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You Asked: How Do I Breathe in Yoga?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
For my students, breathing is the topic in yoga that prompts the most questions: How do you breathe in yoga? Should it be loud? How do I make that "noise" when I breathe? When the poses get too hard, I become out of breath. How can I keep breathing?

Breathing is one of the most important elements--some would argue that it's the most important element--of a yoga practice, but for many of us, it is among the hardest to master. We focus on the stretch, the strength or the balance that is required to get into a pose, and we neglect the breath. I was guilty of that same attitude when I started practicing yoga.

What did it matter if my breath was short or long, shallow or deep, through the nose or the mouth?

As it turns out, it mattered greatly. If your breathing isn't relaxed, your body can't relax into the poses. If your body isn't relaxed, your mind can't relax. And if your mind isn't relaxed, you can't draw the full benefits from your yoga practice. Proper breathing and control, known as pranayama, is one of the eight "limbs" of the philosophy of yoga; asana, which is the physical practice most of us know as "yoga," is another of the limbs.

Practically speaking, breathing slowly can lower your heart rate. It also brings fresh oxygen to the lungs, and in turn, the rest of the body.

In yoga, we use a type of breath called ujjayi (ooh-JAH-ee), which means "victorious" in Sanskrit. To summarize, I tell my classes their breath should be slow, deep, and even. The breath is meant to simultaneously relax and energize the body. In flowing yoga classes, the breath sets the rhythm for the practice. Each movement is linked to a breath. Inhale, you move into pose, exhale you move out of it. The breath, I tell my students, is your metronome. In, out, in, out. The body matches the breath.

Beyond that, the breath is drawn in and out through the nose, with inhalations and exhalations of equal length. The breath is drawn first into the lower belly, then the lower rib cage and finally the chest and throat. (Think: belly breathing rather than chest breathing.) The length and speed of the breath is determined by the diaphragm, and the breathing itself tones and strengthens that thin sheet of muscle beneath the lungs.

When folded, twisted or stretched in a pose, the lungs have to work harder to fill up, which helps strengthen them. This becomes the challenge for new students.

The throat is constricted slightly (more on that later), which produces that audible breath we associate with yoga. The mouth stays closed, and the tongue rests softly at the edge of the soft palate, where it meets the back of the top teeth. This placement is what naturally constricts the back of the throat, it prevents you from clenching your jaw, and it reminds you to keep your mouth closed.

The sound of the ujjayi breath should be subtle, though it's different for everyone. When done properly, it sounds like the ocean. Chances are, you've encountered a zealous breather in a yoga class. You know the type. Their breath is so loud it sounds like they're exhuming a hairball or imitating a freight train. You've probably noticed that other people's breath isn't audible at all.

In yoga, we steer clear of the words "ideal" and "perfect," and that includes the breath. Each person, each day, each practice is different. My own breath is rather quiet, even when I am at my most focused and relaxed during a yoga session.

A few weeks ago, I took a class taught by my friend Doug, a yogi and musician. His "Rock Star yoga" begins with pranayama (breathing) techniques and stretches for the face, neck, throat and mouth. As we warmed up, Doug talked about the importance of breath, how it energizes the body. He said, "People always ask, 'Should the breath be loud?' I had a teacher who once said: 'If your breath is loud, it will quiet the mind. If your breath is quiet, it will quiet the body.' "

So how can you start to bring more awareness to your breath? How can you start to link your movements and breath?

Start with an easy breathing exercise. Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor, eyes softly closed, tongue resting gently against the back of the top teeth. Inhale through the nose while counting silently to five. Pause for just a moment, then exhale for five counts. Try to keep the breath as even throughout; that is, don't exhale/inhale explosively at the start, only to run out of air/space in the lungs by the fourth count. Imagine you're sipping in air through a straw, which will keep the breath even and flowing. Repeat this exercise several times, until you feel like even inhalataions and exhlatiaons are less of an effort. Experiment with longer counts and shorter counts, and notice the effect that each has on your mind and body. What length feels "right" to you?

