Breathe Right For More Energy - Yoga With Abi

Oct 23, 2018
by Abi Carver  
Folded Butterfly

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.


42 Comments

  • + 5
 Interesting mention of posture. I know of an old school Euro roadie coach who told his riders to pop their chest "like a rooster" to allow their lungs to inflate fully. I notice the more tired I get the worse my posture gets - a vicious circle.
  • + 1
 I've been told there's 2 methods of breathing, one where you allow your belly to expand and one in which your chest expands. Try it on your next ride, both methods increase the amount of space for your diaphragm. I can't remember which is better or why but ever since I was told that I notice roadies always have 'bellys' when they ride.
  • + 1
 @Tmackstab: I have heard it has to do with using more of your lungs when you breath with your stomach, resulting in more oxygen intake. As well, you get better oxygen exchange in the lower half of your lungs.

I saw a really neat article on performance increase with lung training, but I cant find it
  • + 1
 @Tmackstab: The belly method is very popular amongst singers, soprano's and lyrical performers as it mechanically sucks air to your lungs by pulling the diaphragm down so you get lots of air quickly without the noisy hhhhhhhhssh of a deep breath in. I've been using it recently while road biking because of the narrow handlebar or when pedaling hard on the drops. It also helps when you have a backpack that you have to tight a bit more to prevent unwanted movements when racing enduro. I'm interested to learn more about the chest method though!
  • + 2
 @freebikeur: Not only singers, any one who plays wind instruments is thaught that. You need to first breathe into the stomach with the diaphragm and than through the ribs and chest into the collarbones/shoulders. It's more natural than the other way around and easier.
  • + 3
 It takes a lot of practice to breathe with your diaphragm properly but it is the only way to get a full breath that can fully inflate the lungs. The more you try to muscle it the more it wont work, relax... Thank you for the reminder Abi, love your articles!
  • + 1
 Thanks @hoodlum785. You're right. You have to relax into it not muscle through it.
  • + 3
 Good stuff. I tip my helmet. As a single speeder I'm off the seat with a straight back a lot- especially on those steep climbs. Controlled breathing + cranking the pedals ftw!
  • + 2
 I think I usually do breathe slow and deep and that works well in most cases. In fact it is when I'm in a situation/position when I can't breathe properly when I get kind of panicy, restless and impatient. In particular cases when I need to be crouched/ducked typically when doing electrics or plumbing jobs at home. I just want to stretch out and take a deep breath and even though I'm far from choking, I still get kind of mad. Now this typically isn't a situation I find myself in when riding bikes (luckily) though it may contribute to why I don't like seated pedaling that much.

Now this does make me curious, how does this article relate to the pose shown at the top? Is there a technique to keep breathing properly in that position or is it part of a move where you end up in that position after you exhale?

Thanks a lot, Abi!
  • + 1
 There are definitely poses in yoga where it is harder to breathe from the diaphragm. Forward bends, twists and even some backbends. Your job is to slow down and try to keep your breaths slow and rhythmic.
  • + 2
 I've always been conscious of taking big, deep breath BEFORE i hit the climb, and then concentrating on maintaining those same breaths during the climb. Has mad a massive difference and allows me to get to the top without feeling like i'm out of breath and needing to catch up.
  • + 2
 @abicarver I really enjoy your instruction, and it's so great to know you work with top-level athletes. Maybe you could do a video where you train with an elite cyclist, like maybe Tahnée Seagrave. You guys could walk through some poses together to demonstrate various techniques valuable for cyclists.
  • + 1
 Thank you @High-Life. That's a great idea. I know that Tahnée and her mum do the vids so I could ask her if she'd like to work on something like that.
  • + 3
 One appears to do everything better when not crunched down, tight and fighting for life. Hard work with controlled breathing must always be better than fighting for oxygen, cramping and tense muscles.
  • + 4
 I click this article thinkjng it would be about the Canadian weed scene....
  • + 2
 In the Taoist tradition, the emphasis is placed upon learning the least amount of energy to expend on the act of breathing for the work that is to be done. Less is more.
  • + 3
 Suddenly I find myself considering a new Scott.
  • + 2
 Tubes pressure, check. Fork, shock, seatpost air pressure, Check. Oh wait do I need to breath?
  • + 1
 Last time I tried that stretch I gave myself a black eye
  • + 2
 Breath taking article!
  • + 1
 A breath of fresh air!
  • + 2
 Good stuff!! Thx!!
  • + 1
 No problem @JimmyC1212.
  • + 1
 ...
  • - 2
 Everytime my bike sees Abi ..........
www.pinkbike.com/video/494830
  • - 1
 Yup!
  • + 0
 #smokemorecigs
  • + 1
 Please please don't.
  • - 3
 "Breath right". Cos nobody likes the halitosis/yoga pants combo.
  • + 0
 I love yoga pants. They add at least 20lbs to my skwaaaats and make my thighs look delicious.
  • + 5
 @WAKIdesigns: Randy, is that you?
  • - 1
 Damn PB, if I could get free proofreading like you do, l'd be a happy man.
  • - 3
 @WAKIdesigns: I'm just glad you didn't mention moose nuckles.
  • + 0
 @Deuce-DeuceAndAHalf: I am not sure but I think I found a picture of Randy. This one fits descriptions best so far. I mean that is totally Randy.

www.instagram.com/p/BpHu3TllA4a/?taken-by=dangerholm
www.instagram.com/p/BoEi5-_Ftq-/?taken-by=dangerholm
www.instagram.com/p/BmBO3BEhMoN/?taken-by=dangerholm
  • - 1
 @WAKIdesigns: randy rides for scott confirmed
  • + 1
 What a repugnant little corner of PB we've created. All because of shitty sub-editing. Well done everyone.
  • + 1
 @BenPea: they hate us because by descending to the deepest layers of human psyche, to the foundations of our kind we embraced the void. We dived in and we came back. Reborn, not fearing death anymore. Therefore now they see It in our tranquile eyes, hear it in our careless yet joyful words. The void stares at them through us.
  • + 1
 @WAKIdesigns: Hate comes from a lack of understanding. There's a f*ck of a lot of it about. But the void rocks.
  • - 2
 @BenPea: according to latest IPCC report we will all die soon. Green lefties have numb arms and fingers from masturbating, watching pictures of burning forests, dying coral reefs, starving children and coastal cities destroyed by hurricanes. Yeees yeeeees just like our professor predicted oooorgh oooooooorgh yyy yyyyyy! Aaaaah... press pause Rhonda... can't come to this anymore. Let's watch farm animals electrified and cut to pieces again. Yeah the bit about the calves taken from their cow mothers. I live that bit. It shows the truth! Oooh oooooooh I am so vegan oooooooooooh, I am coming nooooow, oh the calves head being cut ooooh the eyes popping out, I AM SO MORAL!!! I AM SUPERIOR!!! pfllllt... oooh that was great...
  • + 0
 @WAKIdesigns: I'm hoping an asteroid will land on all our heads and put us out of other people's misery. But if it doesn't, there ain't no turning back. Those who do not live up a mountain with solid hunter-gatherer skills are f*cked.
  • + 0
 @BenPea: #learntoriderigid
  • - 3
 Hey Abs. Beer from Sayu Smile

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