Reaching New Heights: Pranayama for Hiking

Deepen your experience by incorporating your breath.

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I came to yoga as a broken and beaten athlete. For many years, I abused my body with the rigors of training and competition. It was always more miles, more strokes, more strides. In reality, it was anything but a mind-body connection.

While hiking this past March with my wife and daughters, I was enjoying a moment of reflection and gratitude on all that yoga has taught me. More specifically, pranayama. You see, it was ultimately the breath that tamed the unhealthy competitor within me. This competitor, who I now know as my ego, was abusing my body for years. No pain, no gain right?

My moment of gratitude came to me as I was watching myself and my family handle the changes in altitude of that early-spring hike (we are east coasters and were hiking in the elevated hills of Colorado). Because of my study of the breath, we are a family who only yoga breathes in cardiovascular exercise, which I’ll talk more about in a few minutes. What I soon noticed was that no matter how difficult the incline, none of us were willing to comprise our relationship with our breath. It didn’t matter if we had to slow our pace at times, it only mattered that we maintained a relationship of respect with our body and breath.

I was trained in the Kripalu style of yoga, which has a strong foundation in pranayama. While in my yoga teacher training, I was amazed at the level of attention towards linking breath with movement. The athlete in me wondered why we didn’t have this same philosophy in sports training. I had always been taught to inhale through my nose, exhale through my mouth. But, yoga movements focused on inhaling and exhaling through my nose.

I started to incorporate various yoga breathing techniques into sequenced cardiovascular and strength training workouts. The affects were beyond phenomenal. I could increase speed or endurance, maintain postural integrity, reduce, and at times eliminate, lactic acid build-up, enhance recovery times, and more importantly, create unity between my body and mind in ways I had only experienced in yoga.

On your next hike, try the following breathing sequence and enjoy the response from your body and mind:

  1. Take the first five to ten minutes to develop a steady rhythm of nasal breathing on the inhale and exhale. As your heart rate rises, it will be easier to maintain the integrity of the inhale rather than the exhale. Try to focus on lengthening the exhale to a steady, even rhythm.
  2. Attach counting to the mental process by picking a set of numbers to work with while retaining the breath on the inhale and exhale (kumbhaka). We’ll start by using the number four. As your respiratory system strengthens, you can increase your counts. For now, inhale and hold the breath in for a count of four. Exhale and hold the breath out for a count of four. Do this for eight rounds and then take 16 integration breaths of diaphragmatic breathing (dirgha). Repeat this four times.
  3. If you are familiar with kapalabhati breathing, move into 16 rounds of this breathing. Exhale the breath completely on the last round and hold the breath out for a count of four. Inhale and hold the breath in for a count of four. Exhale and take 24 integration breaths of diaphragmatic breathing. Repeat this four times.
  4. For the rest of your hike, focus on diaphragmatic breathing and enjoy the meditative state you’ve cultivated within you.
  5. At the end of your hike, go through eight rounds of alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana).

We had an amazing experience that day in Colorado as we took in the beauty around us while we connected individually to self and collectively as a family. Before my education in yoga and pranayama, this personal journey would have been lost on me, hidden beneath ego, competitive pursuits, and a deteriorating system.

ed harroldAn expert in breath-based performance and transformation, Ed Harrold addresses individual, athletic, and corporate needs to help alleviate stress, heighten aptitude, deepen concentration, and restore energy. Ed has served as the director of yoga and sports training at Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, is a contributor for Mind Body GreenALOHAThe Daily Love, and Natural News, and has been featured on Mama Glow and Live the Process.