‘If you know the art of breathing, you have the strength, wisdom and courage of 10 tigers’ – Chinese adage
Some of the Eastern philosophies and martial arts practices, offer great foundations to the golfer. In order to move efficiently and produce maximum power with minimal effort, martial arts practitioners would hold a centered and balanced posture, a stable lower half, whilst maintaining a relaxed upper body. They breathe from their lower abdomen or what they call the Dan T’ien (positioned just below the belly button) with deep diaphragmatic breaths. Power, speed and energy are released through the exhalation. They would never attempt to create speed or efficiency through tension or in fact holding their breath until the move is complete. These are some of the factors that allow highly experienced practitioners to take on feats that in logical terms would be impossible to complete successfully, whether that be breaking through planks of wood with their bare hand or taking on opponents twice their height, frame and strength. They are channeling their energy extremely efficiently. The basis of these principles would certainly assist the golfer. In martial arts, the angles within the posture and starting position are of course a little different, but the remaining principles would certainly create a good picture for the golfer looking to achieve successful results.
A popular film originating in the 1980’s, Karate Kid, had a main character called Mr Miyagi. Mr Miyagi was an older small-framed gentleman who trained a young boy how to follow in the footsteps of a martial arts master. Mr Miyagi did not have youth, height or a power house of muscular strength, yet his ability to produce effortless speed and power outshone opponents many years his junior. Instead he relied on a calm and centred focus, a stable posture and efficient breathing. This allowed him, combined with a repetitive discipline, to create all the strength, speed and power he needed to take on any opponent who so chose to stand in his path. Applying the principles of Mr Miyagi and the martial arts world of deep breathing and centeredness would certainly help the golfer in creating effortless power and the opportunity of producing a relaxed, yet efficient powerhouse.
With regards to breathing, generally, the golfer when under pressure, will tend to create short, shallow breathes from the upper body and chest. This can unfortunately create added muscular tension in the upper body, a by-product of which can lead to a less efficient golf swing. The ability to create an efficient body rotation can be compromised.
Having an awareness of your breathing and any built-up tension is the first important factor. When you become aware of your breathing you are then able to create an alternate and more relaxed state. In golf, tension can often go unnoticed.
So can being aware of my breathing really help me hit more fairways?!
There are several potential consequences resulting from excessive tension, however below offers an example highlighting how a negative thought process has the potential to affect physiology (muscular tension), which in turn affects the technical components of the golf swing and ultimately the ball flight.
If the upper body becomes tense, frequently linking in with shallower breathing patterns, it can often become dominant over the lower body, the lower body can then become less of a platform or base. A tense and more dominant upper body may then have a limited rotation in the backswing, followed by a greater potential to initiate the transition into the downswing, generally causing the path of the club to travel from out to in or left of the target (for a right handed golfer). This combined with tension in the grip makes it very difficult to produce a natural release of the clubhead through impact. Depending on what the hands do at impact and where the ball is struck on the clubface, either side of the golf course could come in to play in this scenario. Distance may also be affected and reduced. This is just one example of how tension can impact things technically.
The benefits of focussing on your breathing are twofold. Firstly, the relaxation of the muscles generated from correct breathing, (from the abdomen as mentioned above), creates an awareness and a contrast in how much tension over time has potentially accumulated in the body. Often we do not realise how much muscular tension we are holding on to until we release it with a few deep breaths. With that awareness in place and a more relaxed physiology there is a far greater opportunity of creating a more technically efficient movement in the golf swing. When the upper body is relaxed it has a greater opportunity to create an efficient rotary movement when supported by a relatively stable lower body, enabling the potential for increased club head speed with less effort.
Breathing correctly also allows you to create greater present moment awareness, which allows you to focus purely on the shot in hand in a relaxed positive state, taking you away from perceived fearful thoughts and situations. Think of the times where maybe you have had a good scorecard going and you were having a really good round. You then started to get ahead of yourself and tried to finish the round off in your mind, thinking what scores you would need on the remaining holes to play below your handicap or finish with a really good score! In this scenario focus has been taken away from the present moment which means it becomes harder to give the current shot in hand your full focus. Tension creeps in, you get a little anxious, maybe you start to doubt your capabilities or don’t believe you are good enough to achieve that end score you have your mind set on, you start to focus on the perceived fearful consequences. Whatever thought it maybe, it is clouding your ability to give your very best to that particular shot in hand. Being aware of and taking control of your breathing can bring you back into the present moment, enabling you to focus solely on the process of the current situation and shot in hand.
‘Be aware of your breathing. Notice how this takes attention away from your thinking and creates space’ – Ekhart Tolle.
Tiger Woods maintains that in the moments on the golf course which are more intense, he is so encompassed in the here and now that he actually feels as if things are slowing down and he feels calmer. ‘The last few holes seem to take forever!’ He also describes the times where he doesn’t hear noise or can remember what is going on around him, ‘I become so enthralled in the moment.’
This may be a very different scenario from certain intense moments you may have found yourself in on the golf course where a thousand and one thoughts are racing through your mind, your grip pressure has doubled and your heart is beating ten to the dozen!
Studies have also shown the physiological benefits of deep breathing and how it affects the bodies stress response.
‘Deep diaphragmatic breaths interrupt the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. It allows more oxygen into your lungs and blood stream, enabling your muscles to have more ‘fuel’. It also causes the heart to beat more slowly and with less effort. The amazing and complex interplay between the brain and the various hormone-producing parts of the body will change when you practice deep breathing and smaller amounts of stress hormones will be released. The liver and kidneys will then be able to ‘catch up’ with all of the stress hormones in the blood stream and the fight or flight response decreases and ultimately stops’ – CMHC UT Counselling and Mental Health Centre.
Ultimately an awareness of and incorporating healthy breathing patterns provides the added bonus of a more technically efficient, tension-free golf swing, combined with the opportunity for that present moment focus and clutter free mind.
‘As we focus on the breath, we slow down the unwanted chatter inside the mind. We cannot, after all, tap into emotions of anxiety and calmness in the same moment in time. Then, as we slow down the chatter, we soften unwanted tension and resistance in the body. We gain immediate access to an infinite stream (flow) of energy – The Zone – of which no other state of peak performance compares.’ – Dr Tim Kramer
How to practice deep breathing
There are several resources and variations of breathing techniques available. Here is a simple deep breathing exercise.
Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. Let your stomach fill with air. If you were to place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach, the hand on your stomach should rise more than the hand on your chest. As you exhale feel your abdomen lower and push out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. You will feel a sense of relaxation in the shoulders, chest and upper body. Repeat several times.
Once you are able to feel the difference between the short shallow upper body breaths and the deeper lower abdominal breaths you are then in the driving seat, that awareness alone can begin to make a big shift. You can take deep diaphragmatic breaths on the golf course in-between shots, during a pre shot routine, just prior to hitting a shot, or at any point where you feel a degree of tension or anxiety creeping in.