Learn to breathe better so you can ride better
I promise I won't say "Don't hold your breath!"
Picture your last event or tough ride, (maybe your learning to canter or competing at a level that scares you just a bit). The work starts to get tough. You get the reminder “keep breathing” so you take a couple of shallow breaths. Then you go right back to being a rigid mess till your horse peters out and you’re left gasping for air. More than likely your problems with inconsistent breathing and tension didn’t start when the work got harder they were just exaggerated by it.
I want to assist you in learning to breathe effectively in the saddle with three techniques that each bring unique benefits including not dying due to lack of oxygen (#kiddingbutnotkidding), mental clarity, confidence building, increased energy and cooling/quieting stray voltage.
Breathing is just like conditioning any other muscles, it must be practiced during times of low stress and built up slowly. These three techniques should all be practiced in the saddle while your horse is standing still first, then let the benefits carry over into faster gaits.
Three breathing techniques that will help you ride better
1.Ujjayi (ocean) Breath
What is it: Ujjayi is known as the victorious breath. Often referred to as the ocean breath as it resembles the sound of the ocean waves. It’s both energizing and calming at the same time and works well to quiet the busy mind.
When to use it in your horsemanship: Ujjiayi is handy to use as a warm-up or between exercises as it brings your full attention into the saddle. Because it clears away the clutter it’s handy practice early in your ride so you can communicate and respond to your horse with precision. The fresh energy that comes with ujjayi breathing is also helpful to build greater endurance throughout your ride. It should be a go-to any time you or your horse lack focus.
How to do it: The trick to learning ujjayi is to get the sound right first and then tweak the form. When it’s done correctly you will sound like Darth Vader or like the ocean waves are coming from the back of your throat. Start by breathing in through your nose and breathing out through your mouth. Press the air out like you are trying to fog up a mirror. The “haaaaaa” sound on the out breathe is how you know you’re on the right track. Once you’ve got that down try making it while breathing out through your nose with your mouth closed. When you start practicing it with your mouth closed you’ll have to narrow the back of your throat slightly making a Darth Vader like sound. After you get the hang of it on the out-breath then try making it on the in-breath by keeping your throat narrowed as the air flows in. If you’re struggling to get the sound right tipping your head back can get the waves flowing.
What is it: Lion’s breath is a technique that increases vitality. It’s great for loosening up the neck/jaw, easing tension, boosting confidence, and let go of what others think. There is also a pose that coordinates with it which can be modified to be done in the saddle.
When to use it in your horsemanship: Lion’s breath works well when you find yourself sinking/hiding/or squirming in your saddle. It’s a good one to practice at home before a competition as it wakes up the spine and loosens tension in the neck and jaw. I also like to bust out a couple of rounds any time I’m taking my riding too seriously or I’m riding a horse with a lot of neck/jaw tension. It helps me to lighten up and channel easy confidence.
How to do it: Start by sitting up tall in your saddle and placing your hands on your thighs, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. On the out make the “haaaaaa” sound like your fogging up a mirror. On your next breath in look up toward the sky with your eyes (keep your heads straight forward) and on the out-breath repeat the “haaaaaa” but this time with your tongue out. You’re going to feel like a total weirdo the first few times you do it but the more you picture breathing out the powerful confidence of a lion soon you’ll be too distracted to worry about how you look. Once you start to get the hang of it lean forward placing your hands on each side of your horse’s neck in front of the saddle (stay sitting tall) and practice sending powerful air out in front of your horse. Be sure to pace yourself so you don’t get light headed, we want the air to energize us not knock us out of the saddle. For most people doing even a few rounds is effective.
3. Sitali (taco) Breath
What is it: Sitali is known as the cooling breath. It helps us to connect to the greater good (think don’t sweat the small stuff). Sitali helps settle down firey emotions. It’s also known as the bliss breath.
When to use it in your horsemanship: Sitali can be very effective when you find yourself feeling hung up on control issues while riding. Even though you and your horse are on the same team it’s easy to slip into being a control freak when things aren’t going as expected. When emotions start running high most of us quickly become aware of the mental death grip we’re taking but struggle to let go of it. Sitali essentially blows cool air on the firey emotions to help the body release them and their physical responses. Once you cool down the unproductive emotions you will be able to think through the situation, ditch the pissy attitude/stray voltage, and move forward with quiet balanced energy.
How to do it: Stick your tongue out and roll it into the shape of a taco (if your tongue is un-taco-able you can just stick it out flat and make a slight cup to pull the air between your upper lip and tongue). Breathe in sucking air through the taco tongue for five, hold for two, then exhale for five out your nose. As you breathe in imagine your tongue is a straw pulling the air down low into your belly while you keep your shoulders relaxed wide and low. I find it most helpful to repeat the breath several times imagining cool air washing over all the areas of tension in my body.
Bonus (this one is for all of us that need to lighten up in the saddle)
Horsey lips: I believe “horsey lips” was coined by Adriene of Yoga with Adriene (she’s fan-freakin-tastic – you can read more on how I’ve used her youtube channel to become a better rider + better human here). It’s great for softening tension in the face and jaw and handy to use during times of anxiety in the saddle. To do it just close your mouth softly with your lips together, take a deep breath in, then send the air out between your lips so they flap together making a happy horse sound. Even if this one doesn’t melt away all the tension at least it’ll make you feel like a horse-crazy kid and is good for a laugh.