How to Breathe in Yoga
Mindful Breathing Leads to a Deeper Meditation
It is common knowledge that breathing in a deep and mindful way calms the mind and body, reduces stress and anxiety, promotes full and complete breathing, increases oxygen supply to the blood, helps keep the lungs healthy, releases muscular tension, and prepares for a deeper meditation.
Yogic Breathing or Pranayama, is the basis of yoga practice. It begins with deepening our breathing with the three-part breath, then moves into more advanced breathing techniques such as Kapalabhati and Nadi Sodhana also known as the Alternate Nostril Breath.
When do we inhale and exhale during yoga practice? It is a consistent practice. We exhale when we bend forward like in the head to toe pose, or when we twist our body. We inhale when we do a pose that lifts or opens the chest like in the cobra or upward dog poses.
Belly-breathing, chest-breathing, or three-part breathing? The approach to breathing in yoga is affected by gender, age, fitness level, and medical conditions if any.
The influence of breathing on yoga poses and the other way around is the work of the breathing diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm is a thin skeletal muscle located at the base of the chest and separates the abdomen from the chest. It contracts and flattens when you inhale, which pulls air into the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the air is pushed out of the lungs.
We exhale when we bend forward like in the head to toe pose, or when we twist our body. We inhale when we do a pose that lifts or opens the chest like in the cobra or upward dog pose.
Breathing in a Prone Pose
The Cobra pose is a reclining back-bending asana. It is said that this pose gives your abdomen a good stretch and reduces stubborn belly fat. It helps in strengthening the upper body by building a more flexible, stronger spine.
Cobra Pose – Instructions
- Lie down on the floor with your chest down and your back up.
- Join your arms behind your back by grasping your forearms or elbows, or place your hands in the standard Cobra position close to your chest.
- Squeeze the muscles from the hips to the toes and use the neck and deep back muscles to lift the head, neck and chest as high as you can.
- Now, breathe in and out deeply through the nose, and notice that each inhalation raises the upper body higher, and each exhalation lowers it as you keep the back muscles engaged continuously.
- During inhalation and exhalation, the lifting and lowering actions are due entirely to the breathing muscles.
In this pose, as you breathe in, the diaphragm works to reinforce the activity of the deep back and neck muscles and so deepens the back bend. As you breathe out, the muscle fibers of the diaphragms lengthen away from the center as they resist the gravity.
When they finally relax at the end of exhalation, the back bend in the spine is supported only by the deep muscles of the back and neck. This strengthens the diaphragm because after you have lifted as much as you can with the deep back muscles, you use the diaphragm and the external intercostal muscles to raise the upper half of the body even higher. This is a sizable mass to be lifted by a single sheet of muscle acting as the prime mover.
Breathing in a Supine Position
In a supine position, you lie on your back with your face and torso facing up.
The fish pose is a reclining back-bending pose. It is useful for people who work a lot on computers. Spending a lot of time typing at a keyboard drags the shoulder girdle forward when typing. Doing the fish pose helps to actively spread the ribs, stretch the intercostal muscles, and open the front rib cage.
Supported Fish Pose – Instructions
- Place a bolster or block under your shoulder blades.
- Place a folded blanket under the back of your head
- Arch back over the block so that you trap your shoulder blades, pinning them against your back ribs
- The block must be placed directly under your shoulder blades and catches their lower margin.
- Your head extends back and your neck will have a gentle arch. If your neck feels compressed, raise your head more by placing a small pillow under it.
- Use the block to lift and spread your ribs, collarbones and the sternum. Let the weight of your shoulders sink into the block under your shoulder blades.
- Extend your arms out to the sides.
- If it feels comfortable, stretch your arms directly over your head toward the floor.
- Hold this pose for a minimum of 30 seconds up to 2 to 3 minutes.
- To come out, push your elbows into the floor and come up sitting.
Avoid putting too much emphasis on expanding the front chest wall to avoid any excessive demand on the heart.
Breathing in Downward Dog
Breathing in the Downward Dog pose is not the same as breathing in forward bending poses. Downward Dog is a partly inverted pose where the diaphragm draws air into the lungs while pushing the abdominal organs up toward the ceiling when we breathe in. When we breathe out, the diaphragm resists the drop of the abdominal organs to the floor.
