Controlling the breath, is a prerequisite to controlling the mind and the body.
– Swami Rama
Talk of controlling your breath may strike chords of mysticism and elusiveness but the fact is that breathing is fundamentally important for performance and it is within your control. Breathing is the only vital body function that is both automatic (self-regulating) and voluntary (within our control). Breathing helps you manage both automatic and voluntary body functions. Effective breathers or “abdominal breathers” include not only yogis and those who meditate, but also trained vocalists, aware athletes, and expectant mothers trained in LaMaze. One thing they all have learned is that by controlling their breathing they can have greater control over themselves at times when they need it the most. What does this mean to the competitive golfer? If you consider the fact that to play your best you must have a quiet mind and relaxed body—which correct breathing makes possible—it can mean everything!
The Science of Breathing
Breathing exercises have been found effective at managing and reducing depression, anxiety, mental confusion, fatigue, irritability and muscular tension. The autonomic nervous system controls breathing automatically. It sends signals from the brain to speed up or slow breathing. When the mind is peaceful, the breathing will be slower and more diaphragmatic or abdominal. When the mind is not peaceful, reacting emotionally or under stress, the signals change and the breathing changes. Many golfers, for example, unknowingly hold their breath, or take quick shallow breaths when hitting difficult shots or stroking important putts. This can be extremely detrimental to a player’s ability to perform for a number of complex reasons. We will try to explain these reasons here in a not-so-complex way. It might help to clarify these explanations if you accept and keep in mind that almost all body functions are breathing-related and that they all interact in intricate ways.
Your breathing can affect the timing of heartbeats— speeding them up or slowing them down. This has a lot to do with your ability to manage tension. The better you can control your breathing correctly, the better you will be able to manage tension. This will be reflected in the timing of your heartbeats. To give our players more awareness and control over tension, we teach them to become more aware of their heart rate. This can be done on your own and most simply by touching your forefinger to the carotid artery beneath your jaw at the side of your neck and counting the number of beats per minute. Easier and more effective is the use of a wearable heart rate monitor that gives instant feedback. Then we teach them to breathe deeply and correctly to effectively lower their heart rates and maximize their abilities to play golf “in the zone”. For this we also use a form of biofeedback which helps us quickly teach the player effective deep breathing and helps us identify the number of breaths per minute that help the player most effectively get into his or her individual “zone”.
Arteries and Blood Vessels
Poor or shallow breathing can decrease the diameter of your blood vessels, increase your blood pressure and reduce the work output of your heart. Besides the physiological affects of reduced energy and compromised motor skills, reduced oxygen can have great psychological consequences that will further reduce your ability to perform. The reduced oxygen in arteries and blood vessels can: (1) Impair judgement, as in making it difficult to choose clubs or read greens (2) Reduce short-term memory, as in forgetting to consider all necessary variables before you hit a shot, such as the lie or the wind (3) Increase the difficulty of complex tasks, as in hitting unpracticed, challenging trouble shots or double-breaking, downhill putts.
Muscles and Nerves
Shallow breathing can lead to excess calcium entering muscles and nerves, which can make you hyperactive, jumpy or twitchy. This physiological change can cause your muscles to contract more rapidly and strongly, making it much more difficult to control large muscle and fine motor skills. The former makes it more difficult to hit the ball effectively and the latter makes it much more difficult to putt smoothly and on line. Without exception, all the players we have assisted in over-coming the yips (of all kinds—putts, chips, driver, etc.) have benefited from learning to consciously relax and breath more effectively when approaching their most dreaded shots or putts.
Poor or shallow breathing and reduced blood flow reduces oxygen to the entire body, including your brain. As we train players in effective deep breathing we find they experience fewer symptoms of reduced oxygen to the brain, including tension headaches, light-headedness, mental confusion, mental fatigue and indecisiveness. As breathing improves, symptoms diminish and the game becomes more fun and skills, more effective.
Studies have shown that specific respiratory changes accompany different moods and emotions, especially anxiety and irritability. For example, sighing and the rate and depth of breathing will increase with anxiety, anger or resentment. Breathing rate and depth decreases with tension or vigilance. Breathing becomes especially irregular when anger is suppressed. Also, a correlation has been found between breathing rate changes and depression. We know that you must be able to manage mood and emotion to maintain the peaceful focus necessary for playing your best golf. Learning to manage your breathing provides another tool for accomplishing this goal. Deep breathing gives you greater control over yourself by giving you greater control over your autonomic nervous system.
What is the correct way to breathe?
While effective breathing is actually very simple and can be learned in a matter of minutes— often with immediate benefits—the profound effects of breathing exercises may not be fully appreciated until after several months of persistent practice. If you would like to observe a demonstration of correct, healthy abdominal breathing you need look no further than a sleeping child or pet. Take a moment to observe and you will see that as they inhale their abdomen gently rises and when they exhale it gently falls. Making this natural method of breathing more healthy is the fact that when the abdomen rises it allows room for the diaphragm to drop and the lung cavity to expand. This in turn makes adequate room for the lungs to fill smoothly and deeply, taking in adequate oxygen. When we live in a state of elevated tension—whatever the cause—and we are not taking regular, conscious steps to fully relax, our diaphragms can become partially contracted and retract into the lung cavity. We then tend to develop a habit of breathing more from the chest, which can chronically reduce our intake of oxygen. This then creates the eventual oxygen deficiency and blood chemistry imbalance that can leave us with one or more of the previously described symptoms. Observe someone who has been experiencing prolonged stresses or pressure (possibly even your-self). You will likely notice that when they breathe there is little movement outside the chest or thoracic area. Ask this person to take a deep breath and you will notice that if they have not been made aware of their incorrect breathing, they will do so from the chest. Rather than expand the diaphragm, they use their muscles to lift their shoulders and pull air quickly into their chest, doing little or nothing to increase the lung capacity. This has the effect of actually increasing tension in the shoulder muscles. A few of these incorrect breaths and instead of feeling a greater sense of relaxation they can feel more tension, hyperventilate and feel dizzy—then promptly decide that deep breathing does not help!
