Yoga has been practiced for centuries, and along with it is the practice of controlling the breath or pranayama. With prana translating to “life force” and ayama to “extension” from Sanskrit.1 However, even though the breath is a vital part of yoga, it is something that has to be learned and practiced, just like taking on a new pose. Below you’ll discover some guidance in learning how to breathe during yoga, along with insight into the many dimensions of yogic breathing exercises you can build into your practice.
Why Is Mindful Breathing So Important In Yoga?
Yogic breathing exercises support many parts of the body, including the use of the abdominals and pelvic floor.2 Additionally, yoga and pranayama have been shown to not only be an effective tool in stress management, but they may also help with fatigue, anxiety, and low energy levels.3
Yogic breath regulation comes in many forms, and they all carry their unique benefits. However, it is advised that you first work with a qualified yoga teacher to master the proper technique before practicing these breathing exercises without guidance. Additionally, check-in with your doctor before making lifestyle changes to make sure they are right for you.
Calming Breath Practices
Certain forms of yogic breathing serve to calm the body and mind. They can work wonders for stress reduction, and they’re a great part of a meditation practice. Ujjayi breathing, in particular, has been reported to help improve concentration in yogic practice. This may allow you to hold poses for longer periods of time. Additionally, it may aid in releasing tension and help regulate temperatures throughout the body.4
Alternate nostril breathing, another popular pranayama, was shown in one study to ease stress by calming the mind and body. The same study also reported supported heart health with this type of breathwork.5
Let’s take a closer look at some of these breathing practices and how to properly perform them.
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath, Ocean Breath, Or Psychic Breath)
How it’s practiced: You inhale and exhale through both nostrils at a natural pace, with the glottis (the opening between the vocal cords) partially contracted to make a sound similar to light snoring. To put it a more appealing way, ujjayi breath is commonly referred to as sounding like ocean waves breaking on the beach.6
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
How it’s practiced: You use your right thumb to close your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril. Then, use your ring finger to close your left nostril and exhale through your right. Your next inhalation will be done through your right nostril. Then closing your right nostril, you’ll exhale through your left nostril. This is one cycle, to be repeated as many times as desired.7
Kumbhaka Pranayama (Breath Retention)
How it’s practiced: Inhale slowly and pause at the top of the breath, holding for a few moments. Release the breath slowly, and pause the bottom of the breath, holding for a few moments. Repeat this cycle for 5 minutes.8
Energizing Breath Practices
While all breath practices in yoga are focused on the mind-body connection, some are designed more to help generate energy and warmth throughout the body by pumping air quickly in and out of the lungs.
Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull-Shining Breath)
How it’s practiced: Sitting with your neck and back erect, you inhale through your nostrils and exhale by pulling in your abdomen during each exhale at a rapid pace. Repeat 25-30 times.9
Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellow’s Breath)
How it’s practiced: Begin by breathing in and out deeply through the nose. Expand your stomach fully on the inhale, and exhale forcefully through your nose. Then, inhale forcefully, followed quickly by the exhale. Each inhale-exhale cycle should be just one second, for 10 cycles. Your chest, shoulders, and neck should remain still, and only your stomach should be moving in and out.10,11
Now you know a little more about the benefits of mindful breathing practices and a few of the most common forms. Onto learning how to breathe correctly during your yoga practice.
Pairing Yoga Poses With Breath
You’ve arrived at your yoga class with the knowledge of some of the more basic poses you’ve practiced while doing sun salutations, but you’re still a little confused about when you are supposed to breathe in and when to breathe out.
The general rule of thumb is this: Inhale to open, lengthen, and lift; exhale to fold, curl, and twist. Here’s a further breakdown of the inhalation and exhalation mechanics behind this.
When To Inhale
When you inhale, your diaphragm (the dome-shaped muscle located at the base of your lungs and rib cage) contracts and shifts downward. This allows your lungs to expand, with air flowing inward. Additionally, the muscles located between your rib bones, known as the intercostal muscles, contract and shift the rib cage outward, which increases the volume of your lungs.
So, poses that focus on lifting and opening the chest or lengthening the spine work well with the inhalation breath, as the rib cage and lungs expand.12
Common Poses To Practice On The Inhalation: Half Standing Forward Fold, Upward-Facing Dog, Warrior I, Chair Pose, Sphinx Pose13,14
When To Exhale
When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes into a tight concave dome shape, which pushes your lungs upward and the air in your lungs up and out. Your intercostal muscles (located between your rib bones) also relax. This allows your rib cage to compress, pushing air out of your lungs as the volume decreases.
Poses where you’re twisting, curling, or folding inward work well on the exhalation breath, as your lungs are empty, giving your rib cage more room to move and rotate.15
Common Poses To Practice On The Exhalation: Standing Forward Fold, Four-Limbed Staff Pose, Downward-Facing Dog, Chair Twist, Prayer Twist16,17
It’s All In The Breathing: Practicing Pranayama For The Mind And Body
Understanding how your breath relates to your yoga poses can give a deeper meaning to your practice. If you are serious about making pranayama a more significant part of your routine, consider working with a trained yoga teacher, who can make sure you are properly using your breath in your practice.