The weight of the abdominal organs against the lower side of the diaphragm causes the yoga practitioner to exhale more completely.
Beginners who form a relaxed round in this pose, rather than an inverted V with a taut abdomen, keep their bellies relaxed while breathing from the abdomen. Breathing in this way simply pushes the abdomen out when they breathe in, and relaxes it when they breathe out. This kind of breathing is not useful in this pose.
More advanced yoga practitioners have a different experience in this pose. They press into an upturned V while holding the lumbar lordosis is. The arch in the spine creates a back-bending pose, overlaid on 90-120 degrees of hip flexion. When intermediate to advanced practitioners are simultaneously working consciously with the breath, the result is diaphragm-assisted back-bending.
To experience this, come into Downward Dog while keeping the lumbar lordosis integral and lifting high up on your toes if needed. Come completely into the pose putting emphasis on the acute angle between the pelvis and the thighs and breathe in deeply. You will immediately notice that the diaphragm is a great influence in assisting this work.
Breathing in the Child Pose
In the Child pose, the body is doubled over itself. Inhaling increases tension all over the torso, and exhaling decreases it.
In addition to drawing air into the lungs, inhaling presses against the abdominal organs that are resistant to compression; that is the reason we feel a sense of increased tension. Exhaling is also active, or should be, because we are breathing evenly, and smooth breathing requires that we do not exhale with a hissing sound.
Deep Yogic Breathing
Deep yogic breathing has a calming effect on the mind, and accelerates the elimination of impurities from the blood. It brings more oxygen to the brain and revitalizes the endocrine system.
- Lie on your back, separate your legs, and tuck the chin in slightly which will elongate the neck.
- Place your right hand on your abdomen covering the navel and monitor your breathing.
- Start counting the number of seconds needed for your hand to move up as you inhale and move down as you exhale - this is the natural rhythm of your breath.
- Now, place your thumbs under your armpits and spread your fingers wide apart covering a large number of ribs.
- Inhale deep through the nose sending the air from the abdomen to your rib cage - notice how your ribs separate and fills up with air.
- Exhale through the nose and feel how your abdomen goes down first through your rib cage.
- REPEAT A FEW TIMES.
- Now place your left hand on your collar bone and your right hand on your abdomen.
- Breathe and feel how when you inhale, the air fills your lungs like a wave rippling from your abdomen to your rib cage and to your chest.
- Observe this full breathing for a while.
- Now exhale slowly through the nose to the count of 8; watch the air going out.
- Inhale slowly to the count of 8.
- Exhale slowly to the count of 8.
- Keep your attention on the rippling movements of the air.
Notice the calming effect of this breathing. Frustration and fatigue leave you during the exhalation, and peace and detachment come with each inhalation.
You can practice the deep yogic breathing at your desk, in front of an open window, or while waiting in line.
BONUS: Smooth Breathing
Smooth breathing is one of the most important skills in yoga. When we are relaxed and breathing from the nose and the abdomen, it is easy to breathe in, and transition smoothly into breathing out.
A slight pause happens naturally between the inhalation and the exhalation. Let the pause happen but start breathing in again consciously as soon as the exhalation ends. In a prolonged pause between the inhale and the exhale, the diaphragm would have relaxed completely and your next in-breath might start with a jerk, which you want to avoid.
Caution: Yoga oral tradition advises against pausing or stopping the breath consistently after breathing out. Regularly stopping the breath at the end of the exhale could cause heart problems. If it happens naturally then that is fine, but do not make a habit of it.
Using a Sandbag
If you place at sandbag of about 3 to 15 pounds on your upper abdomen just below the rib case, you will notice the added pressure required to breathe in and control breathing out.
The chest should not move and the sandbag should be light so you can push it easily upward in the direction of the ceiling. This use of the sandbag is helpful to train and strengthen as it helps to be more in touch with the activity of the diaphragm by increasing the pressure required for the in-breath and to control the out-breath.
Reference: Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H David Coulter.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.