One of the most challenging aspects of yoga is maintaining deep, diaphragmatic breathing throughout the practice and synchronising that breath with movement.
In yoga, the breath is primary. This is the case both in standalone exercises, called pranayama in Sanskrit (the ancient Indian language of yoga) and throughout the physical practice, known as asana. It’s a complicated and technical subject, so I’ve broken this article into three parts—breathing mechanics, diaphragmatic breathing tips for practice and exercises that you can take off the mat.
PART ONE: ANATOMY AND BREATHING MECHANICS
The anatomy of breathing
Our lungs are not able to expand and contract under their own steam. The primary driver of respiration is the diaphragm—a dome-shaped muscle that sits underneath your lungs, separating the chest and abdominal cavities.
When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and flattens, increasing the volume of your chest cavity. Simultaneously, the intercostal muscles between the ribs, the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid in the neck, the pectorals in the chest, and the trapezius, rhomboids and serratus anterior in the upper and mid-back, lift and expand the chest. This combined increase in volume creates a vacuum that draws air into the lungs.
As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, reducing the volume of the chest cavity and increasing the pressure. The intercostals and accessory breathing muscles in the neck, chest and back contract, and these actions, along with the elastic recoil of the ribcage, push air out of the lungs.
The physiology of breathing
Breathing is part of the autonomic, or involuntary, nervous system. This means that we breathe automatically, without having to consciously control the process. However, we can also choose to alter certain qualities of the breath, like rhythm and depth, by contracting and relaxing the accessory breathing muscles listed above. This makes breathing dissimilar to other physiological processes, including digestion and circulation, that are entirely outside our conscious control.
The breath is also affected, non-volitionally, by internal and external circumstances. For example, if you step out into a road without looking both ways and have to jump back to avoid being hit by a car, your breathing rate rapidly accelerates to assist you in appropriately reacting to the needs of the moment. Our breathing cadence and depth changes in response to pain, anxiety, stress and fear, as well as to positive emotional states, including excitement, desire, surprise and relaxation.
PART TWO: HOW TO BREATHE IN YOGA
In yoga, we aim to finish each session feeling calm and energised, as opposed to exhausted and depleted, and the breath plays a vital role in this. Typically, we start with a few rounds of centring breath, breathe rhythmically in and out through the nose throughout the sequence and finish with a breath-focused meditation.
1. Centring breath
A great way to start your session is with a few rounds of Equal Breathing, known in Sanskrit as sama vritti, in which your inhalations and exhalations are the same length. This simultaneously sharpens the mind, relaxes the body and connects the two. At this stage, you have the opportunity to fine-tune your breathing in a way that becomes more difficult when you start to move through the poses. Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind.
- Stand or sit up straight. A straight spine, supported by strong back and abdominal muscles, allows for the healthy expansion and contraction of the rib cage. If you slump over and let your chest collapse, you restrict the flow of air coming in and out of your lungs, so try to keep your spine straight in the opening posture.
- Deepen your breath. Your opening breaths should be slow, deep and smooth, making use of your full lung capacity. Full, nasal breaths relax your body and bring maximum oxygen into your system. Relax your jaw, throat, neck, and shoulders, letting go of any unnecessary tension. And try to make the transition between inhalations and exhalations as smooth as possible.
- 360° breathing. Breathe deep into your abdomen, allowing your belly to inflate like a balloon. At the same time, breathe into the sides of your waist and into your lower back. Allow your rib cage to expand in all directions—front, back and sides. Maintain this 360° awareness all the way through to the end of your exhalation.
2. Rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing
One of the most challenging aspects of yoga is maintaining deep, diaphragmatic breathing throughout the practice and synchronising that breath with movement. As a general rule, we inhale to open the body up and extend the spine and exhale to contract the body and rotate the spine. (This pattern of breathing is most obvious in the sun salutations.)
Maintaining contact with the breath
The aim is to stay in contact with the breath all the way through your session but as you have probably experienced first-hand, the mind has a tendency to drift off. Even if we start the class off strong—focussing on each and every inhalation and exhalation, at some stage, we get distracted by thoughts or the difficulty of the pose and lose our rhythm. This is completely normal. Each time you notice you have lost contact with the breath, just gently bring your attention back. Unfortunately, like meditation, this is harder than it sounds and can take years to master.
Keeping the rhythm
Try to maintain smooth, diaphragmatic nasal breathing, regardless of whether you are in a challenging posture or one that is simpler and more restorative. Sometimes, it can all get very complicated and we can forget to breathe or a pose is so difficult that breathing becomes strained. If you catch yourself holding your breath, it could mean that you’re trying too hard and using too much force or that you’re in an awkward pose like a twist where your breathing apparatus is compromised. In either case, try to slow down and deepen your breath. You should never feel frantic or beyond your capacity. For the nervous system to allow for the release of tightness, it must be relaxed. Maintaining your rhythm can help you to gauge the appropriate effort in a way that keeps you mindful and safe.
