Breathfulness is the New Mindfulness

Breathfulness is the New Mindfulness

Since we do it about 23,000 times a day, focusing on the breathe every so often throughout the day is not such a difficult task. And since “All chronic pain, suffering, and disease are caused by a lack of oxygen at the cell level” (Dr Authur C Guyton – Textbook of Medical Physiology 1956), then its not difficult to conclude that addressing dysfunction breathing is essential to our health and fitness.

Breathing is an oft-neglected aspect of fitness training programmes but it is essential that we learn to breathe efficiently to get the full benefits of training. In fact we can actually be damaging our health if we are not breathing correctly.

Here are three simple breathing practices you can incorporate into everyday life and also take take forward into your training programme.

1. Take deep, but not necessarily big breaths

It’s quite logical really. Breathe the amount of air required for your metabolic needs. For example if when sitting you took a number big, deep breaths, after a short while you would be breathing too much air for what your body is doing at that moment in time. Just as you can over-eat and drink too much you can also over-breathe. 

You do however want to be breathing deeply to activate the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that divides the thoracic and abdominal cavities. Breath guru Dr Belisa Vranich suggests to visualise breathing in horizontally across the base of the ribs rather than vertically up through the chest.

Practice: Sit towards the front edge of a chair with feet on the floor and a tall spine. Start by deliberately over-breathing to active the diaphragm, taking in a big breath and driving the air deep into the lungs. Visualise breathing horizontally across the base of the ribs. Keep the belly relaxed and notice it expand as you inhale. As you exhale pull the belly in with the intention of actively expelling the air. 

Do this a couple of times then settle into soft, easy, relaxed, rhythmical, breathing. Focus now on the effortless expansion of the belly and lower ribs as you breathe in and allow the exhale to happen as a natural release through elastic recoil. 

In a resting posture breathing out requires no effort from your body unless you have a lung disease. However when you’re physically active, your abdominal muscles contract and push your diaphragm against your lungs even more than usual. This pushes air out of your lungs.

When you have establish a sense of calm, relaxed breathing, you can take this exercise a step further. As you follow your breath notice how little air you actually need for what your body is doing at this moment in time. Now, keeping relaxed, see if can can create a sense of light air hunger by breathing a little less air. 

The Oxygen Advantage Breathing method, devised by Patrick McKeown, addresses the common tendency to over-breathe, often due to mental overload and stress. This exercise is a great way of helping to re-set the brain to bring breathing volume back to a more ‘normal’ level of between four and six litres of air per minute in a resting posture.

Researchers in Sweden found that the majority of patients with chronic stress and resultant exhaustion also have disturbed breathing patterns including the habit of over-breathing. The severity of their poor breathing habits were also related to their depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and quality of life.

2. Shut your mouth

In everyday life, sleep and aerobic physical exercise breathe in and out through your nose. The health benefits of total nasal breathing are immense including:

  • 10-20% more oxygen uptake
  • Warms and humidifies incoming air
  • Removes a significant amount of germs and bacteria
  • Can reduce risk of developing forward head posture
  • Can improve respiratory strength and encourage diaphragmatic breathing
  • Releases nasal nitric oxide produced in the nasal cavity
  • Increased focus and concentration
  • Reduces breathlessness during exercise and improves sports performance

Practice: Walking at an easy pace, keep the lips lightly together and breathe softly in and out through the nose. If you struggle with this, slow the pace or stop and rest for a short while. Then, hardly increasing the breath-rate, keeping your mouth closed, break into a very easy-paced run taking quick, light strides. If you feel you need to open the mouth, slow the pace or go back into and easy walk. 

The same applies for any endurance training at the gym. ie many reps (12-20), comfortable weights, steady rhythm.

In 1995 Morton, King, Papalia wrote in the Australian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. “While breathing through the nose only, all subjects could attain a work intensity great enough to produce an aerobic training effect (based on heart rate and percentage of VO2 max)”

For less-than maximum intensity training, and at all other times, nasal breathing should be employed. However mouth breathing can and should be combined with nasal breathing when training at higher intensity. Competitive athletes may spend 80% of their training with the mouth closed (80/20 rule).

