Breathe Into Your Workout…

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Breathe Into Your Workout…

Naturally, breathing is an important part of working out!  And, I say “working out,” in my best Austrian accent, which is still funny for those that appreciate old Saturday Night Live episodes.  When most of us think of breath, we think of yoga, not the gym and working out.  One might believe, “Incense & Barbells” don’t mix, that mindfulness and sweating your cuss off are opposing life experiences.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of action, is always beneficial to us, and can turn our life of routine into a fascinating exploration of mind, body and spirit, whether we’re in the gym, out on the bike path, or anywhere we choose to exercise.  Our breath as an object of focus is a sacred resource that can lead us toward a better understanding of ourselves and our fitness needs.  If having a better idea of where you can safely take your body while working out isn’t enough, perhaps becoming aware that focusing on your breath and other mindfulness based techniques have also been proven to increase your life span.

When it comes to conventional workouts, like running, lifting weights, spinning and even exercise classes, most of us have been taught to push our body past its edge until we’re huffing and puffing, panting like dogs, as if collapsing at the end our workout is to be applauded.  Ironically, this approach often takes us past the point of diminishing returns, physically and mentally.  If you’re in the workforce, or have other responsibilities in your life as most do, it is highly likely that the challenges of your day, week, and month are already stressing you out enough.  Published medical studies suggest that in addition to our body suffering short and long term negative effects from stress, our attitudes suffer, too.  If you haven’t discovered the benefits of yoga or other mind and body activities, such as Tai Chi, or balancing on a Slack Line, when you think about exercising you’re probably running to the gym or hitting the pavement to get your cardio on.   Our personal trainer within starts their chant, and the voice in our head encourages us to workout harder, to push to our extreme, to burn more calories, to tear our muscles down more, to go, go, and go.  But, honestly, aren’t we just adding another generous helping of stress to our already overflowing plates of stress pie?

The traditions of yoga and meditation, embraced more each day by westerners, teach that, “balance” is an important key for happiness and well-being.  Cultivating balance in the gym, on the treadmill, or when we desire to sweat could be one of the most intelligent approaches to working out we can take if we desire the benefits of what ancient traditions have suggested, and medical science is proving.  A cursory understanding of how our body responds to stress, the role our breath plays in guiding our intensity level during our workouts could be all we need to support good health and well-being.  If you’re like me and sometimes need some cardio and strength training with weights, but still want the benefits of what yoga and other more subtle practices provide mentally, then breathing into your workout is for you.

Remember to always allow a state of peacefulness to be your starting point.  Do this by taking three long breaths, then simply notice how you feel.  When we are truly at peace the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system or ANS for short, is activated.  Oxygen rich blood flows to our organs, including the brain, which enables better thinking processes, optimal immune system support, and as a bonus our mood is pleasant, simply because we feel safe.  In this resting state, we are breathing through our nose without effort and the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood are normal and healthy.  It’s good to be us, relaxed and at ease, yet still moving toward our goals.

As you begin your workout, whether walking on a treadmill or path at the park, or curling barbells, or trying to keep up with your favorite teacher in cardio/sculpt/super fit bod class, breathe through your nose.  Try to monitor your output of energy so closely that the moment you feel as though you need to breathe through your mouth, instead of your nose, cut your intensity or energy output back so that you can maintain nose breathing.  In this way, you don’t need a fancy heart monitor, because you’ve used the practical application of mindfulness of breath to maintain your target heart rate.  It’s at that moment in your workout when you feel like you need to exhale through your mouth that your body is going into red alert, the stress response triggered, suddenly falling victim to your environment.  When the sympathetic branch of your ANS becomes activated and you push instead of backing off, you’ll burn less calories over time, because your body is going into survival mode.  Many of us are in survival mode all day long.  It is counter intuitive to believe that remaining in survival mode during our workouts is good for us.

Research shows that if you can be mindful of your breath as the indicator of how you are responding to your workout and maintain nose breathing, thus remaining relatively peaceful inside or in the “zone,” the parasympathetic branch of your ANS still activated, your body will like you a lot more and is more apt to burn calories, because it knows it’s going to get more ‘feel good’ resources from you later; no emergencies, nothing to worry about.  Incidentally, your brain likes this mindful approach as well, because the carotid artery – the brain’s lifeline for nourishment – remains open, oxygen rich blood in full supply.

Ah, sounds rather easy doesn’t it; follow your breath to a happy, healthy you.  Ironically, it’s often the simple things in life we somehow miss.  Years later we might look back and ponder,

“How did I not see that paying attention to something so vital in my life, like my breath, was so important?”

We must admit, they’ve been trying tell us with those little articles in yoga magazines, medical journals, and even the cover of Time and Newsweek, that meditation and yoga, i.e. mindfulness practices can help us counter the effects of stress, quite a while now.

But, not all of us want to become yogis, wear beads, sit cross-legged and chant.  Well, we don’t have to.   All we have to do is start a friendship with our breath.  When we came out of our mother’s belly we reached for our first breath and our breath has stayed with us ever since, loyal day and night.  Along with keeping an eye on your breath during your workouts, here’s a couple easy ways to practice being mindful to create more balance in your life day to day, which will give you support when you are working out.

The next time you have a task, such as addressing an envelope and applying the stamp, or driving to the market, or walking the dog, or even using the ATM, follow these simple steps.

  1. Take 3 long breaths to set the tone and intention for mindfulness, creating your “starting point” of peace.
  2. Settle your awareness on the flow of breath into your body and the flow of breath out of your body.
  3. Hear the sound of your breath.  Feel it move in and out.
  4. Say to yourself, “I am breathing in.  I am breathing out.”
  5. Proceed with your task for however many minutes it takes to complete the task, and maintain awareness of your breath in any manner that works.
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