Anyone who’s ever attended a yoga class guided by a licensed instructor was probably instructed to “breathe consciously” as they were flowing through the different poses. But what does this mean? And why is breathing regulation (pranayama) vital in yoga?
Breathing consciously during yoga helps you connect your mind with your body and allows you to focus entirely on the movement. Breathing in sync with your body’s movements reduces stress, induces a meditative state, and aids a state of calm and tranquility.
Sounds good, right? However, like the poses, learning to breathe properly during yoga takes practice and patience. It’s worth the effort, though, so let’s see why this is important and how to breathe properly while doing yoga.
What Is Conscious Breathing?
First thing first — what exactly is “proper” or “conscious” breathing in yoga?
Conscious breathing refers to any breathwork technique that requires you to focus on your breathing. It’s used in most forms of meditation, as well as in poses and movements during yoga. It has been shown to have a positive effect on enhancing stress resilience, longevity, restoring focus, and improving respiratory and circulatory function.
Try It For Yourself
To better understand yogic breathing, you should give it a try yourself.
Find somewhere comfortable to sit or lay down. Close your eyes and take a deep breath through your nose. As you breathe in, try to first fill your belly, then your lungs. When you feel like you can’t take in any more air, hold it for a couple of seconds (one, two, three, up to five — whatever feels comfortable) and very slowly start to exhale. While exhaling, first release the air from your lungs (with your arm, feel them retract) and then your belly, until you’re completely out of air.
Remember the order: inhale — first belly, then lungs, exhale — first lungs, then belly. Exhale through your nose, with a closed mouth and your tongue touching the palate (upper ceiling of the mouth) to close off the throat.
Continue breathing this way for a few minutes. Focus on the breath. If any thoughts enter your head, simply ignore them and refocus on your breathing. You should start to feel much calmer and more relaxed.
Yogic breathing is an integral part of meditation and can be practiced as often as you like. It’s very beneficial as the last thing you do at night before falling asleep as it relaxes your body just enough to make you drift off easily. No one enjoys tossing and turning while being unable to fall asleep, so if this is you, give it a try.
Why Breathing Is Important in Yoga
Breathing is the foundation of yoga and one of the main characteristics that separate it from other sports or physical activities. Without conscious breathing, you simply won’t get the full benefit from your yoga routine.
When you focus on your breath, this mental effort allows you to be fully present in the moment. You don’t dwell on the past and what could happen in the future. You leave the world behind to simply be present and breathe — and that’s what yoga is all about.
Moreover, breathing right during yoga helps you better control your movements and hold the poses for longer periods of time. Concentration is key for balance, and focusing on the breath is one of the strongest forms of concentration. This is very evident in beginners, who, as soon as they hear a noise and turn their attention away from their breath, lose their balance and fall. And if you were ever wondering how it’s possible for advanced yogis to balance their whole body on one hand — now you have the secret ingredient. The rest is hard work.
What Role Does Breathing Play in Yoga?
The fundamental role of breathwork during yoga is to enable you to use your breath to hold and flow through the poses. You may have noticed that poses are not held in seconds or minutes but for a certain number of breaths.
This is so you can focus on your breath throughout your practice and use it to understand when to move and how. For example, when performing the cat/cow movement, you move into the cow pose on the inhale and flow into the cat pose on the exhale. Doing it this way feels natural and allows you to sink into it and be present for each movement.
Why Do You Hold Your Breath During Yoga?
You’ll be invited to pause between breaths and movements during a yoga session. Holding your breath draws your focus to your posture momentarily and allows you to make adjustments to perfect it.
Additionally, holding your breath for short amounts of time is linked to several health benefits, such as aiding stem cell and brain tissue regeneration, infection resistance, and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxed state).
While it is a popular belief that holding your breath can have beneficial effects, you should also be aware that holding it for too long can cause you to faint. Therefore, never hold it for more than 30 seconds at a time – aim for what feels comfortable and don’t force yourself to do things your body is not ready for.
What Are the Different Types of Yoga Breathing?
In yoga, there are many different ways you can breathe — or, better yet, different techniques to regulate your breathing. Here, we’ll share nine techniques that are popular in yoga. Some are more commonly used than others, but they all have their purpose.
Together, all these breathing techniques are known as “pranayama,” which is the word to describe the practice of regulating your breath during yoga.
Ujjayi or Ocean’s Breath
This is the most common form of yogic breathing. You inhale deeply and constrict your throat muscles as you exhale. It will sound a bit like the ocean as you do so.
Nadi Shodhana/Alternate Nostril Breathing
Use this technique when you need to alleviate stress and anxiety. Close the left nostril with your finger and breath in through the right. At the height of the breath, close off the right nostril and exhale through the left. Then breathe in again from the left nostril and repeat from side to side for up to five minutes.
Shitali Pranayama/Cooling Breath
This is a great technique to use if you need to cool off when it’s hot. Curl the sides of your tongue upwards so it resembles a taco. Breathe in and channel the air through your tongue. Close your mouth and hold your breath for a count of eight before exhaling through the nose. Repeat eight times.
Humming breath is good for refocusing or for drifting off to sleep. Breathe as you do for Ujjayi, but on the exhale, make a humming sound like a bee. Repeat ten times.
Siitkari Kumbhaka/Hissing Breath
To purify the senses, breathe in through the nose. Hold your breath while you count to eight. Then rest your top teeth on your tongue and exhale through the mouth. This type of breath induces a hissing sound as you exhale.
Consult your yoga teacher before attempting this breathing technique, and don’t do it if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, or hernia.
Close one nostril and do twenty rapid breaths. Repeat on the other side, then alternate for a maximum of ten minutes.
Chandra Bhedana/Lunar Breath
Lunar breath is an alternate breathing technique usually performed in a cross-legged meditation posture, and it has a cooling effect. Use the left nostril to inhale and exhale with the right one for up to ten minutes.
Surya Bhedana/Solar Breath
Solar breath is the opposite of the previous technique, lunar breath, and it’s said to have a warming effect. Breathe in through the right nostril and exhale through the left for up to ten minutes.
Why Do I Get Dizzy When Learning How to Breathe During Yoga?
When newbies learn how to breathe when doing yoga, it’s common to experience some dizziness. This is because you’re exhaling CO2 faster than the body can produce it.
Slow your breathing down and take longer breaths to counteract the dizzy feeling. If it’s too much, exit your pose and take a quick break before starting again. Do not force yourself into poses or breathing rhythms that your body is not ready for.
Breathwork is the foundation of yoga, just like the asanas and meditative/relaxing activities. However, if you’re just starting with pranayama, you need to take the time to master it and understand it. Start with simple breathing techniques such as ujjayi to get the knack for conscious breathing before moving on to the more complex variations. Before long, your yogic breathing will feel completely natural.