Breathing is a central part of our yoga practice so this month I´ve decided to look into yoga breathing in more detail – what is it? How do we do it? And perhaps, more importantly, why should we try different breathing techniques?
Breathing is a natural process, right?
Breathing is a natural process – it happens without our conscious thought or action. We can call this “involuntary” or automatic action. Voluntary breathing action is something that we control – for example when we hold our breath, if you smoke, or when we want to sing we have to control the breath through the vocal cords to make the sound.
What is yoga breathing?
When you first come to a yoga class, your immediate attention might be drawn to the practicalities of putting your body into various new and different positions. However, often a class will start (or finish) with some breathing exercises and whilst moving (or holding) asanas, as a teacher I often remind my class to breathe!
Yoga breathing can also be called “pranayama”. This is a Sanskrit word, which pulls together two words: “prana” meaning life force energy and “yama” meaning to control, extend or draw out. So, essentially pranayama means control or extension of the breath, control or extension of the life force energy. This is voluntary breathing action.
There are many different breathing techniques you can use either during your asana practice or before you start a practice, at the end of a practice or on their own.
Step 1. Breath awareness
For me, as a mindful therapeutic Hatha teacher, an important first step is breath awareness.
Take a moment to notice how you are breathing now, in this instant. Notice the length of the inhale and the exhale – are they long or short? Is the length of the inhale and exhale the same or different? Are you breathing through your nose or mouth, or both? How deep is your breath – do you feel your lungs expanding, the ribs expanding or movement in the tummy?
Did you notice that there are three parts to the breath – the inhale, the exhale and the pauses in between?
Breath awareness is an important part of yoga and meditation, and also our daily life. Simply stopping all action to notice your breath can help to bring immediate changes to your physiology and mindset.
Step 2. Breathing during yoga asana
During a yoga class, when you are practicing asanas (the positions) it helps to use the breath as you move into a position, hold a position or come out. It can also help us to transition between asanas.
- How do you breathe?
There are many different ways of breathing in yoga.
For beginners, the most simple yoga breathing technique is to breathe through the nose on the inhale and the exhale. Lightly close your mouth – your tongue might rest of the roof of your mouth. Inhale for the count of four and exhale for the count of four. Sometimes you can notice the pauses in the breath (after the inhale, and after the exhale). With practice this breath will come deeply into the body as you allow the diaphragm to move. As you progress, some breathing techniques make use of this pause in breathing and we can lock or hold the breath for a period of time.
Beginners and practiced yogis alike can also try dirga pranayama – three-part breathing. Here we place focus not just on the length of the breath but are conscious of our body and where the breath is going. Read our earlier article on three part breathing here.
Many teachers will suggest you use ujjayi breathing (also sometimes called “victorious breath”) during your yoga practice. In this breathing technique we also inhale and exhale through the nose, however, we make a constriction in the throat, which makes each breath longer and more controlled. Sometimes people say it is like “Darth Vader” breath, but I feel it is even more effective when you no longer need to make the noise to know that you are using this breathing technique! Ujjayi breath can take some practice, particularly for the exhale, but it really does make a difference to your yoga practice and you reap all the benefits listed below.
- Learn to move with the breath.
The simple instruction for moving with the breath in yoga is:
Inhale – as the body is expanding, widening or lengthening
Exhale – as the body contracts, is compressing or shortening.
You might notice sometimes during a sun salutation, the yoga teacher will instruct “inhale, arms up. Exhale, forward fold”. This is to encourage you to connect your movements to the breath, as you transition between asanas. This breath helps to bring a steady flow to your practice, rather than jerky standalone movements.
Another example is in a seated twist. In a Hatha class, the teacher will instruct you to inhale to lengthen the spine, exhale to twist deeper.
Step 3. Breathing before (or after) yoga asana practice
There are also some additional pranayama techniques that you might enjoy practicing, before a class or at the end.
Alternate nostril breathing (also called Nadi Shodhana) is a great technique to help balance left and right. Depending on how it is practiced it can bring energy to the body or help to relax.
