Is Mindful Breathing Important?

February 11, 2017

Just how important is your breath? And do you really need to focus on it?

As a yoga practitioner and registered massage therapist with an interest in helping people excel in sports and athletic activities, I’ve always been struck by how important breath and mindfulness is. And not just for the obvious function of bringing oxygen to tissues of the body, but also the link to neurological responses in the body.

When we’re competing or performing a physically strenuous activity we are essentially increasing stress on our body, and therefore, our nervous system. When we compete we place ourselves in a situation where our performance has consequences. If we do well we win, if we do poorly we lose. While this isn’t life threatening, it is an imagined failure or fear-based stress. This throws us into a state of sympathetic nervous system response commonly referred to as fight, flight or freeze. Just like if we had a sabre-toothed tiger chasing us. Which, by the way, is life threatening.

In yoga and meditation we condition our minds to stay calm and aware while placing physical stress on the body, and I’ve been fascinated with the correlation between how practised an athlete is with mindfulness, breath, and their ability to perform under pressure. It seems to be proven over and over that the more calm and focused, the more effective the breath and the better the performance.

There are many stimuli for stress, fear being one of them. Northwestern Medicine scientists have recently discovered that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgements and memory recall. You can read more about the study here. When we practice mindfulness and effective breathing we have the potential to improve our emotional judgement and response time.

This might not sound like it has much to do with athletic performance, but if you consider that fear is a stress stimulus, just like a self imposed goal in competition, then it’s possible to see there may be merit to applying this to the mind/body conditioning aspect of athletic training. And consider this: If improving our response time and judgement was an evolutionary survival tactic back when we had sabre-toothed tigers chasing us, it stands to reason that encouraging optimal function of this evolutionary survival tactic can also help our athletic performance. And, hey, also help us in those uncomfortable confrontational situations we find ourselves in from time to time.

I’ve found meditation helpful for this, but it’s not going to help your performance to just sit for 10 minutes a day, you have to find a way to bring that mindful focus with effective breathing into your training and into your life. Yoga has been my method for this: working on challenging my mind and breath to be calm and focused is a skill learned in my yoga asana practice that I’ve been able to apply to many other situations, whether challenging myself while mountain biking or dealing with a confrontational situation with roommates.

Yoga is not the only way, there are other movement based practices that can help you with this, and just working with a really great trainer who understands the importance of breath and mindfulness will help you. But if you’re not sure where to start, a yoga class with a teacher who encourages effective breathing and mindfulness as you challenge yourself is a great place to start! There are so many yoga studios in Squamish, and I’m sure there are great teachers at all of them, but I know for sure you can find mindfulness focused guidance at Moksha Yoga Squamish.

If you have experience with how focused breath and mindfulness have changed your athletics or your life, I would love to hear about it! I truly believe this is the greatest gift I’ve received from my yoga practice and I love seeing how it shows up in my day to day life. Please tell me your stories and let me know if I can share your insights with my clients!

In health,