OK, so slow, deep, even breathing is simple when you're not moving any other part of the body. What about keeping up the breath when you're moving the body?

As a general rule, you inhale each time you move into a new pose; you exhale as you move out of one.

Let's use triangle pose (trikonasana, above) as an example:
  • Start in mountain pose at the top of the mat.
  • Inhale, step your right foot back about 3 feet, pivot around to face that right foot, and bring your arms out to a "T."
  • Exhale, lean out and over the front (right) leg, letting the hand come to rest on the shin or a block, or wrap your first two fingers and thumb around your big toe.
  • Inhale, extend the left arm up, gazing up toward your left fingers. Keep the belly strong by pulling your abs in and back. Exhale as you settle into the pose.
  • Continue to breathe as you hold the pose.
  • To come out of the pose, inhale as you look down at your right toes, press into the right front and come to stand, arms still out at a T.
  • Exhale as you pivot back to the front, to repeat the pose or move into another.

The sun salutations (surya namaskara) are a great way to practice linking breath and movement.

  • Begin in mountain pose (tadasana) at the top of the mat.
  • Inhale, raise your arms overhead and press your palms together, then shift your gaze up to your thumbs. Make sure the shoulders are relaxed and not scrunched up around the ears.
  • Exhale, "swan dive" forward, as you bend at the waist, bringing your hands to a block or to the floor. Keep a slight bend in the knees (don't lock them), and bring your gaze to your navel.
  • Inhale, bring palms to thighs and bend the knees slightly as you come halfway, flattening your back.
  • Exhale, drop the hands to the mat, step back into a plank and come onto your knees, squeezing the elbows against the sides of the body as you lower completely onto the mat.
  • Inhale, press the tops of the feet into the mat, press the palms into the mat directly under the shoulders and begin to straighten the arms. (Keep the glutes relaxed here.)
  • Exhale, tuck the toes, press into the hands, and lift the hips high (as seen in the photo above). Spread fingers and toes wide, take the gaze to the belly, and let the shoulders relax.
  • Stay for five breaths.
  • Inhale, look up at your hands, walk your feet between your hands and come halfway up with a flat back.
  • Exhale, fold forward, offering a slight bend in the knees and tucking the chin.
  • Inhale rise up, arms overhead, palms pressing together as you gaze at your thumbs.
  • Exhale, arms by your sides.
  • (Repeat as desired.)

Experiment with the length of your breath. During one sun salute, silently count to five during each inhalation and exhalation. With the next couple of sun salutes, hold each breath a bit longer. Observe what happens to breath and movement when you slow down your breath. Are you moving more slowly, more mindfully?

Now, try a couple of sun salutes with faster, shorter breaths. Though you might feel like you're getting more of a workout, how does the rest of you feel? Do you feel hurried? Stressed? Are you as focused as you were when you were breathing slowly.

A couple of general rules about breathing:
  • Inhale to lengthen/expand/open in a pose; exhale to fold/twist/relax.
  • With twisting poses, you inhale as you "undo" the twist, then exhale as you return to a neutral position.

Each person breathes as a different pace naturally, and it will take awhile for you to find a pace that's right for you. Be patient, continue your practice, and just keep breathing!

This is the first in a series of blog posts about yoga basics. What topics would you like me to cover in the series? Do you have trouble keeping your breath and movement in sync during yoga?

Thanks to my dear friend across the pond, Jen J, for inspiring me to write this post!

