Breathing and Biking

Breathing and Biking

Breathing and Biking

By Paul Salmon, Ph.D.

In meditation practice, we focus on the breath as a kind of an anchor point to help focus attention. It''s one of the few situations in which breathing has our undivided attention. But there are other circumstances where it makes sense to pay attention to the breath. Runners and other athletes certainly know this, and use the breath as an important source of information about physical intensity and what exercise physiologists refer to as ‘perceived exertion'', the subjective sense of how hard one is working.

Breathing is fundamental to ventilation, the process by which the respiratory system exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs, which ensure that every cell in the body receives adequate oxygen and eliminates metabolic byproducts. This is a largely automated cycle that adjusts to varying metabolic demands in a way that is sensitive to both internal and external conditions. When you sit or rest quietly, your breathing probably slows to about 12 breaths per minute. During movement, breathing speeds up to meet the added demand for oxygen supplied to working muscles.

These adjustments take place pretty much outside conscious awareness; you don''t have to prompt yourself to breath, for instance, nor do you have to issue a command to your lungs to expand and contract in response to various levels of exertion. This is very much in keeping with how the heart and other internal organs ‘autoregulate'' in a way that maintains a state of physiological balance.

However, the respiratory system is unique in the sense that it is responsive to conscious control. You can consciously speed up or slow down your breathing, and in doing so have a fairly immediate effect on ventilation. You have more direct and immediate control over respiration than, for instance, heart rate or other physiological systems. This is of fundamental importance to most meditation practices, which both revere the breath as symbolic of life and spirit, and teach breathing techniques designed to foster often exquisite control over the seemingly simple process of inhaling and exhaling. Yoga-based pranayama, for example, is a breathing-based practice intended to foster a calm and contemplative state of mind.

The ‘in-breath'' and ‘out-breath'' lie at the foundation of all such practices. In relaxation breathing, the belly expands in response to pressure on the inhalation as the diaphragm (a large dome-shaped muscle) pushes down into the abdominal region as the lungs expand. This process is reversed during exhalation. The inhalation and exhalation can both be consciously regulated. For example, you could make the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation (or any other multiple). This is a fundamental and interesting relaxed breathing practice because heart rate speeds up slightly during inhalation and slows down during exhalation – a phenomenon known as the ‘respiratory sinus arrhythmia''. Prolonging the exhalation promotes a state of relaxation, whereas the opposite tends to increase activation.

The independence of the inhalation and exhalation are a bit like the front and rear derailleur mechanisms on a multi-speed bike. Each consists of several gear-like sprockets of various diameters, along with a mechanism for moving the bicycle chain from one to the other. Each can be controlled independently of the other to create many different combinations of pedaling force selected in response to variations in terrain and exertion level. With practice comes facility at selecting the optimal combination of front and rear gear settings in response the need for either speed or power. In this sense, learning to regulate breathing via the inhalation and exhalation is like learning to use the gears of a bike effectively to attain a desired state of energy expenditure.

Paul Salmon, Ph.D,. is a faculty member in the Psychology Department at U of L, an ACSM-certified Health Fitness Instructor, and an RYT/200 Yoga instructor. He is a member of KHFM''s Advisory Board, and can be contacted at

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