Extending your exhalations
As you come into static poses that last longer than 3 or 4 breaths, you may find that you get a deeper release if you start to draw out your exhalations. As a function of the autonomic nervous system, when you breathe in, muscular tension throughout the body slightly increases and as you breathe out, this tension reduces to a similar degree. If you try to force a stretch, it will trigger your body’s innate reflex reaction and prevent the muscle from lengthening, in order to protect it from damage. Likewise, if you hold your breath, your body will stay in protective mode. So as you come into the deeper postures, soften your belly and start to draw out the length of your exhalations. Initially, you could try breathing in for two counts and breathing out for four. This is particularly effective if your muscles are super tight or you’re suffering from pain caused by muscular imbalances.
3. Breath-focused meditation
In Final Resting pose, at the end of your session, you can completely let go of control over the breath. Notice how your body breathes itself. Try to focus on the way that your body responds to your breath. Observe the gentle rising and falling of your belly and your chest. The effortless expansion and contraction. Try to stay connected to your breath for the last few minutes of the class. Think of it like an anchor to the present moment. Each time you notice that you have been distracted, just bring your attention back. It’s not possible to stop thoughts by force of will but you can direct and focus your mind on your breath and allow it to come to peace naturally.
I personally find meditating at the end of a yoga session much easier than seated meditation. Your body is relaxed, there is more space in between your thoughts and you have tuned in your powers of interoception (the sense of what is going on inside your body). If you’re interested in going deeper into meditation, this is a great place to start.
PART THREE: PRACTICES TO TAKE OFF THE MAT
“To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds.” Thích Nhất Hạnh
There are innumerable benefits to focusing on and refining your breathing in yoga. It can help to improve lung capacity, increase body awareness, reduce muscular tension, alleviate pain, boost circulation and contribute to an overall feeling of lightness and wellbeing. However, sometimes we need to change our state in the moment.
If you’re stressed, anxious, nervous or in pain, you’re in “fight or flight”. Your heart rate and blood pressure is elevated, glucose is circulating in your bloodstream and your breathing becomes short and shallow. Non-essential functions like digestion and reproduction are put on hold. This may well be the most appropriate short-term response, but if it lasts much longer than the duration of the threat, it is likely to be counter-productive and can potentially be harmful. Your pre-frontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and clear thinking shuts down, the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline remain elevated and so does the tension in your muscles. Furthermore, your amped up physiology continues to send distress signals to the brain, keeping you in “fight or flight”. It’s just not possible to feel relaxed and calm while your heart is racing and your muscles are tense.
Using diaphragmatic breathing to change your state
In broad strokes, extending your exhalations relaxes the nervous system, maintaining equal inhalations and exhalations supports balance and focus and extending the inhalation has the effect of amping you up. Since we’re already pretty overly stimulated, I tend to focus primarily on the first two of these two styles of breathing, which activate the parasympathetic, “rest and digest” nervous system, helping to reduce anxiety and put you back in control of your emotional state.
Here are two breathing techniques that you can practice depending on the needs of the moment. With training, you can learn to maintain healthy breathing patterns even when you’re in a powerfully-charged situation. As with centring breath, ensure that your spine is straight, breathe in and out through your nose, keep your belly soft, focus on the sensations of the breath and try to make the transitions between the different phases of breath smooth and seamless.
- Objective: To activate the relaxation response.
- Timing: When you’re anxious, afraid, nervous, stressed, in pain or you can’t sleep.
- Description: Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing in which your exhalations are twice the length of your inhalations.
- Instructions: Inhale slowly for the count of 4. Hold for the count of 7. Exhale for the count of 8. Repeat the cycle for 4 rounds.
- Objective: To trigger a state of balance and clarity.
- Timing: When you want to feel more alert, focused, energised or switched on.
- Description: Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing in which your inhalations, exhalations and breath retentions are of equal length.
- Instructions: Inhale slowly for the count of 5. Hold for the count of 5. Exhale for the count of 5. Hold the breath out for the count of 5. Repeat the cycle for 4 rounds.
STICK WITH IT
“If you plant the right seed in the right spot, it will grow without further coaxing.” BJ Fogg
Breathing is one of those things in yoga where you wake up in a couple of months and discover that you’ve made significant progress. It just takes consistency and patience. Each time you practice, see how long you can stay connected to your breath as you synchronise breath and movement. Notice as we inhale to open the body or extend the spine and exhale to close the body and flex or twist the spine. Every time you become aware that you’ve lost your rhythm, just gently bring your attention back.
If you are a subscriber to the site, you’ll find a number of other diaphragmatic breathing techniques and guided meditations here.
Please let me know if you have any questions about breathing during your yoga practice or these (or other) standalone practices. They really can change the game.