3. Breathe rhythmically

Our body loves on the rhythm. It promotes a sense of ‘being in the zone’, creating focus and energy.  Breathing rhythmically has numerous health benefits since it helps to create coherent heart rate variability. 

If a doctor takes your pulse they will measure your heart beat over a certain period of time and perhaps the result is 70 beats per minute. However there are moment-to-moment variations in our heart beat that are not normally considered when average heart rate is measured. This naturally occurring beat-to-beat variation in heart rate is called heart rate variability (HRV).

“Coherent HRV is experienced as a calm, balanced, yet energised and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making, as well as physical activity and coordination.” https://www.heartmath.com/science/

Emotional stress – such as anger, frustration, and anxiety – creates an irregular and erratic rhythm. Whereas positive emotions create a coherent heart rhythm pattern, helping body’s systems synchronise and work with increased efficiency and harmony.

Emotional stress and mental overload all play a part in activating our body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response. All too often we are spending time with our body preparing for danger and not enough time in ‘rest, recovery and restore’ mode.

Since breathing patterns modulate the heart’s rhythm, it is possible to create a coherent HRV simply by breathing rhythmically. Therefore smooth, rhythmical breath, regardless of what activity you are doing – resting, working, exercising, has many health benefits.

Practice: As with the exercise above start off nasal breathing as you walk and then take it into the easy run. Keep a constant cadence (strides per minutes) of between 170-180bpm. This constant cadence sets a rhythm into which the breath can settle. 

Find you own comfortable breath count. ie the number of steps per inhale and number of breaths per exhale. This will vary depending on pace, effort level, gradient, terrain, current fitness, state of mind. It is important not to force a specific count as this could induce hyperventilation. Remember as discussed above that we should be breathing to match our metabolic needs. 

Mindfulness has garnered lots of attention of the passed few years with more and more studies highlighting the benefits of a mindful practice. Breath is quite literally at the heart of mindfulness and it doesn’t take much for you to spend some time each day paying attention to your breath. It’s time now time to take up the practice of breathfulness. 

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The Power of Posture

The Power of Posture

Good posture is essential but what do we actually mean by good posture? Yip et al, 2008 describe proper posture “… to be the state of musculoskeletal balance that involves a minimal amount of stress and strain on the body”

Good posture therefore depends on an awareness of your body’s relationship to gravity. In an optimal upright standing posture your main centre of mass, an area just below the belly button and in towards the spine (in Tai Chi, lower dantien) should be balanced over your contact with the ground.

Moving upwards, the centre of gravity of your ribcage (middle dantien) and head (upper dantien) is balanced over your lower dantien. Take your time to body sense how this feels.

5 Steps to Powerful Standing Posture

  1. Stand with your feet feet hip-width apart and parallel
  2. Lengthen the spine and neck gently lifting upwards from the crown of the head
  3. Focus on your centre of gravity (lower dantien) and balance this directly over your contact with the ground
  4. Connect the dots now by balancing middle and upper dantien directly above. As a visual guide you can check side on in a mirror and look for ankle hip and shoulder in a vertical line
  5. Take a moment in this standing posture to focus on the breath. Keeping the lips lightly together and jaw relaxed notice the effortless flow of air in and out through the nose. Follow rather than force the breath.

It is important, however, to realise that posture is not to be considered as a single act or position, but a unique moment in time that captures only one possible postural position. Standing posture is a beginning, not the end to encouraging good postural alignment.  

As Katy Bowman highlights in her book Move your DNA “…correct human alignment does not imply that there is one body position that we should be using all the time. In fact, it is often our determination to maintain a ‘good’ fixed posture that is undermining our health”.