Breath of fire (Kapalabhati) can be practiced as pranayama and also during the class in between asanas, or whilst holding or moving in an asana. For example, this breathing technique is used a lot in Kundalini yoga. Here we breathe out in quick sharp bursts of breath, using the tummy muscles to help. The inhale is short and silent – the focus is mainly on the exhale. This breathing can help to improve the heart and blood circulation, and some people say it improves constipation and digestion. It certainly moves prana around the body!
Contraindications for pranayama and yoga breathing
Some of the breathing techniques might include breath retention (holding your breath) or strong breathing into the tummy (breath of fire – kapalabhati). Not all breathing techniques are suitable for everyone. For example, pregnant women should not practice kapalabhati). For this reason we recommend that you first attend a yoga class to learn these yoga breathing (pranayama) techniques so that you can practice them safely at home.
Yoga breathing and meditation are different
Yoga breathing and meditation are different in their emphasis, technique and the reason why we do them. Yoga breathing is control of the breath and control of life force or energy. Meditation however, is more about observation, with no control. In meditation you can focus on the breath – for example in mindfulness of breathing techniques. However, you practice meditation to see things as they are, without changing them. Read Johns article: what is meditation for more information.
Yoga breathing is great to practice before meditation as it helps to calm the mind and settle the body (plus all the other benefits listed below).
What are the benefits of yoga breathing?
There are many benefits of focused yoga breathing and regular pranayama practice, which include:
- It helps you to stay present
Focusing on your breath is a great tool to help your mind to focus on the present moment. Every breath is a present moment. Each time a thought pops into your head you can direct the attention back to your breathing.
- Calm the mind, settle the body
As you regulate your breathing or breathe deeper into the body (moving the diaphragm) your body notices the signs that it is okay to relax. (Diaphragmatic breathing activates the relaxation response).
- Let go of tension – release and relax
As your body and mind start to calm, you create the opportunity for your body (in particular the muscles) to start to relax and release. Tension can start to drop away from your body.
- Move deeper into the asana and your body
As we discussed above, breathing can help you to move deeper into each yoga position. In Hatha I love holding an asana for five breaths. In yin, breathing into a position for four or five minutes really does allow you to move deeper into the asana and take up residence in your own body
- Move deeper into your self-awareness and self-knowledge
Breath awareness is one step towards self-awareness. Knowing how you habitually breathe can help you to understand your emotions or reactions. For example, people who experience periods of depression often breathe with a short shallow inhale and a long drawn-out exhale. This pattern of breathing has a down regulation effect on the body. Bringing balance back through your breath (equal length of time for the inhale and exhale) or even a short period of focusing on a stronger and longer inhale can shift the energy and help to bring balance and relief from depression. As you breathe in each yoga asana, you can become aware of your thoughts or emotions and learn more about your body (what it likes and does not like, areas of tightness or tension and so on). You can then take this knowledge and awareness off your mat into everyday life.
- Move the prana (life force energy) around the body, to release blockages and bring more oxygen into the whole of the body.
Prana is life force energy. As we inhale we bring in oxygen and this energy into the body. Some pranayama techniques can be used to help clear out old prana, bring in new prana and re-oxygenate the blood.
- Change unhealthy involuntary breathing patterns to healthy breathing.
For example, if you naturally take shallow inhales and long deep exhales, with regular yoga breathing practice you will start to notice a change in your natural (involuntary) breathing pattern. Your natural breathing will eventually become more even – a similar length for inhale and exhale. This will have a knock-on positive impact in your health. If you have ever smoked, you might notice a tendency to reverse breathe – the tummy pulls in as you inhale and expands as you exhale. Yoga breathing can help to correct this.
- Reduce pain
Often, when we experience pain we tighten our muscles (to protect ourselves) – this can actually create more pain. If you experience chronic pain, yoga breathing can help to reduce pain levels. As your body calms, the tension starts to drop away and the muscles relax. This change in physiology can help to reduce the amount of pain you are feeling.
Practice yoga breathing during a yoga retreat
Here at La Crisalida Retreats you can practice your yoga breathing as part of our yoga retreats . We offer a range of styles of yoga, which means that you will experience different breathing techniques across the week, during the twice daily yoga classes. If you haven´t got time to come on retreat, then roll out your mat and practice at home or during your next yoga class. Experience the benefits of yoga breathing for yourself, first-hand.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).