What is Breathplay?

Sometimes a nobody has something to say.

In the early 1970s, I needed a safety valve for the pressure cooker of graduate studies at UC Berkeley, so I took up running. It was more about reducing stress than racing. That’s why I was surprised to find myself running marathons at under six minutes per mile. In 1972, my best was 2:33, just three minutes shy of that year’s qualifying time for the US Olympic trials. If I push a little harder, I told myself, I’ll be able to run in that marathon.

In terms of Olympic Marathon talent, I really was a nobody. Had I qualified, I might well have finished last. In short, I had no illusions about running through the streets of Munich as part of the US team.

That’s just speculation, though. I pushed too hard in training, so instead of a breakthrough marathon, I got marathon breakdown.

Taking up yoga to undo the damage, I studied with the best teachers I could find, including BKS Iyengar, Joel Kramer, and JB Rishi. These yoga years are distilled in my books Exercises for Runners (World Publications, 1974) and Yoga and the Athlete (World Publications, 1975) Ironically, it was within days of the publication of Yoga and the Athlete that I found myself drawn into the dance world. I told this story in my January 1981 Runner’s World article, “Fine Tune Your Running,” and in my BreathPlay book (Doubleday, 1986).

Of the three major BreathPlay epiphanies, two were dance related. In 1964, riding big waves at Waimea Bay gave me the first. In 1975, a certain jazz dance class gave me the second. In 1980, ballet master Richard Gibson gave me the third and most powerful epiphany.

What is BreathPlay? To what discoveries did the BreathPlay epiphanies lead?

BreathPlay couldn’t be more improbable, nor could the performance boost it generates be more astonishing. In a nutshell, BreathPlay is a systematic learning process based on swimming against the respiratory tide of billions. Instead of breathing in and out, as the entire world population breathes, the skilled BreathPlayer breathes out and in.

In addition to breathing actively out and passively in, the BreathPlayer also organizes each breath cycle in rhythmic patterns, or breathing gears, so that breathing is always harmoniously integrated with movement, no matter what the work rate.

What’s so astonishing about the results? It’s the combination of significant increases in power output with significant decreases in heart rate. You end up performing at substantially higher levels, and yet it feels easier. You turn training from stressful work into deeply satisfying play. Your performance breakthroughs come not from greater force but from greater finesse

Sometimes it’s precisely a nobody who has something to say. My modest physical talents placed me several levels lower than world class, and yet BreathPlay technique and training rocketed me into that realm. I believe that many weekend warriors would love to hear what I have to say about how it’s done.

By developing this very rare set of breath-based skills, I found myself riding with world class athletes, training them shoulder-to-shoulder on runs and rides, and routinely outclimbing them to demonstrate certain facets of BreathPlay cycling technique. My BreathPlay coaching has played a central part in Olympic gold medals, world speed and endurance records, and world championships.

When a no-talent nobody is able to perform at world-class levels, and when he has distilled his power secrets into a sophisticated, coherent, learnable system, he definitely has something to say.

Ian Jackson

13 Responses to “What is Breathplay?”

  1. 1 Brian June 10, 2008 at 7:15 pm


    Glad to see you are getting this astounding system out to the public. I can only speak for my self but when applied to one’s given sport or endivior your Breath Play system delivers!

    Having been a student for years now I remember being in the car on the way to the USAT Age Group Nationals and you were helping me refine my very rough grasp of this dynamic system! Even at that event which saw my wife hospitalised, daughter sick and I feeling not quite well (102deg temp) I was able to hold it together enough to pull a good time on the first run and hammer the bike portion only to get violently sick towards the end and with that pause I was still able to adverage 23 mph on the bike, the final run was a lesson in survival but none the less the order Breath Play brought to my efforts alowed me to finish.

    Since that day I have been a student of Breath Play and have accomplished things on a bike that younger guys only dream of! This past weekend is a prime example with the local temps over 100 deg and the humidity at 70+++ I compleated a 40K TT in 54 min.. The key to that wasn’t raw power but the continious practical application of Breath Play techniques and a fantistic detailed pacing plan from my coach. Combined the plan was good enough for 5 th on a day that saw alot of riders abandon.

    To make it plain, the system is simple but not easy, however athletes looking at this system have to ask them selves would you be willing to open your mind and apply yourself with a totaly break through system to WIN? Or do you want to be like EVERY ONE ELSE?


  2. 2 Josiah Child September 12, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Hi Ian,

    I must say that working with you over the last month has resulted in some very dramatic changes in my running and biking.

    Even though I was a fairly accomplished 800m runner at a regional level in college (Division 3 all american and then All Ivy later at UPENN), I was never really able to train aerobically before working with you.

    In the 800m, I could kind of get by with cruising most of the race and then use the active exhalation skills I had learned as a sprinter and in the weight room for a strong kick. In sprinting you only do this once or twice and somehow it never occurred to me to try putting these together for endurance sports.

    Instead I would suck air and activate my exercise induced asthma every time I tried to do endurance sports. As a result, I only ran about 27 miles a week in college and suffered from lots of injuries if I tried to go further. In general I considered myself to be a fast but aerobically compromised athlete.

    I started working with your breath play skill set this summer after a friend signed me up to compete on a three person team for a 24h triathlon. Honestly I had no right to run the race, I was biking about 100 miles a week and maybe got up to 30 miles a week of running.

    I did, however put a lot of concentration into how I was training and working with you made a huge difference.

    In the race, I completed over 36 miles of running, 46 miles of biking and a half mile of swimming. I worked on the breathplay skill set throughout the race and amazingly we took second place among coed teams and 4th among all other 3 person teams.

    My main fear in entering the race was whether it would be possible to do this kind of distance without sustaining injuries. Amazingly I found that the only pains I felt the next day were a pair of sore calves. I credit the improved balance and coordination I am starting to integrate into my running and cycling for this result.

    My indoor training session with the zooming cd on Tuesday and my run on wednesday were two of the best aeorbic training sessions I have ever had.

    I am looking forward to putting together what really amounts to my first aerobic training program this fall. Hopefully capped by some nice 5ks in October/November…

    Oh, did I mention? I don’t use my inhaler anymore.


  3. 3 Wilson Hardy October 1, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Discovered your technique years ago. Great stuff. I credit breathplay with keeping me focused and organized especially when the going gets a little rough.


  4. 4 Josiah Child October 10, 2008 at 3:11 am

    Hi Ian,

    So one question I have concerns recovery. I have found that the breath play skill set can really bring me to my athletic potential especially during stressful athletic loads. I even find that I call on the skill set during my daily life when I need to really be in the moment and focus my thoughts and intuitions. (As a physician working in a busy ER I have found this very helpful.)

    My question concerns your advise on recovery.

    One of my coaches used to say, you can only go to “the well” so often.

    Do you have any rituals, breathing patterns, visualization, or auditory patterns that you find help you “refill the well”?

    Sometimes I find that after a very hard work out (or a demanding shift) I am so jazzed that it is hard to go to sleep and get the rest I need.

    Any tips or insights?


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  8. 8 Gaperville (@Gaperville) March 24, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    Wow! Ian Jackson himself! I use to take private sessions with you when I was in my younger teens in the early-mid 80’s. Still talk about your reverse breathing patters, now called the BreathPlay.

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