. In fact there is only one alternative to breathing. But we know what the newspaper meant. Paying close attention to your breath and the effect it has on the body and mind is not a standard football training technique.
But it is for yogis.
Yogis have worked to lengthen, smooth, hold, move and focus the breath through specific practices for millennia. Breathing – as renown yoga teacher Donna Farhi says in her Breathing Book– “affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular, and psychic systems and also has a general effect on your sleep, your memory, your energy level, and your concentration.” Not so much “alternative” but integral to good health and wellbeing.
The footballers used exercises to improve their lung capacity – measured by how long they could hold their breath underwater. Here on YouTube, we can watch an extraordinary demonstration of lung capacity by the yoga master B. K. S. Iyengar. Iyengar says: “The mind is the king of the senses, and the breath is the king of the mind. And the nervous system has a rhythmic vibration that becomes the king of the breath.” (Nanna loves it when he talks like that.) Watch and you’ll see a 47.35 second inhale, and a 33.36 second exhale, without the slightest twinge of effort. I wonder how many Roosters managed that?
If you have a good teacher, you’ll come across pranayama (Sanskrit for “control of the life force”), or breathing exercises in your yoga class. Kapalabhati breathing – the skull shining breath – uses the belly muscles to expel short sharp exhales. It builds body heat, improves digestion and reduces belly fat. There’s Nadi Shodhana, that tricky alternate-nostril-breathing technique, ideal for invigorating the whole system and balancing the mind – once you get the hang of it. Or you might do Bhamari, the bee breath, including a high-tone humming that increases concentration (and lets you float like a butterfly . . .) And all through class your teacher encourages conscious inhales and exhales because that’s how you harness energy for the duration. “Because it is right under our noses,” says Donna (what a gift of a line), “the significance of this ever-renewable source of energy has escaped our attention.”
As the Roosters learned, taking your breath off auto-pilot for a while and paying it more attention has big benefits. Becoming aware of, slowing down and deepening the breath aids relaxation, balance, concentration, energy and stress management.
Plus there’s this: the ancient yogis believed each of us is born with a finite number of breaths to breathe. Perhaps you should stop and do some long slow breathing right now, in case they were right??