Play hard, breathe deeply: can an ancient method of breath control help you function better, faster and longer – and stay healthier, too?

Five years ago Joanne Arnold Madden, a second-place finisher in the 1989 Ms. America bodybuilding contest, had literally exercised herself to exhaustion. She spent long hours in the gym, popped painkillers and muscle relaxants as if they were candy, and found the “zone”–the exercise high that kicks in when mind and body are completely integrated and performance flows almost effortlessly–ever more elusive.

“I threw in the towel,” admits the 38-year-old resident of Maine, a former Ms. Maine and Ms. Natural New England and the mother of three. “For years I’d gotten titles, but I’d been beating the hell out of my body. I couldn’t continue, knowing that I was fundamentally destroying what I’d tried to build. I wanted to train, but I didn’t want to have to pay the price of fatigue, injury and exhaustion.”

Although she doesn’t compete anymore, Madden is still very active, counting tennis, cycling, swimming and weight training among her physical pursuits. But she no longer stresses her body to do them. Her resting heart rate has dropped from 75 to 42, and her working heart rate never exceeds 120 beats per minute (a figure she used to exceed by merely walking). Yet she’s as strong and well defined as ever. She rarely tires or pulls a muscle, and what’s more, says this athlete who knows what it is to exercise hard, her workouts are “blissful.”

What caused such a transformation? The answer is something so basic that it seems almost absurd: Madden finally learned how to breathe.

Breathing is a skill everyone knows, right? That’s what most people think, and that’s why it’s been an often-ignored aspect of training. But take a deep breath. Did you open your mouth? Was your chest the only thing that moved? Then you could probably use a lesson, too, says John Douillard, a licensed chiropractor and former professional triathlete who runs the holistic mind-body-health-and-fitness center, John Douillard’s LifeSpa in Boulder, Colorado. Don’t feel bad; you’re in illustrious company. Tennis pro-Martina Navratilova, former world-class cyclist Davis Phinney, even the Philadelphia Eagles football players, have trained themselves to breathe more deeply in order to improve their performance.

Yogic breathing–deep diaphragmatic breathing in which you inhale and exhale through the nose–is quietly blowing into mainstream athletics. Long recognized as the energy force behind meditation and some of the martial arts, it’s now being touted for its usefulness in more vigorous activities like running, aerobics, weight lifting and cycling. Proponents such as Douillard say it can result in greater endurance, more focus and fewer injuries. He himself has given breath training to athletes like Navratilova, Madden, world-champion triathlete Colleen Cannon, professional mountain biker John Weissenrieder and the N.Y. Mets’ Brent Mayne.

It seems an unlikely marriage at first glance, this union between New Age yogis and hard-core athletes, but it serves as yet another example of the incursions mind-body awareness has made into the health arena during the past few years. “There’s been this Cain-and-Abel relationship between conventional fitness people and the so-called mind-body practitioners, but a merging of the two is occurring,” says Annie Benton, a mind-body fitness consultant in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who trains fitness instructors in yoga techniques. “Slowly but surely, people are recognizing the benefits of incorporating different modalities into their training.”

One reason breathing through the nose may be beneficial during exercise, according to yoga experts, is that oxygen is pulled more deeply into the lungs this way. It’s thought that since the lower lobes of the lungs contain more blood and offer greater potential for oxygen exchange (and since oxygen, as we all know, is the main source of fuel for muscles during exercise), athletes who use nostril breathing won’t need to work as hard to perform at the same level, will take longer to produce blood lactate, and won’t tire or hurt their muscles as readily.

Since the 1980s Douillard has been collecting “thousands” of studies and testimonials like Madden’s–accounts of cases in which people have reduced their maximum breath rates from an average of 50 to 80 per minute to an average of 12 to 18, and who have lowered their heart rates by some 10 to 20 beats per minute. One 38-year-old client, for example, ran a marathon during which he logged six-minute miles and maintained a heart rate of just 125 beats per minute under conditions that would bring most runners’ heart rates closer to 180. Professional mountain biker John Weissenrieder says he upped his power output by 10 percent, decreased his heart rate by six beats per minute and took only 18 breaths a minute at most.

Catch the Wave

Another benefit of nostril breathing, say those who do it, is an extraordinary sense of well-being and relaxation, the sensation of being in the zone, every time they exercise. That, explains Douillard, is because yogic breathing triggers neurological impulses in the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, and these create a “calming, rejuvenative” response. He measured the impulses, which show up as alpha waves, in a study of 10 high-school runners who had completed approximately 12 weeks of his training program. “Everybody produced significantly more alpha in the brain,” he says. “It was a powerful study. We looked back 50 years in the research to find other studies that produced alpha in the brain during exercise with the eyes open, and there were none.”

In contrast, shallow chest breathing during exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight mechanism, which causes the body to react as if it is in a state of emergency and produces a buildup of stress chemicals like adrenaline and lactic acid. “That’s why 80 percent of the people in America don’t like exercise,” says Douillard. “Their bodies are responding to what they perceive to be an emergency, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling.”

“I’m in the zone every time I exercise; I don’t feel as though I’m doing anything, and yet I keep having more and more energy,” says Peter Rennert, a tennis instructor and former world top-10 doubles player who began using the nostril-breathing technique with Douillard’s help two years ago. “And I know I’m going to reach that state–there’s no mystery about it. In my career I felt I was in the zone maybe five times, and when I did, I wouldn’t shave, change my hat, use a different racquet–I chalked it all up to superstition.” Now sold on the yogic breathing, he teaches it in his tennis lessons at Miraval, a resort and spa in Tucson, Arizona.

