I am going to share two breathing exercises that I use to improve my handstand endurance outside of actual handstand practice. I'm not going to pretend you can go from practicing breath control while contemplating the ocean, to holding a handstand on top of your trusty base's hands or with a hula hoop spinning around your foot with these two exercises alone. They will, however, make it much easier to hold the pose/position/trick for long enough to really show off your skills or remain equanimous, depending on your goals. I would also mention that these exercises can help you improve performance in many endurance type sports. Getting better at breath control is a process that requires practice and time. Are you surprised? I didn’t think so. It’s ok to sigh a bit and then get ready to work.
I practice breath control in a setting outside of handstand practice. That is what helped me get from huffing and puffing to holding my handstand for one minute without turning beet red, and in a surprisingly timely fashion at that. Here are the steps for practicing breath control outside of handstand practice:
Warning: I am not a health professional and advise you to consult your doctor before practicing these exercises.
Exercise 1 - Stealth Breathing
GOAL: To BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE ONLY, making NO NOISE and NO MOVEMENT visible to an outsider. This will require slow controlled breathing. You do not want to breath out through your mouth as this releases too much CO2 too quickly and prevents you from optimizing oxygen saturation.
BENEFITS: The result of doing this exercise successfully and consistency will be to reset your tolerance for CO2 which will allow your CO2 levels to rise higher in your blood without causing as much discomfort, which in turn prompts you to gasp for air. You will be able to hold an uncomfortable inverted position for longer despite the restricted air volume available to your lungs and you will be able to recover faster from this effort.
PREPARATION: Sit in a comfortable position. You can also stand if you prefer. The idea is to be comfortable, you do not need to be in lotus position by any means. You do, however, need to sit up, spine long, top of head floating up the sky. If this is difficult then use some pillows or a chair to help maintain the position.Now place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.
1. Start by breathing in and out, as you normally do, but only through your nose, for a count of 10.
2. Then breathe silently and invisibly (stealth breathing) for a count of 5.
3. Repeat the cycle 5 times.
If you have to gasp for air when you finish a round of Stealth Breathing, then you are pushing yourself too hard. You want to be able to keep control of your breath for the entire exercise. If this is the case then scale back and breathe normally through your nose for 10 counts, then Stealth Breathing for 3 counts, or whatever you can maintain without gasping when you return to normal breathing.
I will also mention that you don’t want to push yourself and get lightheaded. Breathing is obviously essential to life and you need to take responsibility for your well-being. Start slowly and build up. We are building our tolerance to CO2 not trying to do ourselves harm. When you can comfortably do 5 rounds of 10 counts off, 5 counts on, then you can start to increase your rounds and/or your counts of stealth breathing.
My goal is to be able to breathe like this for 5 minutes, but it not as easy as it sounds. If you feel lightheaded then please stop! Rest and then start again on a smaller scale. I usually find a general feeling of panic starting to spread through me rather early on and a strong desire to stop this exercise after a few rounds. Pace yourself.
Exercise 2 -Step challenge
GOAL: To take as many steps as you can while holding your breath and then be able to begin breathing again, slowly and calmly, with no gasping for air or accelerated breathing.
BENEFITS: This exercise resets your CO2 tolerance which will allow you to deal with restricted air volume and maintain composure. Walking requires more effort than sitting and so you will feel the urge to breathe sooner than if you were sitting still. Learning about your body's cues.
PREPARATION: Get your journal and a pen ready. Remember that your mouth remains closed throughout this ENTIRE exercise. Find a space the is sufficiently large to either walk in a large circle, or head outside and walk in a straight line. You may feel silly walking through the park holding your nose; consider this when choosing your spot.
1. Breath in and out normally through your nose.
2. Next, exhale and then hold your nose closed with your fingers so that no air sneaks in.
3. Start walking at any pace you choose, but try to keep it your natural stride so that everyday you will fall back into this pace every time you practice.
