Breathwork and the body’s nervous system are key to unlocking optimum human performance, be it in the mountains, in the gym, or in the office. Take skiing for example, if we want to get in the zone and enjoy a flow state riding through powder, then we need to achieve focus. Distractions like chaffing from our clothes, hunger, or thirst can all get in the way and prevent us from that gliding escapism we’re so eager to chase.
Stress is a huge distraction and can throw a serious spanner in the works – no one needs that when you’re perched atop a couloir. Learning to understand and control our breath is a vital tool to managing stress. Through practice, it can improve stamina, endurance and help you slip into the flow state even in high stress environments like competitions, or pushing the boundaries when out in the backcountry.
Getting serious about breathwork
Wim Hof has been hailed as a natural phenomenon and has what seems a super-human ability to handle the cold. When interviewed, he openly claims everyone is capable of tolerating low temperatures and has even taken journalists on crash courses that result in snow hikes in nothing but a pair of shorts. The Wim Hof Method is now a highly downloaded app and workshops into the practice are routinely over subscribed. However, using this breathing technique you can quickly exceed expectations of how long you can hold your breath. But go a little deeper and there’s a world of health benefits to be gained. “My mission is to bring happiness, strength and health to all. It’s a birthright,” Hof tells the Guardian. “But if you want to become strong, happy and healthy, you’d better do this shit.”
Another well known voice in the breathwork space is Brian McKenzie, who has unlocked a number of high performance training protocols and helped train world-class Olympic and professional athletes as well as the US military. To say that breathwork is an integral part of his training regimes is an understatement. His practices allow you to maximise the air being breathed so you can go faster and stronger for longer. Through breathwork McKenzie’s Art of Breath has allowed athletes to improve their competitive performance and most importantly, reduce stress in any situation. And it’s this last point that’s important.
The parasympathetic state
I know we’re banging on about controlling stress here, but we are not talking about the base level causes of competitive environments, finances or in-law visits. We’re much more focused on how our body reacts to stress. Most often it’s the fight or flight response, known as the sympathetic nervous system. Our breathing quickens, our heart rate spikes and blood rushes away from digestive organs and directly to our muscles. This is a stressful situation for our body to be in, and can't be tolerated for long periods.
But through controlled breathwork, we can combat these symptoms and return our body to the parasympathetic state. Methods like 2-to-1 breathing, where you exhale for twice as long as you inhale, have scientifically been proven to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and decrease stress hormones. This is the state where we want to be, where we can focus, make clearer decisions and perform in a calm and collected manner – you want to shred with style? Then you want to be able to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system.
Mastering the breath is nothing new though and anyone with a regular yoga practice will be familiar with the power of breathwork. Many professional surfers, including Gerry Lopez, have made connections between their sport and yoga, reaping the rewards of suppleness and strength, but also a stoic calm in high stress situations.
If you’re looking to improve mountain endurance through the Wim Hof Method, or focussed on keeping your mindset focussed on the task at hand, breathwork can be a valuable tool in the pursuit for flow.