How Do I Learn Good Abdominal Breathing?
As with learning or relearning any skill, awareness and practice is necessary to get you very good at breathing well. It only takes a few minutes of both every day to see improvement. To get the most out of the described steps, it is important that you first make yourself aware of the following points. It is best if you breathe through your nose when possible. As you breathe IN your abdomen is pushed OUT. As you breathe OUT your abdomen is pulled IN. You may find that you are used to doing the exact opposite. If so, you are not breathing efficiently.
If you know you are insulin dependent or if you have very low blood pressure and related symptoms (fainting) you may want to be monitored by your doctor if you practice deep breathing as it has been demonstrated to both reduce insulin dependence and lower blood pressure. Your practice will be most effective if you relax as much as possible, keep your legs uncrossed and loosen any garments that may restrict your breathing. There are mineral deficiencies that could impede your ability to breathe effectively (and compromise health). These can include things like calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc. If you find it difficult to breath deeply and correctly with practice, we suggest a blood or urine based nutritional assessment (we can make either available to you whereever you are). To maximize your breathing practice, find a quiet place where you can sit or lay comfortably and safely without distraction. If you have little awareness of your breathing or if you have been experiencing considerable tension, start by lying on your back on a bed, sofa or floor. When ready, progress to sitting. After a few good sessions you will be able to begin breathing correctly and deeply anywhere and at any time you choose. As you practice your breathing, try to focus on the gentle rhythm and flow of air going in and out of your body. For this deep breathing exercise, we recommend that the length of your inhale be the same length as your exhale. The objective is not to get quickly and completely full or quickly and completely empty but rather inhale and exhale slowly, smoothly and continuously with a slight pause in between. If you have recently experienced considerable tension you will likely need to progressively increase the depth of your breath with subsequent practice sessions.
Deep Breathing Exercise
Take a few minutes daily to practice the following steps, keeping in mind the points just described.
1. Lie or sit in a comfortable position and place your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your abdomen (over your navel would be great).
2. Inhale slowly and deeply into your abdomen, gently pushing your right hand up only as much as feels comfortable. Your left hand on your chest should move only a little and only with your abdomen.
3. At the top of your breath, pause slightly and hold for a moment.
4. Slowly exhale allowing your right hand and abdomen to gently return to the original level.
5. Continue your gentle deep breaths, slowly inhaling and exhaling. Let yourself enjoy the soft rhythm of movement as the air gently flows in and out of your lungs.
6. Continue feeling the gentle rhythm of your breath with your hands as you also feel your throat soften and your face relax.
7. Continue feeling the gentle rhythm of your breathing while relaxing your chest and abdomen.
8. Continue feeling the gentle rhythm of your breathing while relaxing your legs and arms.
9. When ready, gently stretch, rise and resume your day.
Try to set aside at least 5 to 10 minutes for your breathing practice every day. When you begin to feel comfortable with abdominal breathing while lying down, progress to practicing while sitting. Next, proceed to practicing while standing. When you feel ready, practice at various moments during your day—especially when you tend to feel tension the most. Again, concentrate on the gentle movement of the abdomen, the air moving smoothly and rhythmically in and out of your lungs, and on the feeling of relaxation that each deep breath gives you. When you have learned to effectively breath deeply, it will provide a very reliable and efficient method for quickly relaxing your body and quieting your mind in even the most challenging situations.
There are times that you will find deep breathing particularly helpful for your game.
Starting Your Day—As you begin your competitive day, stay aware of your breathing, especially if you find yourself feeling considerable tension before an important round. Make it a point to check your breathing as you shower, dress and prepare for the day. Also as you drive to the course, especially if you encounter traffic. This time is often fraught with tension provoking thoughts, usually worry and fear related to outcome or other things over which you really do not have control. Challenge yourself to displace these thoughts by focusing on your deep breathing and the rhythm of your breath.
Preparation— Another important time to remain aware of your breathing is during your preparation for your competitive round. Try to stay conscious of the rhythm and depth of your breath as you walk to the practice area, warm up for the day and especially as you go to the first tee.
In Competition—And of course, use your deep breathing during your competitive round. It is most helpful to stay aware of any developing tense or anxious feelings, and again replace related thoughts with an awareness of smooth, rhythmical deep breaths. With practice, you can in fact use your breathing skills to counter both increased tension and a busy mind. When you find your mind is especially busy during your shots, we encourage you to take a smooth, deep, relaxing breath after you have made your commitment to your club, target and type of shot. This will allow you to more clearly visualize and feel the shot to which you have committed before you set up to the ball.
The same is true for putting. Breathe after you have committed to your read and speed and before you try to visualize and feel the putt. And finally, conscious deep breathing is a great way to help you relax and let go after an errant shot so that you can quickly recover, saving your energy for something over which you still have some control, like your next shot.
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