Obreething: Graeme Obree and breaking world records with your breath

Imagine cycling for an hour with your lungs hanging out.

Actually, imagine you’re running flat out for the bus, and it pulls away just before you get to it. So you run to catch it at the next stop, and you almost get there in time but it pulls away again. So you sprint – hard – for the next stop, and the bus pulls away again. Then you see a big sign saying you have to do this 202 more times, in the hour. That’s how Graeme Obree describes breaking the world one hour record:

I went to see him talk to Richard More about cycling, world records, and of course The Beastie – his latest project for breaking the world record for fastest human powered vehicle. He’s hilarious, excitable, captivating. He has albatross arms and big hands and a very effective way of pointing to make a point.

The Beastie

So here are three points he made:

1. How to do stuff

He was good on how he decided that he’d break the record in the first place. He knew he was going to do it. He also knew he was never going to be good enough to do it. So he did it anyway. And that’s the thing: most people are trapped  in a paradox that, on the one hand, they don’t believe they can do anything until they’ve done it, but they won’t try to do anything if they don’t believe they can do it. So they end up being stuck, paralysed by redundant thought processes.

2. How to breathe

Although his famous innovation in bicycle design is the using the bearings he ripped out of his washing machine, it’s his focus on breathing that interested me, from a yoga point of view. Also from a cycling point of view, because I know how useful a bit of yogi breathing was when cycling up a mammoth hill on Arran.

Obree has a complicated four-part breathing technique designed to keep as much oxygen-rich air in the lungs as possible while he’s cycling. I can’t really explain it here, but the big thing is how important breathing is – it’s the first and most important thing in life, as it is in exercise, as it is class. Whether it’s ujai breathing or Obreething is a matter of use and preference – get the breathing right and the rest follows.

3. How to listen up: stop living by habit and assumption and fear

There were two other things that stand out from the talk. The importance of stripping away habitual thinking – of coming to things with a clear mind and disregarding your assumptions of what can and can’t be done. Naturally I thought about those moments in yoga when you think ‘there’s no way I can do this’ or ‘I’ve never thought of myself being able to do splits’ and so on, and the big thing that yoga teaches you is that the mind is full of obstructive bullshit. Clear all that out – forget about your complicated history and trappings of fear and get down to actually listening in, feeling what it’s like to be alive in your body right now.  Feel and appreciated what you’re capable of achieving.

Obree seems like a master listener. He doesn’t use any body-monitoring tech. He listens in to his what’s going on in his body rather than reading it off a screen and thinking ‘oh, so that’s what’s happening’. It’s a skill that takes time to develop, and unfortunately it’s not available at your local online retailer.

You can work on it in a yoga class, though.

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