Proper Breathing Techniques for Yoga

Breathing techniques for yoga are designed to sync the mind and body. The practice of yoga focuses on both the physical and mental/emotional disciplines, and the connection between the two is achieved through yogic breathing.  

Concentrating on how to twist and bend our bodies into each pose is complicated enough, right? Remembering to breathe at all can be a challenge, never mind doing it at the correct time and in the correct way.

Whether you are doing stand-alone breathing exercises or coordinating the breath with the various postures, learning the proper technique is absolutely necessary. 

So, Why is Proper Breathing so Important?

Ancient Yogis realized that in order to function properly, our bodies need adequate oxygen. The best way to achieve this is through deep, slow breathing. Unfortunately, most of us tend to breath fast and shallow.

Things like stress, improper posture, fatigue, obesity, and even simple unawareness can cause us to become “chest breathers”, which means that we only use a fraction of our lung capacity. Even though we may not notice it, we are actually robbing our body of much-needed oxygen. Plus, if we aren't inhaling deeply, we aren't exhaling properly either. This means that we aren't getting rid of carbon dioxide waste as effectively as we should.

So, when we cheat on our breathing, we throw the whole oxygen-carbon dioxide system off balance. And, this can lead to many health problems such as heart disease, respiratory conditions, reduced immunity, sleep disorders, and headaches. Who knew?

Well, apparently the Yogis did because they made Pranayama, or Yogic Breathing, one of the key principles. In fact, breathing is often an exercise all on its own. It can also act as a great preparation for a workout, and many instructors encourage their students to simply sit and practice their breathing before they ever move into their first posture.  

What is Pranayama?

Pranayama, also known as Yogic breathing, is basically the science of breath control.

  • Prana: means “life source”
  • Yama: means “control”

Since breath or oxygen is essentially the “source of life” (for without oxygen we cannot live) then Pranayama is the practice of controlling, or mastering, our breathing.

When we inhale, we breathe in “life source” or oxygen which energizes and nourishes our bodies. When we exhale, we help our bodies release the carbon dioxide waste that it doesn't need.

When you do yoga poses or pranayama exercises, your breathing will be steady, slow, and rhythmic. During the postures, it should be connected to your movements to maximize the  health benefits. However, the goal is to learn how to breath properly all the time – to make yogic breathing a habit rather than an effort.

Benefits of Yogic Breathing

  • Practicing proper breathing techniques for yoga can have many positive benefits on both your body and mind.Increases 
  • lung capacityOxygenates the blood nourishes cells and organs
  • Detoxifies helps the body remove waste
  • Improves metabolism
  • Reduces stress
  • Relaxes muscles
  • Improves concentration and focus
  • Energizes, rejuvenates, reduces fatigue
  • Improves symptoms of respiratory problems, especially asthma
  • Improves circulation
  • Slows a rapid heart rate
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Calms the mind
  • Reduces anxiety soothes the nervous system
  • Improves memory
  • Lowers risk of medical issues such as heart disease and respiratory conditions

yoga breathing and meditation

How to Do "Pranayama" Breathing

Every style of yoga will have its own Pranayama techniques, but mastering basic breath control is the first step to correct yogic breathing.

Yogic breathing is divided into 3 parts or levels:

  1. Abdominal Breathing
  2. Rib Cage or Mid-Chest Breathing
  3. Upper Chest Breathing

1. Abdominal Breathing

This type of breathing isolates the abdominal area and moves the diaphragm up and down on each inhale and exhale. This movement pushes air into the lower lobes of the lungs and gently massages the abdominal organs.

  • To begin, you can either sit in a straight-backed chair, cross-legged on the floor or lie in corpse pose.
  • You can relax your arms by your side or place your hands on your stomach so you can feel the rise and fall movement.
  • Elongate your spine, relax your neck and shoulders.
  • Close your eyes, relax your mind, and try to focus solely on your breathing.
  • Always inhale and exhale through the nose.
  • Inhale slowly, feeling your belly expand forward.
  • Exhale slowly, gently moving your belly back toward your spine.
  • Be sure to exhale fully, emptying the lungs completely.
  • Continue to inhale (expanding the abdomen forward) and exhale (contracting the abdomen toward the spine).
  • Try to isolate the movement to your abdomen, keeping your chest still. You may be tempted to allow your chest and shoulders to rise and fall, but focus on using only your abdominal area.
  • Continue this pattern for 1-3 minutes.