4. Count how many steps you can take before you feel your body contract because it wants air.
5. Now release your nose and gently breathe in through your nose.
6. Write down the number of steps in your journal.
7. Rest for 1 minute. Repeat 3-5 times.
ONLY take as many steps as you can so that you can release your nose and breathe in slowly and calmly through your nose. If you need to suck in air rapidly when you release your nose and then take a few more quick breaths, this means you held your breath for too long! Learn to understand your body's cues. We are trying to get our bodies to accept higher levels of CO2 and rapid breathing will expel the CO2 we have built up by holding our breaths and defeat the purpose.
With practice, you will be able to take more steps before your body tenses due to the breathing reflex. You should aim for 80 steps, but don't be surprised, depending on your fitness level and age, if you start somewhere between 15 and 25 steps. Also, walking faster might make your progress look better on paper, but if you are going to take the time to do this exercise, why cheat yourself out of the full benefits.
The same warning applies as for exercise 1: if you feel lightheaded then you are pushing yourself too far, too fast. Scale it back! Prefer to be the tortoise than the hare collapsed in a heap in the middle of the park with a crowd of onlookers milling around.
Again, as you read this you may be thinking, this sounds like the easiest thing; I could do that all day! If you are a trained freediver then yes, you are now laughing at the rest of us. Otherwise, I invite you to try these exercises and decide for yourself. I was surprised how uncomfortable I got and how much I wished I was doing anything else at that moment. Look at it like HIIT training; it is going take some motivation and you are probably going to be looking at your watch wondering when the heck it is going to be over. But you can't beat the results.
Becoming proficient at controlling your breathing will be very useful when you are stuck in that uncomfortable strenuous upside down handstand. First, you will be able to tolerate the higher levels of CO2 and continue to breathe slowly and calmly. Second, You will be familiar with how to breathe with minimal changes to your best alignment that you have been working so hard to get into and to maintain.
In my post Upside down breathing - why you are gasping like a fish out of water, I covered the mechanics of breathing and why being in an inverted position makes something we do every day all day, without even thinking about it, suddenly quite laborious. Now I am going to add another difficulty into the mix.
When you are doing a handstand your arms are pushing your body up off the floor and doing so requires strong muscles and a properly aligned body. This alignment, combined with the muscular force necessary to maintain this alignment, makes it very difficult to expand the chest outwards and impossible to expand the chest upwards since we are already fully extended with our shoulders up near the ears. Good alignment requires keeping the rib cage closed and I’ll talk more about this in my post The path to the perfect handstand alignment (or as close as you’re going to get) which is coming soon. Sign up for my newsletter so you will never miss a post or the opportunity to join me for a challenge!
In my post, Why handstands are so HARD and what you can do about it,I mentioned breath control being a critical factor if you want to hold a handstand for more than three seconds. This is where we figure out what that means for our handstand practice routine.
How to practice breathing in a handstand?
Get into a handstand with the wall for support. I suggest practicing with your stomach facing the wall because it helps to reinforce proper positioning and alignment. See my post on Proper handstand alignment coming soon to make sure you are on the right track. Did I mention that you can sign up for my newsletter?
Now begin to count your breaths in your head. Try to breath slowly and with minimal body movement. When I examine videos of my torso in a handstand I see my abdomen expanding but I do not see any chest expansion.
How many breaths you start with depends on many factors, so you will need to just for your personal fitness level and handstand level. A complete beginner will probably start with three breaths. After these breaths, come down from your handstand and KEEP BREATHING SLOWLY! The same rules apply as for exercise 2, which I describe in my post Two game changing breathing exercises and which I highly recommend practicing if you are serious about improving your handstand endurance. If you need to gulp for air then you stayed up there too long for the purposes of this exercise. Scale back, give yourself a break and remember, little steps get you there too and you might be able to enjoy the sunshine along the way.