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DIVAGLOW 4/2/2021
Thanks for the tips. Report
CECELW 1/12/2021
I don't really care for yoga Report
This is a great exercise. I like to do yoga. Report
JAMER123 9/23/2020
Good article. Thanks for sharing. I am working at learning more about yoga. Report
PATRICIAANN46 7/26/2020
Thank You................ Report
JWINKSLLC 7/11/2020
Great job describing ujayii. Thanks. Report
FISHGUT3 4/15/2020
thanks Report
Takes a little practice Report
Thanks for the information Report
Brand new to yoga.Do you have a video for beginners to watch. The write ups for poses are good, but never having done it before, or seen it being done, makes it hard to know if I am doing it right or not. Thank you! Report
thanks Report
Great article! Thanks! Report
Awesome information. Thanks. Report
Thanks for a great article! :) Report
A very informative and helpful article. Report
I enjoy yoga. One thing I really like about is you don't feel exhausted at the same time good for our overall health. Many people quit doing yoga because it's boring to them. It needs time to understand what is yoga all about. Overall, the results surely amazed you when you have patience on doing yoga.

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Very helpful & useful Report
I really enjoy doing yoga. Report
Along with the rest, I am so glad I came upon this---I am grateful you posted this. This bit of info is going to help me with learning the practice :) Report
I am new to Yoga and this will definitely help me in my next session. The instructed kept saying link your breath with the movements but I never really knew the importance or how to.

Thanks for this post, it's great! Report
I've followed B.K.S. IYENGAR for many years and love Yoga. Report
I love yoga, and we are taught the pranayama breathing. I love it, and it certainly does calm you. Thanks so much for this blog. We use this breath all through the poses, and it certainly helps. you never hold your breath, practicing yoga, that's for sure...just let it flow. Report
good blog...something for me to work on.

I can breathe fine through my nose, however, have always found it to be much more shallow breaths in comparison to breathing through my mouth, resulting in sticking with mouth-breathing for any exertion (swimming, labor contractions, etc)....I really do need to get back into my yoga practice, so really should work on this aspect of it Report
this was actually very helpful since i'm sure some of the principles apply to pilates as well which i also enjoy. it wasn't until i started to get my breathing down that i began to enjoy these two activities more. so thanks! Report
Oh, I'll admit it... I have a lot to learn about breathing properly in yoga. I'm trying to hard to learn to breathe through my nose during poses. but that's difficult when high energy activities I do like spinning and weight training have been breathing through my mouth.

For a future topic, I'd like to learn more about Ayurvedic eating and how that relates to yoga practice. Report
I did not start yoga until last year, when I was 65. I am now addicted to it. I loved the way you simplified breathing. Yoga (and good breathing) has changed the quality of my life and my attitude. Report
I totally have trouble keeping my breathing and movement in sync while doing yoga, which is probably why I always keep meaning to get back into it and I keep avoiding it. It's been so long since I last did it, that I have no idea what to even do! Report
I love doing Surya namaskars!! starting with slow, i increase its' intensity to quite fast!! Report
The sun salutation is the easiest way for me to keep my breath slow and steady. Even if I want to do other yoga, I always start with that to get my breath correct. Report
Thank you so much for sharing & I am looking forward to more blogs on this subject. Report
I have taken chair yoga classes because of some physical issues and really love it. The one thing I was able to master was the breathing and have found it very beneficial. It helped me through surgery and even when going to see the doctor. Many times going to the doctor between finding a place to park and getting there in time tends to maybe up the blood pressure. I have them take my pressure after I have had a few minutes to just sit and breath and it works every time. Pressure is usually 110 over 60. Not bad for an 82 year old. Report
Thanks for the lesson! I recently started yoga but haven't received any real instruction, just direction on moving from pose to pose. I'm looking forward to your next article. Report
This was very helpful and I look forward to your future columns on yoga. Just sitting here at the computer practicing breathing is so calming. Thanks.
TerrBear Report
Thank you. I hadn't been to a yoga class for about a year. I went this past Saturday and I was a bit rusty on breathing! Good info. Report
Ooooh.. thanks for the tips... off to practice that right now! I LOVE that pic on the wall. For some reason Devangari is gorgeous to me... I love the Om symbol. :) Report
Just reading this blog made me think about how much I miss my yoga classes. I haven't been in a while and I think I'll go this week. And when I do I will have a better understanding of the breathing. :) Thank you! Report