V02, Pranayama and Cyclists!
Breathing is one of our most vital functions, yet a large majority of us do not pay any attention to it. One of the biggest pluses that yoga offers cyclists is Pranayama and it has nothing to do with stretching the muscles.
What is Pranayama?
Breath work is a buzz term and all the rage at the moment but, Pranayama (also called conscious breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, or yoga breathing) is an ancient form of breathing practiced by yogis for thousands of years. Whilst the ancient yogis have been wise to the many benefits of diaphragmatic breathing, the rest of us are only just catching up.
Pranayama or diaphragmatic breathing, carries inhaled oxygen beyond the short reach of shallow breathing. It allows oxygen to reach the entirety of your lungs, maximizing the amount of oxygen that enters the blood and the brain. It engages all systems of your body (cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, lymph, immune, digestive, and respiratory) and maximizes the efficiency of your oxygen intake.
Most of the breathing we do is passive. Breathing happens involuntarily so that we don’t often need to make a conscious effort to breathe. Passive breathing is great when we’re moving through our day to day routine focusing on other activities, but it’s not the most efficient way to breathe when cycling. Using pranayama, you can fill your lungs with 4500 mL of air, while passive breathing only brings about 350 mL of air into your lungs. That’s a massive difference!
VOX Max & Pranayama
In contemporary sports medicine, true fitness is measured as VO2 max - or how well the body is able to use oxygen under different intensities. VO2 is "Volume of Oxygen" and VO2 max is the body's maximum or peak ability to turn oxygen into energy. This equals our true aerobic capacity.
To me, VO2 max is very similar to Pranayama. Pranayama in Sanskrit means "control of Breath." "Prana" is breath or vital energy in the body. "Prana" is the energy responsible for life, and "ayama" means control. How well our body uses or controls breath determines our true fitness.
All aerobic fitness activities, like cycling, done on a regular basis help our body more effectively use oxygen or pranayama. We have better energy in addition to other amazing benefits. Learning techniques to better work with the breath through practices such as pranayama assists with this as well.
Pranayama and the Body
During intense exercise like cycling, our muscles are constantly contracting and require large amounts of oxygen delivered to them to allow them to work effectively, and we all know what happens if the muscles do not receive an adequate supply of oxygen! By using diaphragmatic breathing you can delay or altogether eliminate the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles due to the lack of oxygen. It’s also a great tool to calm the parasympathetic nervous system post hard training rides or events.
A great example of how diaphragmatic breathing can assist cycling, is the guest I had on a retreat with me in Italy a number of years ago. Hello Helena if you are reading this! Helena is a professional opera singer (which I didn’t know at the time), rides regularly in her home country of the Netherlands, commuting by bike on a daily basis. I wouldn’t call her a regular road cyclist though and Helena chose to ride a hybrid bike for the duration of the retreat. Not that this made any difference whilst we were riding. Every time we came to some sort of climb, Helena would literally fly straight past all of us! The first time it happened, we all watched her go past us with our mouths hanging open. It was quite a sight to behold, literally like she had just flipped the switch on the battery of an e-bike, except she wasn’t on an e-bike. Needless to say, we all wanted some of whatever she was taking 😉. Helena told us later that she would use the same breath she uses when performing (diaphragmatic breathing) when she needed a little boost.
(Pic: not Helena!)
Pranayama and the Mind
Aside from the physical benefits, the mental benefits of pranayama are just as profound as the physical. Mental clarity is a major benefit of pranayama, and with mental health and wellbeing such a big issue in today’s society the more options we have to assist, the better. When you focus on your breathing and become wholly aware of the engagement of your entire body, you leave no room for doubtful thoughts, creating a more meditative experience that ultimately leads to calmness, grounding and clarity. It’s a great way to manage stress and improve health and it’s has been scientifically shown to decrease stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve immunity, and help us sleep.
So, whatever you want to call it, in whatever language or tradition, get your breath moving and you'll find energy you never knew you had!
There are lots of different pranayama exercises. If you would like to try one, give this simple one a go. I personally use this and teach it regularly:-
To start, sit in a comfortable cross legged or kneeling position so that the spine is lengthened.
Begin by becoming aware of your normal breath with a few slow breaths in and out through the nose.
Gradually start to lengthen both the inhalation and exhalation to an internal 8 count.
After becoming established in this balanced breath, begin to hold the breath in for 4 counts at the top of the inhalation, and at the end of the exhalation.
The complete practice is: Inhale for 8 counts, hold the breath in for 4 counts, exhale for 8 counts, hold the breath out for 4 counts (8,4,8,4). No strain or stress with the exhale breath. If you can’t get to 8, stop at 6.
Continue to practice for between 10 to 15 minutes if time permits.
Note, in order to keep the mind steady and quiet, make sure that the back of the neck remains long throughout the practice, with the chin no higher than parallel to the floor.
This breathing technique is great because it can be practiced safely at any time of the day and by practitioners of all levels.
It brings supreme balance to the mind and the nervous system leaving you feeling calm yet vibrant, relaxed yet awake.
Switches autonomous nervous system (ANS) states from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest). Post-exercise this can help increase recovery.
Lowering cortisol (stress hormone). Post-training this can also help switch the body into a state of recover.
Increases the antioxidant defence status after intensive exercise.
Calms your monkey mind.
Regulates the blood pressure and heart rate.
Any comments or feedback, feel free to comment below. If you would like to assistance starting a regular pranayama practice, contact me here. Virginia. 😊
PS: Pranayama is included in all yoga classes on all Soulfit Adventure retreats.