Work up slowly to more and more breaths. You will also be contending with increased muscle fatigue as you learn to hold the position longer and build endurance in the shoulders. You will even probably start shaking at some point. If it is your last attempt for the day, then by all means stay a little longer through the shaking if you can maintain calm breathing. Come down before your arms give out and you end up in a pile on the floor with a sore head. Yes, this has happened to me and I was forced to admit that determination and positive mindset are not always going to be enough. Some things just take time.
I will say that in my career I have performed several partner acrobatic acts where I held handstands while balanced in someone else’s hands. I tended to hold my breath as I got into the handstand position and then forget to start breathing. Eventually I would be able to shift my focus from maintaining my position and remember to breathe. This would probably start with a loud exhale releasing the pressure of my held breath and wanting to quickly reduce the CO2 and get as much oxygen in my lungs as quickly as possible. When I look back on this now I see that I was just asking to get tired more quickly and less efficient for the next trick that was coming up. I knew how to control my breath during the dance and movement that was in between the tricks but not at all while upside down. I would definitely put an emphasis on breath training if I were to start doing this kind of act again. Read Two game changing breathing exercises next to find out how you can get better at breathing in a handstand without doing a handstand!
As more people discover the joys and benefits of being upside down whether while developing a yoga practice or through an aerial silks, trapeze or even pole dancing class, they are eventually confronted with the following question, “how on earth do I breath while holding this completely unnatural position?”
If you haven’t spent much time upside down then the answer might seem quite simple, “the same way you do right side up!”. Of course, you’d be completely wrong and one handstand against a wall for 30 seconds will leave you panting with the rest of us.
We breathe, while right side up, using our diaphragm to pull air into our lungs. Our bellies gently expand as the diaphragm tightens and drops to create space for the air, followed by an expanding of the chest to allow even more air into the lungs if necessary. This creates a vacuum which draws the air into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes and rises, the air is pushed out of the lungs and the cycle is ready to begin again. Interfere with that expanding action and you will discover very quickly that you are no longer able to get enough oxygen and must work ever harder to keep up with your need for oxygen.
Have someone sit on your chest for a while and you will tire surprisingly quickly as you fight to pull air into your lungs. Now have them sit on your abdomen - carefully of course. Also don’t choose someone that weighs twice what you do, be reasonable. There is a distinct difference to how you breathe in these two situations which can help you understand the nuances between chest breathing and abdominal breathing.
Through meditation we learn to breathe from the abdomen using the diaphragm as opposed to mostly filling our upper chests with air, often raising our shoulders up towards the ears which leads to short shallow breathing. Deep low abdomen breathing signals the parasympathetic nervous system to relax. Short shallow breathing creates a feeling of tension and even fear which can lead to hyperventilation, but we’ll get to that later.
Stand in front of a mirror with one or two hands on your belly and breathe in. You want to feel your hands being pushed out almost as if a balloon is being blown up, then possibly see your chest expand outwards, but you do not want to see your shoulder rising at all, creeping towards your ears. The only time we want our shoulders up by our ears is in a handstand, the rest of the time we want out shoulders down, with the shoulder blades pulled down and together, expanding the chest.
But lets get back to upside down breathing. When you are in an upside down position you no longer have gravity helping you to drop your diaphragm to make some space for air. On top of that, gravity is actually making it harder to move your diaphragm towards the ceiling (don’t forget we are upside down) and you have to move it farther since just by being upside-down it is being pulled towards your head leaving you with a smaller space for you lungs to begin with. You also have internal organs pressing down now further reducing space and forcing you to push them out of the way when you fill up your lungs. If you have ever been pregnant, you know only too well what I am talking about.
Would you be surprised to learn that humans can’t survive for very long in an inverted position?
To learn more about breathing in a handstand, read Mastering breathing in a handstand, my next post. If you would like to skip right to the breathing exercises then click on Two game changing breathing exercises to head right over there now.
My name is Laura Smith and I am a professional acrobat.