“How do I breathe in yoga ?”
“How to breathe in yoga?” seems like a simple question, but can actually become quite complicated. Pranayama practice is every bit as sophisticated as posture practice, if not more, and has its own master teachers and variety of techniques and viewpoints. Furthermore, there’s a load of science and measurable outcomes you could work towards if you wanted to be terribly precise. In thinking about how to best find a practical and helpful answer to this question, I pulled out loads of books and read lots of articles and then applied the theory into my own practice. From the mundane (how many millilitres?) to the profound (eternal waves) there is a wealth of information and practices to sustain inquiry for a lifetime.
But what I really wanted to get to was how to breathe in yoga, and by that I mean the practice of vinyasa flow and movement through postures. Being careful not to speak for other traditions, as Ashtanga and Iyengar among the biggest having their well-defined view points, I want to clarify how and why I breathe like I do when I flow and practice postures based on my training and style.
Two types of breath in yoga
Ok, this is a big simplification. But to keep this practical, here are two types of breath I tend to work with in a yoga class while flowing or holding postures (setting aside, for now, specific breath practices that stimulate or relax on their own). As these two types of breath work on different sides of an energetic spectrum, it is important as teacher and practitioner to keep them in balance through your sequence, as well as stay aware of when breath is not matching the activity on hand or being used to an unhelpful extreme.
Relaxing Belly Breath
Usually practiced lying down when the belly can be relaxed, the diaphragm moves with ease. This is experienced as movement of the belly up and down as the diaphragm pushes the contents of the lower abdomen out on inhale. This breath is great for beginners or those who have habitual patterns of anxious chest breathing and is generally associated with rest and relaxation. This breath as well as the general tone of softness through the abdomen can also be used in meditation or mellow forward folds. I find that generally the exhale and feeling of letting go with gravity is most emphasised here.
Empowered Chest and Torso Breath
Through the sun salutations, and generally in standing poses and active seated poses, a slight constriction of the abdomen* can change how the diaphragm works and encourage a full chest breath that expands the ribs and broadens the upper chest on inhale. Many movements in the sun salutation and standing postures emphasise this feeling of heart and chest opening. This type of breathing is generally associated with energy and invigoration and I find that it is most associated with inhalation and enlivening. Importantly, this is different than a narrow breath into upper chest usually associated with bad posture and anxiety.
*the amount of core support, the intensity, if it is sustained, and where it begins and ends is another complicated question whose answer varies by tradition, what pose you are in, and a practitioners individual needs – but let’s just say the belly is no longer free and floppy, there is integrity, lift, and support from below to allow the upper opening
Ujjayi, the breath regulator
To further complicate matters, in vinyasa flow yoga we typically use ujjayi breath on top of the empowered chest breath. This is, simply explained, a slight constriction of the vocal cords at the base of the throat that creates both a sibilant sound and a way of managing the speed of inhales and exhales. Additionally, the constriction in the throat partners with the core support from below and the support of the diaphragm to have a sort of pressurisation of the entire torso that brings structure and stability to the movements we put the body through in vinyasa. Through practice, the use of ujjayi can result in sustained even and rhythmic breath through the challenge of sun salutations and active postures. This evenness helps keep the nervous system in check and makes sure we feel energetically balanced at the end of the practice and not over-stimulated or exhausted. Importantly, breath isn’t created or moved by the use of ujjayi breath, even though you may find a handful of loud practitioners sniffing breath through their nose and sweating profusely because they are actually inefficiently using the breath. Let the diaphragm do the work; ujjayi breath simply helps regulate the speed.
Also, when we hear the sound of ujjayi it can act as a form of mantra. Each repetition of inhale and exhale and its soft whispering noise, as matched with movement, can lull us into a bit of meditative trance that pulls us deep into the flow.
Why how you breathe in yoga matters
I tend to come back to Erich Schiffmann’s beautiful but simple take on the spirituality of breath:
Each breath you take can remind you to be here now, to treat this moment as important, and repeatedly to affirm the fact that right now you are exactly where you want to be, doing exactly what you want to be doing.
About every yoga tradition emphasises how breath is the link between mind and body. In more tangible and practical ways, science and medicine has clearly demonstrated that how you breathe has measurable effect on whether the autonomic nervous system functions in “fight or flight” or “rest and digest” mode. For me, learning to breathe slowly, deeply, and regularly through the challenge of strong asana is a profound exploration of how I manage challenge in my life.
Breath largely happens on its own, but in yoga practice we can regulate and encourage some of how breath moves through us and how it effects us. The types of breath described above as specific to vinyasa flow are just a few examples.