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My eight-week challenge: Focus more on breathing, less on pain

There is nothing godly about the Goddess pose in yoga. It's a squat and it burns. In a recent hatha yoga class, the instructor made us hold the Goddess pose for a serious chunk of time. I thought my thighs and glutes were going to burst into flames.

But instead of giving up and abandoning the pose, I listened to the instructor's soothing voice as he urged us to focus on breathing. Deep belly breaths soon distracted me from the pain and I held the pose.

Breathing is critical to exercise (and life). It is not only crucial in terms of supplying your muscle cells with oxygen so they can make energy, but it also has a strong impact on your mood and concentration. This wisdom is a central tenet of yoga. Yet, for reasons unknown, I've never been very good at breathing.

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For example, when I was a teenager, I competed in many long-distance track-and-field events. I'd usually be the only runner with two coaches standing at the edge of the track. One was my dad, who would be barking my lap times at me. The other was my mother, who would be shouting, "Breathe! Don't forget to breathe!" How I ran four-minute kilometres while holding my breath will always be a mystery to me, especially because without a good oxygen supply, your muscles under perform.

When you breathe, you're not only consuming oxygen, you're expelling carbon dioxide. Too much CO2 (or not enough breathing) can mean achy muscles or worse, bonking (a funny-sounding term that isn't funny at all – it means your body shuts down and you hit the wall).

After my breath-of-fresh-air moment during the Goddess pose, I realized that if I focused more on breathing and less on the pain, I might find my other workouts easier. So I tried to do deep, steady breathing during a run. By switching to breathing through my mouth rather than my nose, this experiment was successful; I felt far more energized and relaxed for eight kilometres.

Test number two was not so easy. During one of my core workouts, I started to struggle as I held the plank position on a Swiss ball. Then I realized I was holding my breath. As a long, slow exhalation seeped from my mouth, I gained a bit more stability, but finding a rhythm was hard. I couldn't both contract my abs and do diaphragm breathing.

Following that workout, I searched through my many exercise books for a belly-breathing exercise, and found a useful one in Tim Noakes's Lore of Running. He suggests lying down on your back with a few heavy books on your belly. As you inhale, the books should rise. As you exhale, you should see them sink. Your abs will also have to contract to support the weight.

It doesn't just create a different sensation in your body when you do diaphragm breathing correctly, it also takes different focus. And doing this during exercise isn't natural for everyone. Noakes says it can take up to two months before this type of breathing is easy while you run.

Beyond the physical benefits, proper breathing has also really helped me relax – and perhaps more important, concentrate. Sometimes the greatest challenge during exercise is to remain focused. In his book Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-born psychology professor, says banishing those unnecessary, distracting thoughts is key to effective exercise. "It is only when all mental energies are directed toward the task at hand, however, that the absorbing state of flow can occur," he writes.

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"Flow" has always struck me a buzzword, – guru jargon for the masses. But by refocusing my energies on belly breathing as I fought with my weak abs to finish my core workout, I was not only pushing out the pain with each exhalation, but also breathing in power and concentration with every inhalation.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that as you exhale, books that are situated on your belly should rise, then sink as you inhale. In fact the opposite is true.

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About the Author

Madeleine White is an online editor and reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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