09 Feb Mountain Fitness and Pranayama | Why Practice Both?
I imagine you all know, or at least have an idea about what mountain fitness is, but what is Pranayama? Keep reading to find out my very basic understanding of Pranayama and why you might consider practicing it.
Breathing and Exercise
We breath day and night, while we are awake and while we sleep, it just kind of happens. When we exercise, we become very aware of our breathing. As we hike in the mountains we have moments of heavy breathing, periods of relaxed breathing, and sometimes we need to take a deep confidence focused breath. But how often do we return from a Mountain adventure or a workout and remember how our breathing felt?
With aching muscles and a brain flooded with endorphins, we generally just kick back and smile thinking about our physical achievement. Breathing seems to happen in the moment and then is forgotten about.
As an active Mountain Leader with a passion for health and fitness I decided to explore this link between physical ability and the Breath a little deeper.
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Pranayama Breath of Life Work Shop
After watching a pod cast with Whim Hoff, aka the ice Man, and reading an article written by Vicki Shields the UK’s no 1 breath work teacher, I decided it was time to expand my own understanding about breathing. Both Whim Hoff and Vicki teach about the health benefits of conscious breathing. Vicki’s approach has developed from Yoga philosophy and years of dedicated practice. I really enjoyed reading Vicki’s article about changing the breath to change the mind, so I booked onto a two day ‘Breath of Life’ workshop in Manchester UK.
You can read the ‘Change your Breath, Change Your Mind’ article here
Vicki teaches Pranayama Breathing. Pranayama is the foundation of Yoga practice, or in my kind of language, it shows us where our weaknesses are so that we can begin moving and thinking efficiently, or at least this is what I thought prior to the workshop.
I am 6ft 1”, have an athletic build and all the tightness that comes with a lifestyle of running, hiking, cycling and pushing my body to its limits. We entered the Yoga Studio and Vicki asked us to lay on the yoga mat. I was already wondering why I had turned up because the nerves in my back feel like I am been whipped by hot electric wires when I lay flat, this is from years abusing my body through exercise. Plus, as I walked into the studio I was greeted by these elegant looking folk who seem to float over the ground rather than awkwardly stomp over it with a broken frame, nevertheless, I was made to feel welcome and accepted into the group.
I had a word with my self and laid down on the Yoga mat putting a rolled up blanket under my neck to relieve some of the pain in my back. For the first half of the day Vicky guided us through a series of Pranayama breathing exercises. I understood everything Vicky instructed us to do because it is just breathing, but I started to become aware that I was unable to take a full breath. My abdomen was so tight that when I tried to take a full breath it put more pressure on the neves in my back and the pain got worse. This was the moment the penny dropped for me.
When I refer to a full breath, I mean breathing into as much body space as possible. We were working towards relaxing the whole body to allow the lungs to reach full capacity. By creating more space in the body for the lungs to reach full capacity we achieve a much healthier intake of oxygen. Oxygen improves blood flow and blood flow is key to physical and psychological health.
However, my body was so tight that I couldn’t achieve a full breath, but for the first time in my life I was aware of this.
Vicki continued guiding us through different breathing techniques. The transition from one technique to another was achieved with time laid on the mat and this time was spent checking in with how we felt both physically and mentally. Towards the end of the first day we learned about the science and philosophy behind the Pranayama breathing techniques. It is always reassuring to know that there are current scientific medical studies happening. That evening I was in bed by 21:00 and ready for sleep.
On day 2 we covered some of the same breathing techniques as day one. However, I was beginning to feel different. I was starting to achieve a much fuller breath and could literally feel my pains leaving. I had reached a stage where I could breath in and focus my breath directly into my pain, hold it there and then control my breath out releasing the tension from my body. I had moments of what felt like empty happiness and when Vicki introduced movement I was relaxed enough to listen to what my body needed.
The second half of day two Vicki guided us through some very basic movements incorporating the breath. Again, I came face to face with my weakness. I had gone deep with the breath work and managed to relax my body enough to notice when I lifted my right leg there was a lot of muscle weakness in my hip flexor. I know my right side is weaker than my left but I have never loosened it up enough to feel how weak it really is. Now I know, and even better I know what I need to do to strengthen it.
At the end of the session Vicki asked us to lay down on the mats, just the same as we had done right at the beginning of day one. I laid down pain free and completely relaxed without the blanket under my neck for support. There was very little tension in my body or my thoughts, in fact I was able to slip into a peaceful state within 5 or 6 breaths. I knew I had found something that could change my life dramatically and improve my performance across the board.
The Impact of Stress
After the session I had a 4 hour drive home. I used the long drive to think about work and all the stress that comes with that. I ate as I drove and didn’t get to bed until very late that evening. The following morning I woke up early to practice Pranayama. I was back to square one. I couldn’t achieve a full breath and the pains were starting to come back again. This was frustrating but instead of letting my thoughts dictate I stuck with it and managed 10 full breaths. By the end of my practice I understood even more again.
The stress of a long drive, eating while sat crunched up in a car, the stress of my 9 to 5 job and a very late night all has to go somewhere. Even though I believe I am not stressed and a few hours restless sleep will distress me, the truth is that stress doesn’t just go away. We carry stress in our body, and even though we might be smiling on the out side, internally stress can be twisting us up, making us sick or injured. The night before I had achieved a pain free body and a clear light feeling mind. The next morning I felt heavy and the pain was returning.
The following few days were a mixture of dealing with crisis after crisis at work, long drives up and down the country, I had a 2 day interview and then it was time to go back to work again. Basically, I was making a good job of undoing all the positive changes I felt after the Breath of Life workshop. Nevertheless, there was one massive improvement in my approach to the stress I experienced. Firstly, when I felt the stress building I took time to focus on my breath. I felt I could calm my nerves down through breathing and deal with the stressful moment consciously. Secondly, I could feel where the stress was going in my body. I started to tighten up which caused pain. Then my posture suffers and my body language starts to feel unbalanced, diluting the message I am trying to project. I was learning a massive lesson about how the nervous system reacts to the environments we put our selfs in.
Moving Forward with the Breath
This Breath of Life workshop was never about learning how to move and think more efficiently. What I actually came away with is the ability to check in with my self. I can breath in and feel where the tension sits in my body and then focus my breath and attention there. This practice always brings me back to the now. It pulls all my focus and energy into what matters the most, my vehicle, my body, because without this body I would not have this life. Having the ability to listen to what my body needs also effects my mind set. If my priority is health so that I can be here for my family and embrace life to its fullest then I need my body and mind to function like a finely oiled machine. Practicing Pranayama has made me more aware of what I eat, how my body feels before, during and after exercise. I am much more present with my emotions and the stress I expose my self too, and because of this I am able to make healthy decisions about what to do next. So, I suppose I could say that because of this practice I can move and think more efficiently.
My life is about adventure and sharing the mountains with people. If I can move and think more efficiently then I can provide my clients, and my self with a happy and wholesome experience. Linking Pranayama in with my daily routine is already supporting me to stay more focused on tasks. While out in the mountains I have the responsibility to keep people safe and make the experience a fun adventure. If I feel stressed and worried this dictates how I make decisions and how I approach other people. Mountains, weather, people and stress is not a good cocktail, in fact it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Mountains, people, connection and fun sounds like an opportunity. I feel that by going inward with the breath work, what I project back out is genuine and honest. As I move into this new season of Mountain leading, Pranayama will play a huge part in the energy I share with the people I am guiding.