Nostril breathing has its devotees, but there are also skeptics. So far the benefits of the technique haven’t been documented in controlled studies accepted by the traditional scientific community, and exercise physiologists question whether it can supply enough oxygen during very intense bouts of activity. One recent Australian study published in the professional journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, for example, showed that individuals could work closer to their maximum degree of effort and could take in more air if they breathed through the mouth rather than the nose. “Because of the sheer resistance of the nasal passages, it would be difficult to get enough volume of air into the lungs to sustain high-intensity exercise,” explains Melinda Sheffield-Moore, M.A., an exercise physiologist and doctoral fellow at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University. The rule of thumb in conventional sports medicine these days centers on encouraging athletes to use whatever method works best for them, typically a combination of mouth and nose breathing.

Exercise physiologist and psychobiologist Ralph LaForge, M.S., who chairs the IDEA Mind-Body Fitness Committee, an international consortium of professionals specializing in mind-body fitness, is among the unconvinced. Although, he says, “deeper, more controlled breathing, including nostril breathing, would relax you during moderate exercise and possibly could increase your capacity for distance or endurance,” he questions whether it’s possible to take enough air in through the nose to sustain an effort beyond 60 to 80 percent of maximum lactate (anaerobic) threshold. Even so, he recently began experimenting with nostril breathing during his own long-distance runs. Because nostril breathing warms and moistens air before it enters the lungs, he noticed an improvement in his exercise induced asthma.

“It’s just a matter of conditioning,” argues Douillard, whose training program is based on Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of medicine that focuses on bringing the body into balance with nature. Nostril breathing can be maintained even at competitive levels, he says, but only after the body has learned to adapt to the new way of breathing–it requires a scale back in training time and intensity at first. “It takes anywhere from a week to three months before an athlete really starts to open those lower lobes of the lungs and reeducate his or her body to breathe more efficiently.” Swimming, he adds, is the only activity that requires inhalation through the mouth.

Closed Mouths or Closed Minds?

Douillard and his clients aren’t the only ones who are seeing positive effects from nostril breathing during exercise. Other athletes and yoga experts have come to similar conclusions about potential performance enhancement. The Philadelphia Eagles’ peak-performance specialist, Baron Baptiste, teaches many of his players power yoga, which involves the breathing and many of the postures of traditional yoga but couples them with more vigorous movements. He uses this as a cross-training activity that helps his charges condition their bodies to process oxygen more efficiently, and also as a pregame warm-up and midgame recovery technique that relaxes and loosens their muscles. Breath control, says Baptiste, a yoga trainer who has worked with such athletes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Herschel Walker and who runs the Power Yoga Institute near Philadelphia, is crucial to improved athletic performance. “For athletes oxygen is the most important fuel, and having control over their breathing allows them to economize their energy so they won’t get fatigued or winded as easily.”

But whether deep breathing is too difficult to sustain at the highest intensities or whether old habits merely die hard remains to be seen. Cyclist Davis Phinney says he can use it only at a moderate pace, and Baptiste reports that his players may revert to the old way of breathing during intense effort. “You have athletes who have been performing a certain way their whole lives, and when they’re under incredible amounts of physical pressure, their bodies are going to demand that they use their mouths to breath so they can take in enough air.” But once the pressure drops a little, he adds, deep breathing can help them recover quickly.

It’s also true that an inward focus on the breath goes against the traditional grain of exercise and athletic training. Yogic breathing forces you to listen to your body instead of gauging its condition with external tools like heart monitors and clocks and that often means slowing down at first. Ironically, those who have mastered it say they can reach and even surpass the level of performance they taxed their bodies to achieve before.

“If I wasn’t hurting at the end of a race, I didn’t think I’d done it right,” says 42-year-old ski instructor Robyn Richards of Lake Oswego, Oregon, recalling her days as a college sprinter. “I’d be barely able to catch my breath or walk. But it’s a totally different feeling now. I’m still running at the seven-minute-mile pace the way I did before, but I’m never winded; I keep my heart rate down at about 120, compared with 180 to 240; and I feel refreshed when I’m done.”

Richards, who first trained with Douillard about three years ago, uses nostril breathing not only for running (she clocks about seven miles a day and competes in 10Ks and 15Ks) but also for cycling, skiing and rock climbing. “Even the thinner oxygen at higher altitudes comes into your body better when you’re inhaling and exhaling through your nose. The elevation in McCall, Idaho, is over a mile, for example, but when I’m running there I have happy lungs.”

Joanne Madden believes that by reducing the wear and tear on her body, the yogic breathing she’s learned will help her maintain an active lifestyle for a long time to come. “The injuries I used to get were from overzealous behavior–pulling too much at the wrong time, pushing too much at the wrong time,” she explains. “The body had no input, basically. This technique really allows me to pay attention to the whole body that I’m supposed to be building.”

Yogis have long claimed that the breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. If this is true, conscious breathing during exercise may well be the key to unlocking physical potential. “We live in a culture where we sever the connection between the body and the mind,” observes Madden. “We never value or trust the body’s input. It’s enchanting to me to think that the field of consciousness, not a new pair of running shoes or a drug or a new technology, could actually be the competitive edge.”

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