I find clients often misunderstand the meaning of a strong core, focusing only on the stomach muscles and over-tensing these to ‘keep the core engaged’ during walking and running. Over-tensing stomach muscles can have a detrimental effect on movement, breath and organs. Muscles deep in the core of the body should be reactive to movement, working accordingly to maintain structural efficiency and ‘the state of musculoskeletal balance that involves a minimal amount of stress and strain on the body’.

Avoid forcing alignment. Your current posture is a result of how you have lived, breathed, moved, played and worked since you were born. Gravitational pull shapes posture as do our emotions, how we think and feel. 

Having an awareness of current posture, how our body feels and looks is the starting point. From there you can work with a Chi Running Coach to practice simple exercise, drills and visualisations to help improve alignment.

A good manual therapist such as osteopath, physio, massage therapist and Rolfer is also invaluable as part of your practice. Unfortunately many of us don’t have the budget to see such a specialist on a regular basis. Or we often only approached one in the event of injury or pain rather than for structural maintenance.

 

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The Chi Running Instructor Training Programme will give you the tools to deliver a simple but effective training method to help your clients improve their running technique.
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The programme includes a comprehensive online training course and a 4-day practical workshop.

Learning to let go

Learning to let go

Heck, writing this blog has just stopped me in my tracks, ‘what does Chi Running mean to me? how has it influenced my life?’ was the topic I wanted to share. And for a second I thought I’d write ‘my 10k time PB is 10 minutes faster, my 5k time is 3 minutes faster, my half marathon time is down by 12 minutes’, but actually it is so much more. I’ve let ‘it’, the journey of Chi Running, develop over time, unlike most other things in my life which I tend to rush and want now, I kind of knew in the depths of my mind, the body and mind don’t change overnight, when finding Chi Running during my midst of injury I felt confident that this will be a journey, an interesting self-analysis.

I have been practicing Chi Running since I attended Jon Burdon’s workshop in 2014 and I have been teaching since the summer of 2016. Originally my practice was linked to my year of injury, shin splints and tight calves forcing me to walk on my toes, I knew my body needed to learn new habits, I knew running wasn’t painful, I knew I didn’t need new trainers. There was something screaming at me to listen, from the inside. It took, with my patience, some mental adjustments. To stop, to reassess, to allow myself to run only half a mile then three-quarters, to make a mental note of how my body felt (and forget about what was happening at work or my weekend plans), to truly pay attention to me.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You can do yoga too, engage your core, align from the crown of your head, use the forces of gravity but if your mind is not self-accepting, throwing you digs throughout the day, throughout your run, your energy will not flow.[/perfectpullquote]I race competitively and my life is surrounded by running – books, social posts, a large group of friends, a race calendar, a training calendar, dinners, Park

I race competitively and my life is surrounded by running – books, social posts, a large group of friends, a race calendar, a training calendar, dinners, Park Run and coffee – the injury allowed me to justify dipping out of the running, I felt less guilty and other runners understood. But now I wish I had made the conscious effort to practice Chi Running before the injury took hold because I knew deep down my body could be more efficient – I knew after longer runs I didn’t need to wake up the next day unable to walk. All the lovely new clients I meet now who tell me this is the sole reason they are attending my workshops – to concentrate on me – just fills me with pride. Because social pressure can be tough, and our own self-pressure can be harsher. To explain to other runners that I was training to be a Chi Running instructor received some blank looks, the occasional smirk or dismiss, lots of explanation and also much appreciated support. For some of these reasons I kept it on the low, I wanted to ‘be the change’ and not force other runners to look at their technique. I am so passionate about looking after your body, inside and out, and so my journey continued…

By no means have I ‘nailed’ Chi Running, it really is a lifelong journey, and why would we ever want the ‘me time’ to end. I have, hand on heart, embedded the practice into every run I complete, I love having my mindful hints and tips stashed in my back pocket. Not all of my runs feel amazing, what I am learning now is my body has adapted and is slowly learning and it is changing how it moves me around life, but my mind is what holds me back.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What Chi Running has helped me to see, is how the mind and body can work together, we take it for granted but actually, our mind is telling us stories, stories which are not true, and our body responds to this.[/perfectpullquote]

