The Sanskrit word for yoga breathing exercises is pranayama. Prana refers to the energy in the body or life force, the fuel or oxygen that keeps us alive. Yama refers to expansion, extension, meaning the ability to expand the breath and increase the energy in the body. It is critical in golf to be aware of how the body and mind react to the stresses of the game. With awareness comes change!
Any time we experience stress on the golf course - during the first shot, tight lye, or any shot that creates anxiety, the heart rate accelerates and breathing becomes erratic. Physically, breathing sustains the metabolic processes of the body; mentally, breathing keeps the mind calm and focused. When the body is relaxed, the lungs, diaphragm and the muscles of the ribcage, and chest move in an unrestricted way. This is often referred to as deep diaphragmatic breathing. Additionally, this type of breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system relaxing the body and mind. When under pressure, the physiological effect of holding the breath is a fight or flight response, resulting in rapid uncontrolled breathing and a loss of blood flow to the extremities, including the brain. The body becomes tense, the mind races, and the ability to execute the golf swing becomes more challenging. (As if we need more challenge!)
Your breathing pattern is a direct reflection of the level of stress on the body and mind at any given point. It is the mirror of your internal physical and mental condition. Peter Kostis, commentator for CBS Sports remarked on the stress level of Annika Sorenstam as she played on the PGA Tour (the first woman to play in 53 years). Regarding calming the swirling of emotions under these stressful situations Peter said, Annika has been able to control the heart beat and control the emotions. There is only one way to calm the heartbeat and that is with the breathing.
The most important aspect of yoga is the breath. Without focus on breathing, yoga is just another form of stretching. Here we address breathing awareness, how to obtain deep diaphragmatic and thoracic-diaphragmatic breathing are utilized in yoga and on the golf course. Breathing awareness provides insight into the tempo and rhythm of your golf swing. According to Ernest Jones, When you stroke with timing and rhythm, the ball sails straight down the fairway, and for distance. It is effortless power, not powerful effort.
We think of breathing is an automatic response and part of the automatic nervous system -- it just happens. But at the same time, it is the only automatic response mechanism we can control. In the same way we manage movement as in the golf swing or yoga postures, the breath is managed ' its function originates in the two lowest segments of the brain stem. Also a function of the Somatic nervous system, breathing can be controlled. This is what makes diaphragmatic movement so unique. Breathing relieves tension and tension is the number one cause of bad shots on the golf course.
Breathing consists of three basic components- inhalation, exhalation and retention. Although retention can be an important part of expanding breathing and stimulating the nervous system for our purposes we will focus on the inhales and exhales. In our Dynamic or flow yoga sequencing, the inhalations raise the body and the exhalations lower the body. Breathing influences movement in the abdomen and chest but also has an effect of posture. To begin to understand the process, lye on your stomach, face pointed towards the floor. Relax. Begin to inhale through the nose and you will fee the body rise or lift. Exhale through the nose and you will fee the body lower or fall. Before beginning a warm-up sequence of yoga poses intended to increase your breathing capacity, practice these simple deep diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Begin by lying on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Gently place your finger tips on your lower ribs. Close your eyes and begin to inhale and exhale as deeply as possible. Feel the movement in your fingers, reflecting the movement of the diaphragm. Begin by inhaling and exhaling for a count of four. If possible, increase the count to six. (There should not be any point where you need to hold your breath.)
Level One: Ten Breaths
Level Two: Twenty breaths
Level Three: Three minutes
Stretching the diaphragm, thoracic spine, and intercostals will open this part of the body, allowing the ribcage to expand and contact fully with each breath.
Place feet wider than hip width apart and clasp the hands behind the back. Inhale as you draw your navel towards the spine, slightly tucking the tailbone and pelvis. Exhale and roll the shoulders back, moving the hands towards the floor. Hold for two breaths relax and repeat three to five times.
Place the feet approximately five feet apart and revolve the right leg inward. The right foot is placed at a 45 degree angle. Bend the left knee to a 90 degree angle and keep the left knee moving towards the left small toe. Place the left elbow on the left knee, extending the right arm towards the ceiling. Lift out of the left shoulder, maintaining space between the left shoulder and the left ear. Focus on the rotation of the torso towards the ceiling and the extension in the ribcage and intercostals.
For more intensity extend the right arm over the right ear. Hold for three breaths, relax and repeat five times. Switch sides.
Place the left hip on the floor and press the left hand into the floor. As you begin to extend the left arm, focus on maintaining contact with the floor and the left hip. Feel the stretch from the left hip up to the left armpit. Hold for five breaths, relax and repeat three times. Switch sides. In this pose the more you allow gravity to sink the hips down towards the floor the more you will feel the stretch.
On your back extend the arms perpendicular to the body. Bend the knees and allow the legs to fall to the left. Keep the right shoulder on the floor. Hold for three minutes and switch sides. If your knees to not rest on the floor, place yoga blocks under the knees for more stability.
Golfers may incorporate into their pre-shot routine this new breathing awareness - calming the mind, facilitating greater focus, and developing more tempo in your swing. To get a sense of feeling the tempo and rhythm in your swing simply swing the club as if it were timed with a metronome. Coordinate your breathing with your swing tempo. Get a sense of ease and freedom in your swing.
For higher handicap golfers, start by setting your golf stance completely and then begin a long, slow deep cleansing breath. Then begin your take away. Higher handicap golfers should start by setting their golf stance completely, and then begin a long, slow deep cleansing breath before executing the take away.
Golf Magazine's top 100 instructors, Paul Trittler suggests the following pre-shot routine for lower handicap golfers. As you stand behind the ball, visualizing the ball flight, incorporate long slow deep breathing. As you sole the club, aim the face, set your back foot and begin a deep inhalation. Then set your front foot, let your eyes go to the target and begin to exhale. Once you have finished feeling your balance and completed your exhale, let your eyes go to the ball and swing.
This weeks article on breathing is an excerpt from my book, Yoga for Golfers ' A Unique Mind-body Approach to Golf Fitness. For more details, visit www.KRTotalFitness.com.
I look forward to seeing you at the Fitness Performance Golf School in Scottsdale, AZ. on October 28th and 29th.
Editor's Note: Katherine Roberts, founder of Yoga for Golfers, has 20 years of experience in fitness training, yoga studies, professional coaching and motivation. Katherine welcomes your email questions and comments, contact her at Katherine@KRTotalFitness.com or visit www.KRTotalFitness.com.