2. Rib Cage or Mid-Chest Breathing

In some styles, this type of breathing may also be called Diaphragmatic Breathing because it isolates the mid-chest area. The focus is to open up the ribs by expanding them forward and out to the sides. This  movement pushes air into the middle lobes of the lungs.

  • Begin by sitting cross-legged on the floor. You may also sit in a chair or lie down in corpse pose.
  • Relax your arms by your sides or place your hands on ribs so you can feel the movement.
  • Straighten the spine, relax your shoulders and neck.
  • Inhale slowly through your nose and feel the ribs expand outward as you pull the breath into your mid-chest.
  • Do not breath deep into the lungs, but focus on isolating the rib cage or mid-chest area.
  • As you exhale, contract the ribs inward to release all the air from the lungs.
  • Continue this pattern for 1-3 minutes.

3. Upper Chest Breathing

This type of breathing isolates the area right below the collarbone. The focus is to pull air into the upper lobes of the lungs which expands the upper chest and helps release tension in the shoulders and neck.

  • Begin by sitting cross-legged on the floor. You may also sit in a chair or lie down in corpse pose.
  • Relax your arms by your sides or place your hand on your upper chest, just below the collarbone.
  • Relax your shoulders and neck while maintaining good posture.
  • Inhale slowly, expanding and opening the upper chest.
  • Exhale completely.
  • Continue this pattern for 1-3 minutes.

Three Part Breathing or Complete Breathing

The complete breath combines all three areas – the abdomen, the mid-chest, and the upper chest. Once you have spent some time isolating each area of the lungs, you can put it all together in a slow, rhythmic motion that maximizes the benefits of yogic breathing.

  • Sit or lie comfortably.
  • Place your hands on your abdomen if desired.
  • Inhale slowly through your nose, drawing the breath first into the lower lungs and feeling the abdomen expand, then into the mid-chest and feeling the rib cage expand, then finally into the upper chest.
  • Exhale through the nose, emptying first the upper chest, then the mid-chest, and finally the abdomen.
  • Remember to contract your rib cage and belly as you exhale to make sure you are releasing all the air.
  • Stay focused on the 3-part movement. On inhalation your belly expands, your ribs open, and then your chest rises. On exhalation, your chest drops, your ribs contract, then your belly is drawn inward toward the spine.
  • Continue this pattern for 3-5 minutes, or even longer if desired.
  • This should eventually become a smooth pattern that will create the slow, deep,  rhythmic breathing associated with yoga.

How to Connect the Breath with the Poses

The type of breathing used will vary depending on the pose and the style of yoga being practiced. In some styles, each posture will have a specific breathing pattern. However, there are some general rules that usually apply.

  • Inhale: Each time you move into a pose; when you open or expand                    during a posture; during backward bends and stretches

  • Exhale: Each time you move out of a pose; when you fold forward, twist, or     contract within a posture; when you relax into a pose or stretch.

In most styles, you would breathe normally at all other times. But, keep in mind that “normal” breathing in yoga is much different from the way most of us breath throughout our day. Breathing should still be controlled and rhythmic. Sometimes a specific type of breathing is required while holding a pose. For example, performing deep breathing during the corpse pose can help prepare the body for sleep.

Since it is so beneficial, make a point of practicing deep breathing (yogic or 3-part breathing) several times during your day. Taking a few complete breaths while sitting at your desk, watching tv, or before you take a test can be a great way to refocus, calm your nerves, relax tense muscles, and nourish every cell in your body.

Mastering the Proper Breathing Techniques for Yoga

There are several different types of Pranayama, and many styles  of yoga have their own specific breathing techniques. As a beginner, it can be very confusing trying to make sense of it all. Understanding the difference between Ujjayi, Sitkari, alternate nostril  breathing, or the cooling breath can be overwhelming.

But, if you can master the very basic techniques of abdominal, mid-chest (diaphragm), and upper chest breathing, and learn how to both isolate and combine these types, you will be well on your way to proper yogic breathing. As you choose your preferred style of yoga, you will become more familiar with the other types of breathing exercises that are used.

It seems like a lot to learn, but breathing techniques for yoga don't have to be complicated, especially if you just want to add some poses to your fitness program. If you can grasp the general concept of deep breathing and are able to control your breath at each of the three parts, you will greatly increase the benefits of your yoga practice. 

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I will continue to share ideas about diet and exercise that have helped me along the way. If you have any questions I can help you with, or if you have any ideas you want to share, feel free to contact me or visit our Q&A forum.

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