I have been writing articles for PinkBike for almost 4 years. Every month or so, I deconstruct a different topic to demonstrate how yoga can help to improve your riding—whether that is by reducing lower back pain, speeding up recovery, increasing body control, or fine-tuning your mental skills.
This is the approach that I took with my first MTB Enduro client back in 2014, when we took him from last place in his age group to first place in the elite category over a period of 3 months, narrowly missing out on the national title the following year. We broke down every aspect of his training and race prep and optimised each variable in turn—looking for incremental gains that we could layer on top of each other. When taken independently, these improvements might not have had a significant impact on his results but in combination, they literally made the difference between last and first place. Races are won by fractions of a second and championships by a single point—and that success is the result of hundreds of seemingly minor tweaks and refinements, repeated consistently over time.
This month, I am going to show you how to fine-tune your breathing on the yoga mat, so that you can manage your energy more effectively on the bike.Out of breath
Breathing is part of the autonomic, or involuntary, nervous system. This means that it functions outside of conscious control. However, you can also actively
alter the speed and depth of your breath by contracting and relaxing certain muscles—the diaphragm and intercostals (muscles in between the ribs), and the accessory breathing muscles in the chest, back, abs and obliques.
In high-pressure situations, our reflex response is to take short, shallow breaths from the chest, which limits the amount of oxygen that can get to the muscles and amps up the central nervous system. In yoga, we practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing in a controlled environment, so that when you’re out there on the trail and you have more pressing things on your mind, a more effective breathing style is available to you. Deconstructing the process
When it comes to breathing, yoga classes are typically divided into 3 parts. We begin with a short, centering breathing exercise to relax the body and calm the mind, breathe rhythmically, in and out through the nose throughout the sequence, and end with a mini meditation, using the breath as the focal point.
Here are some pointers to help you refine your technique in each section.1. Centering breath
The short breathing exercise at the start of the session is designed to prepare you, mentally and physically. At this stage, all you need to think about is your posture and your breathing, so you have the opportunity to pay attention to your breath in a way that becomes more difficult when you are on the move.
- Keep your back straight.
A straight spine, supported by strong core muscles, allows for healthy expansion and contraction of the rib cage. If you're slumped over and your chest is collapsed, you restrict the flow of air coming in and out of your lungs, so it’s crucial that you keep your back straight and your chest open in the first posture.
- Deepen your breath.
Take slow, deep and smooth breaths, making use of your full lung capacity. Relax your jaw, neck and shoulders, letting go of any unnecessary tension. Focusing on your breath will help to stabilise your mind.
- Expand through 360°.
Breathe deep into your abdomen, allowing your belly to inflate like a balloon. At the same time, breathe into your lower back and the sides of your waist. Allow your rib cage to expand in all directions—front, back and sides. Maintain this 360° awareness on each exhalation.
Try to remember these three cues if you find yourself short of breath when you’re out on the bike.2. Synchronising breath and movement
The most challenging aspect of breathing in yoga is maintaining deep, diaphragmatic breathing throughout the sequence and synchronising that breath with movement. This is tough because the mind’s natural tendency is to drift off and focus on more novel or salient parts of your experience. Even if you start off the session strong—focusing on each and every inhalation and exhalation, at some point, you’ll get distracted by thoughts or the difficulty of the pose and lose your rhythm. This is completely normal. This is a form of meditation, which is way harder than it looks.
As a beginner, all you have to do is to try your best to follow the teacher’s cues. Each time you notice that you have lost track of your diaphragmatic breathing, just reset and get back into the rhythm. As a general rule, we inhale in poses that open up or expand the front of the body and exhale in poses that close or contract the front of the body. (This pattern of breathing is most obvious in sun salutations.) When you come into a static pose, try to maintain a similar rhythm. 3. Focusing on the breath
In Final Resting Pose at the end of the session, you can completely let go of control over your breath. Instead of actively affecting the speed or depth of your breath, notice how your body breathes itself. Try to focus on the way that your body responds
to your breath. Notice the gentle rising and falling of your belly and your chest. The effortless expansion and contraction. Try to stay connected to your breath for the last few minutes of the class. Take each breath one by one, trying to maintain your attention all the way from the bottom of the inhalation, all the way through to the bottom of the exhalation. Each time you notice you have been distracted, just bring your attention back.
I personally find meditating at the end of a yoga session much easier than seated meditation. Your body is relaxed, there is more space between your thoughts and your powers of interoception (the awareness of what is going on inside your body) are tuned in. If you want to get into meditation, this is a great place to start.
Breathing is one of those things in yoga where you wake up in a couple of months and discover that you’ve made a lot more progress than you realised. It just takes time and patience.
As always, there is a free video on my site
for you to practice your yoga skills. You can also check out my new 15-minute MTB Cool-Down
which is free to access until the end of the month. I’d love to hear how you find it.