I saw Chi Running as a physical technique, something quite tangible that you would see results from on your Garmin. So that was true, my performance has improved, my body recovers quicker. But what I didn’t expect was how it would lead me to learn so much more about myself. You can do yoga too, engage your core, align from the crown of your head, use the forces of gravity but if your mind is not self-accepting, throwing you digs throughout the day, throughout your run, your energy will not flow. Instead, you will create a blocker, mentally and physically. What Chi Running has helped me to see, is how the mind and body can work together, we take it for granted but actually, our mind is telling us stories, stories which are not true, and our body responds to this. Body sensing and gradual progression in a holistic sense – like every day, in everything we do – being kind to ourselves, internally, nutritionally, externally with rest and recovery, moving our bodies an inch at a time – this really generates a slow long-term lasting change within us. A positive calm mind, a positive relaxed aligned body. Inclusively strong.

So my Chi Running journey has begun, but only just, I’m going to continue to adapt my body, gently and generously, enjoying that freedom from the inside out, and being kind to myself, body sensing from head to toe, being positive and letting that energy flow; all of this gradually while working towards my running goals. I’d say Chi Running has allowed me to ‘be the change’ – learning to let go, mind and body, working simultaneously.


Kelly Knight

Kelly Knight

Kelly teaches Chi Running in the Midlands. For more details and to check out her upcoming workshops and guided trail runs click here to visit Kelly’s profile page.

A deeper and more connected life

A deeper and more connected life

Mindfulness is a word that is batted around in every other magazine article nowadays but it’s really very simple, and you’re probably doing it anyway.

What do I love most about Chi Running? I think it’s that it is a holistic practice – so much more than just a running technique. The skill of stopping yourself in your tracks and resetting your alignment becomes something you do all day, every day. And what’s more this is not just a physical thing but a mental, emotional, even spiritual practice too.

Mindfulness is a word that is batted around in every other magazine article nowadays but it’s really very simple, and you’re probably doing it anyway. Focussing your mind on just one part of your body, or on your breath, or on the ground beneath you are all great ways to become a connected, more relaxed runner. Learning to simplify our thoughts and focus on one element of our movement is a great way to reduce stress.

If you have been working on your Chi Running technique for some time or just a few days I’d encourage you to explore the body sensing skills that are discussed in the Chi Running book. Make a body scan part of your daily routine. Scan your body from head to toe and get a sense for what it is telling you. I’d suggest including your feelings and emotions within this scan as well – they can tell you a lot about how your run is going to go! The Chi Walking book is also a fabulous starting point for this journey, full of exercises to help you connect mind and body.

If you have worked with an instructor they have no doubt given you some ‘form focusses’ to work on. Use a form intervals approach to work on these. To run form intervals, you focus your mind entirely on the one small aspect of your form for an interval of about one minute. After that you give yourself a break mentally before coming back for another repetition. This is a great way to build on the physical components of Chi Running and start to work more on the mental aspects. Be non judgemental and just observe yourself. If your focus wanders, just make a note that has happened and then allow your mental focus to return to the chosen focus.

Yes, Chi Running can help make you a better runner. Yes, Chi Running can help prevent injury, but if the physical component is all you get from it I personally think you’re missing out. What do I love most about Chi Running? It can lead you to a deeper and more connected life – all day and every day.

Jon Burdon

Jon Burdon

Jon is a qualified teacher who has been exploring and sharing the great outdoors with others for over 20 years. He has a holistic philosophy and believes a relaxed, natural technique, together with a mind-body approach to running can enhance your whole life. He is proud to present a very special Mindful Fitness Day, Saturday 24 June (with an optional trail run on the Sunday) in the beautiful Holme Valley. Here the teaching of Chi Running is blended with that of mindfulness and yoga.

Area: Huddersfield and West Yorkshire, Peak District, Snowdonia, Lake District, Manchester, Shropshire.

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