Now I am not going to dig into the question of what fitness is in this blog, but I will qualify this post by saying that my concept of fitness involves more than one's ability to perform physical tasks. With that in mind, I am interested in what things people do who are happy and live a long time. I am also interested in methods and techniques that have stuck around for a long time. One such practise is Pranayama. It is one of the eight limbs of yoga, and involves several different breathing techniques. People have been doing these techniques for thousands of years and are believed to be extremely beneficial in terms of health and longevity. My thinking may be basic, but if something has stuck around for that long... it is probably for a reason. There is likely something going on here.
I was first introduced to breathing as a fitness concept by stumbling upon Wim Hof (blog about the Hof will be coming). I was later introduced to Pranayama at my Yoga Teacher Training course in India. We started each morning with these techniques and in the course of thirty days I moved from a skeptic to a believer. Unexpectedly these techniques have become as much a part of my fitness life as lifting, eating well, or anything else. This is honestly a bit surprising to me. I know the benefits of mobility and stretching, but that feels like a chore, and I don't do it as much as I should. With breathing on the other hand, I couldn't really tell you what exactly it does to my body/mind, and the science is still in its infancy, but based on how the practise feels, and how it makes me feel in general, I look forward to my breathing practise and have stayed consistent.
As I said, it is hard to say what the difference I feel is, but I have no doubt that something major is going on here. It is my guess that in the next five years or so that breathing techniques are going to be at the forefront of health, well-being, and possibly part of training for elite athletes.
In this blog I will introduce two breathing techniques: Anulom Vilom, and Kapalbhati. I have also provided a small breathing program that I recommend for breathing beginners. I shot an off the cuff video demonstrating the methods, so if you would rather watch that you can take a look below. I am by no means an expert, authority, or master in Pranayama, but I think it is worth sharing my experience so that you can decide if you are interested and find your gurus and experts later. I know this will likely not resonate with most people, but try to have an open mind, as you might be surprised by how you feel.
By now many of you have likely heard of Wim Hof who is also known as “The Ice-man”. He is an extraordinary individual who is changing the way we think about our bodies and what they are capable of. He has popularized the Wim Hof Method, and holds numerous world records. One of his feats involved climbing all the way up to 24,000 feet on Mount Everest in a pair of shorts. This is a height at which people wearing thousand dollar snowsuits can die. He is truly amazing and he attributes all of this to his breathing techniques and cold-water exposure.
I believe his breathing method is bar none the best, but I also think it is important to know some of the older breathing methods because they go back a long way. These other methods are highly beneficial as well and might suit you better, as the Wim Hof Method might feel like a bit much for someone who is new to thinking about stuff like this.
The recent and ongoing research (mostly occurring thanks to Wim Hof) is showing that we can oxygenate our cells 100% more than previously thought possible. When we do this, we influence the tissues in our body and our lymphatic cells. We can make them more alkaline (less acidic). This oxygenation of our body leads to better connections in the brain, reduced inflammation, fights off disease, and can increase blood-flow.
The physical benefits are worth noting, but the psychological benefits are equally amazing. Through breathing we can influence the chemistry deep in our brains, and influence the amygdala, hypo-thalamus, and hippocampus. These are areas of the brain which are all heavily involved in mental health and mental functioning. As someone who has struggled with depression since my early twenties I have to say that since I have made breathing a part of my life, and consistently so in the past two month or so, this is the best I have felt mentally. The clouds are beginning to part, and the light is shining through. Furthermore, my ability to focus has improved so much that it feels foreign.
I decided that this winter while travelling, that I would commit to breathing five day per week and really put this thing to the test. I had really only flirted with it in the 8 months or so since my yoga course. I have done well, and in the first seven weeks of travel I've consistently hit four times per week minimum. I started the first two weeks of committed practise using two methods: Kapalbhati, and Anulom Vilom, which I will cover in this video and describe below. I honestly started feeling a difference after only five consecutive days of practise, and this was only dedicating 10 or so minutes each morning. I believe that Anulom Vilom and Kapalbhati are two great techniques to start with if you want to dip your feet in to breathing. If you start with these for a couple weeks, then I'd recommend moving onto Nadi Shodan, and then The Wim Hof Method which I will cover in later videos.
Anulom Vilom is the foundation of breathing techniques. It is also referred to as "alternate nostril breathing" in North America sometimes. It is simple, ancient, and works. Like the other breathing techniques it improves circulation in the body, and helps reduce blood pressure. It also oxygenates your body, which we know is good. However, the main benefit here in my opinion is that it serves as meditation, increases mindfulness, and improves mental health. Who would of thought that breathing through your nose would be so beneficial?
The point here is to calm yourself. Slow down your breathe, become in tune with the rhythms of your body, and settle down. I am a high stress person, and I have used this technique as a safety-net in past months and it seems to work. When the heart-rate seems to be high for no apparent reason, or the mind is too busy, a few rounds of this will really calm me down.
But, my preaching won’t help or convince you, you need to try it.
To Perform Anulom Vilom- Breathe into your Left Nostril, then exhale through your Right Nostril. Inhale through you Right Nostril, then exhale through your left nostril. This would be considered one round. If it takes you four seconds to inhale, it should take you eight seconds to exhale. Always double the exhale. Try not to inhale or exhale with exertion or extra effort. Let things happen naturally. *Check video above for demo.
This is an energizing and cleansing breathing technique. The reported benefits are an increase of red blood cells and hemoglobin, as well as increasing lung capacity. However, the main benefit here is that you are oxygenating the blood and your body by performing a lot of breathes in a short period of time. Also, it is a great way to strengthen your abdomen and diaphragm. Even if you have a six-pack, this will hit some muscles you didn’t know you had when you first begin practising this method.
To perform Kapalbhati- Exhale firmly through your nose, expelling all of your breathe, and letting the inhale happen naturally. This is fairly fast paced, but should be consistent and sustainable. Try to breathe into your diaphragm, and use your diaphragm to push the air out. *Check the video above for a demo. You can start with three rounds of 20-30 strokes, but you can build all the way up to to three rounds of 200 strokes.
Beginner Breathing Program
Here is what I would recommend as a beginner breathing program to be performed Monday to Friday, and leave the weekends optional:
A- 3 Rounds of 20-50 Strokes Kapalbhati. *If you can handle 50, go for it, as this can go up to 200. But it should be sustainable for you across all three rounds, so pick a number which isn't going to wear you out right off the bat.
B- 5 to 10 Rounds of Anulom Vilom. *If you lose count, that’s ok. Take a guess at how many rounds you did, and go from there. However, I find that really focusing on the counting/rounds makes this a more meditative practise if you find your mind easily wanders.
Now if you watched the video, you might have got a good laugh at how the techniques look kind of goofy (or my hairline). But, I'm hoping you can have an open-mind with this breathing stuff and give it a shot. Staying inside your comfort zone has led you to where you are now, and if you are reading my blog it is likely you are at least somewhat interested in improving your health and fitness. I think breathing is hands down one of the easiest ways out there to improve your health. You can sit, you don't have to fight hunger pains, eat broccoli, or exert yourself. And, it honestly feels great.
I hope you give this a shot. Please feel free to e-mail me with any questions you may have.