How to Breathe in Yoga
It’s no secret that breathing is fundamental to any yoga practice. In fact, one whole limb of yoga (there are 8 total) is dedicated to the art of working with our breath to harness vitality and calm the mind.
In our breathing, as in all of yoga, we’re aligning with what’s already happening by coaxing the breath deeper, rather than pushing to the point of strain. This is especially important for sensitive nervous systems or those healing from trauma.
While the breath is a complex and deep subject, anatomically, there are two fundamental aspects to breathing in yoga that we will focus on here. Both of these require us to slow down and become more mindful of how we practice.
1. Breathe consciously
2. Link movement and breath
In its universal form the breath is represented by the Goddess Shakti, the creative force that gives life to all things, who stands for the power to create. Individualized, the breath is called prana.
Similar to what Chinese medicine would call chi, the prana circulates through the body as an underlying blueprint of energy. Sometimes the prana, which is latent in the breath, becomes stagnant in certain joints or areas of the body. Whether this is due to poor posture, injury or repetitive motion, moving the body —in the case of yoga, through asana— with conscious awareness of the breath can release some of the stagnation, restoring health and wellbeing.
Try these tips during your next practice to be more conscious of your breath:
- Observe three full cycles of breath, from start to finish; notice when your mind wanders, and bring your focus back to your breath when it does.
- Imagine your breath is a flashlight and as you inhale, us it to light up any dark, constricted, stuck areas of your body.
- Listen to the sound of your breathing, make it smooth and even.
- Relax your tongue, jaw and the back of your neck to breathe more deeply, with less effort.
- Feel the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe naturally.
Link Movement With Breath
Inhaling is an expanding movement; without even trying, our chests lift and ribs expand when we breathe in. During movement, actions that correspond to inhalation, therefore, involve lifting and expanding.
- lifting (as in the spine and chest when we stand or sit up)
- reaching (as in our arms overhead or out to the sides)
- widening (as in moving our thighs back and sitting bones apart, i.e. in cow pose or forward fold)
- lengthening (as in the spine before a twist or forward fold)
- returning to center (as in after a twist)
A natural and effortless contraction occurs when we exhale. Our awareness moves from the outside to the core, making it good for connecting with ourselves on a personal level.
Actions that correspond to exhalation are:
- folding (as in moving into a standing forward bend)
- contracting (as in engaging the muscles of the upper back to pull the shoulders deeper into cobra pose)
- narrowing (as in squeezing our legs together in headstand)
- twisting (as in when we rotate into twisting triangle)
- deepening (as in moving farther into a twist, forward fold or back bend)
- bending (as in to the side in side angle pose)
Putting it Together
The breath is both fluid and has subtle pauses both when empty, as well as full. To move mindfully, wait for the breath to begin, then follow immediately with the movement. As the breath completes, pause and hold for a breath in the pose. Only move again once the next stage of the breath has begun.
Here it is step-by-step:
- stand in tadasana
- let your inhale begin
- reach arms overhead
- finish reaching as the inhale culminates
- hold tadasana with arms over head, breath full/held for a beat
- let the exhale begin
- immediately follow the breath with the forward fold
- finish the dive forward as the exhale ends
- hold your full expression of uttanasana while empty of breath