How climbing mountains taught me to breathe correctly

In: one, two, three. Pause: one, two. Out: one, two, three, four.

I was approaching another steep incline on the side of Mount Huayna Potosi, a 6,088 metre high mountain in Bolivia. The first glimmers of sunrise started to expose the sheer drop on either side of the ridge that I had somehow been oblivious to in the dark. The orange glow of the sun made the white snow look like it was on fire.

Sunrise on the climb up

In: one, two, three. Pause: one, two. Out: one, two, three, four.

Despite the stunning sunrise, my body was starting to reject every attempt I was making to connect with my brain to carry on climbing. My head felt like it was spinning and I could tell the altitude sickness was really kicking in now. I just wanted to get on with it and get to the top, but I had to follow my local guides pace which was slower than my grandmother! I thought I was fit and healthy but this was a completely different kind of fitness. It was teaching me to slow right down and control my mind and body. And the key to all of this? It was all in the breathing.

In: one, two, three. Pause: one, two. Out: one, two, three, four.

My patient guide instilled the need to breathe almost as if I was asleep – slowly and deeply through the belly. With the thinner air and lack of oxygen at 6,000 metres above sea level, you have to control your breath to maximise oxygen intake and to ensure you don’t hyperventilate.

In: one, two, three. Pause: one, two. Out: one, two, three, four.

This controlled slowness not only helped me get to the top, but it helped me experience the present moment; observing the azure blue sky opening up through the constantly moving cloud, the snow capped mountains on the horizon, and that cravesse my guide skillfully (or luckily?) avoided us falling into! 

The summit

In: one, two, three. Pause: one, two. Out: one, two, three, four.

Why breathing is so important

Sure, you might be thinking, breathing properly at the top of a big mountain is important, but do we really need instructions on how to breathe in everyday life? Isn’t it just instinctual?

Well, take a breath right now.

Did your chest and shoulders go up and down?

If so, you just failed at breathing correctly.

While it may feel like you are taking a full breath, you are actually just using the top of your lungs which are the smallest part. By using less of your lungs to inhale, you are depriving your body of the oxygen it needs to function optimally. 

It is likely that our fast paced modern lives have contributed to this form of quick, inefficient shallow breathing. Increased stress levels, poor posture, obesity and air pollution all impact our ability to breathe correctly.

But why is this so important?

Dr. Vranich is a renowned expert in breathing and lays out several health issues of poor breathing;

  • Increased stress: quick, shallow breathing actually keeps us in a state of stress even if we think we are relaxing. This can contribute to high blood pressure or mood problems. Conversely, slower, controlled breathing has the opposite effect no matter what situation you are in.
  • Reduced focus: the brain uses most of the oxygen we inhale. Therefore, a lack of oxygen means the brain struggles to perform optimally.
  • Low energy: to produce energy, the body has to go through a process called aerobic metabolism, which requires oxygen. Therefore, decreased oxygen means your body can’t create energy as efficiently as it could.

In: one, two, three. Pause: one, two. Out: one, two, three, four.

How to breathe through the belly

The best way to feel and see what proper belly breathing feels and looks like is to do this simple exercise:

Lie down on the floor with a few books on your belly. Now inhale for three seconds into your belly. If the books are moving up, you’re inhaling correctly. After pausing for a couple of seconds, slowly exhale for four seconds. If the books go back down, you’re exhaling correctly. 

In: one, two, three. Pause: one, two. Out: one, two, three, four.

Try to relax your glutes, pelvic floor and belly as you inhale. As you exhale, squeeze your ribs, your abs, and contract your pelvic floor.

Do this several times so you can get the feel of it. 

Be mindful of your breathing

Don’t think all this is too simple or it’s only a fad for yoga enthusiasts. The bottom line is that poor breathing may not impact you straight away, but it can contribute to a myriad of health issues. 

Breathing with control is a skill that few of us now focus on because we are all in too much of a rush running around being busy. This is a shame because proper breathing supports our bodies ability to perform optimally from greater focus to reduced stress.

So breathe slow – and see more, live more and learn more as a consequence. I’m still working on it!

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