Your name is called. You chalk up and slowly walk onto the platform. A sea of faces stare back at you as you approach the bar. Your pulse races, your breathing shallows, your mind runs through all of the points your coach wants you to focus on. The seconds on the board count down from 1 minute and you take your position. You steady your feet, grip the bar, and take a deep full inhalation.
Our breath is one of the only bodily functions regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is also under our conscious control. This means that while we normally go about our day— driving to work, grocery shopping, sleeping—our ANS takes control of our breathing, regulating the rate at which we inspire and expire depending on external factors such as exercise, rest, or perceived threat. When under stress, i.e. attempting a PR at a weightlifting meet, the ANS can often increase our heart rate and our rate of respiration, resulting in poor performance. If we learn to control the rate of our breath, we are able to better control our initial fight or flight response, calm our mind, and focus on the task at hand. Call me crazy, but last time I checked, hyperventilating or freezing up prior to a 100 kg snatch on a platform, in front a crowd of people, is less than ideal.
The breath consists of 3 parts: inspiration (inhalation), retention, expiration (exhalation). First, as we inhale, our diaphragm and external intercostal muscles contract. As the diaphragm contracts, it moves downward into the abdominal cavity and pulls on the lungs, increasing their volume, and maximizing the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange needed for optimal performance. Part 2, retention, can be as brief as the transition from inhaling to exhaling or as deliberate as a child holding their breath in time-out. Hold it too long, however, and the safety mechanisms of the ANS will kick in, causing you to either gasp for breath or pass out. Either way, the result will be the same: the ANS takes over, breathing becomes unconscious and involuntary. The last part, expiration (exhalation) is passive, and the body’s natural response to both the science of atmospheric pressure wanting equilibrium, and the relaxation of the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles. (Long-winded explanation? Perhaps…)
In yoga, pranayama is the practice of controlling the breath. We begin by lying with the body at rest, completely supported so focus is more easily directed towards the breath. The student attempts to relax the tongue, throat, and abdomen in order to maximize the potential of the inhalation, retention, and exhalation. The more a person practices, the greater ease they experience, and the longer the inhalations, retentions, and exhalations become. Pranayama has not only been shown to increase focus and calmness of mind under stressful conditions, but also increase an athlete’s VO2 max, which is never a bad thing.
How does yoga and pranayama relate to Olympic lifting? Let’s think about the process of a lift and how an athlete breathes to assist that lift:
- Inhalation: the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles contract, the ribcage expands, and the chest lifts in the set-up position.
- Retention: the breath is held as the lift is completed and held as well (dear God, when will the judges give me the signal to drop the weights?!)
- Exhalation: the diaphragm and intercostals relax and the rib cage shrinks with a sigh of relief and/or an exclamation of celebration.
By comparing the basic breathing technique used in yoga with Olympic lifting, it’s clear that weightlifters already have some basis in using breath control. That being said, training the body without training the nuances that support it is like driving a car using bad gas. Can you do it? Sure. Will you get optimal performance? Not hardly. The more an athlete is able to tap into and practice controlling the breath when at rest, the better able they will be able to use it to their advantage when under the stress of competition. Want a PR at your next meet? Get to yoga. Practice breathing.
By the way… The lift is good.
Ariane Buchanan is the director of New Mexico’s first and only Unnata aerial yoga program. She has been practicing yoga for over 20 years. Her goal as an instructor is to help other people find a new love and respect for their bodies.