The yoga breath mystery

Breathing was never an issue until I attended my first yoga class. I remember the anxiety: Why do I need to be told when to inhale and when to exhale? Why are these people breathing so loud? This pose is so tough, I’m losing my breath. *Teacher finally cues an exhale* Oops, I think that was my fifth gasp.

As a regular runner, I’ve always been aware of my breath; breathe quietly to keep calm, breathe steadily to maintain a consistent pace, breathe in through the nose, and out from the mouth. But as I began to practice more yoga, the ‘yoga breath’ started creeping into my runs, and breathing in and out through the nose quickly became my default breathing pattern. No surprises there, really. It did a much better job than my pre-yoga breathing at calming my mind.

Breathing is a topic that gets lots of attention from students: Why and when should I inhale or exhale? Does it matter if my breath is short or long, shallow or deep, through the nose or the mouth?

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Inhale to strengthen, exhale to soften

When breath leads movement, the body is allowed to feel. And when you respond to how you feel, you become more sensitised to what you need. Wait, don’t I already know what I need? Well, when you begin to feel more and understand your body better, you tend to slow down, breathe deeper, and explore around challenges instead of bashing through (sounds familiar?). You are able to soften, make space, and move efficiently – in harmony with the body.

In your yoga classes, you might have heard of the “Ujjayi breath” that all yogis seem to have mastered. Put simply, this is breathing that is slow, deep and even. This breath is meant to simultaneously relax and energise the body, and set the rhythm for your practice. All movements, be it transitions or static poses, are linked to the breath; inhale for strength, exhale to soften. The energy that you get from inhaling carries you into a new movement – to lengthen, expand and open. And the softness that comes from your exhale helps to ease, deepen and relax the body into twists and folding postures while calming the mind.

From a broader perspective, the yoga practice is made out of a constant flow of inhalations and exhalations, and the breath is never held. This deep and rhythmic breathing stimulates the mind, reduces stress, and creates harmony and balance within the body. Without this relaxed breathing, movements are more likely to be done with force, tension, and in conflict with the rest of the body, which has the potential to harm and make us less capable in our bodies. On the other end, when breath leads movement, there is grace, coordination, potential for healing, and we become more capable in our bodies. As the American actor Bill Murray said, “remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed”.

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Through the nose and not the mouth

While exhaling through the mouth can be beneficial because it helps to relax the jaw and allows for more air to be released at once, using our nostrils to breathe gives us better control of the intake and expulsion of air.

When breathing through your nostrils, notice how the air entering feels cools, but when coming out feels warm. Besides creating energy to carry us through our practice, the yoga breath also has the benefit of creating internal heat that serves to detox the body.

Nasal breathing is also the most efficient type of respiration during yoga, and in our daily lives. Most of the absorption of oxygen by our lungs happens on our exhalation. Because our nostrils are smaller than our mouth, exhaling through the nose creates greater air pressure and thus slows down the exhalation, giving the lungs more time to extract a greater amount of oxygen from each exhalation for the body.

The general guideline is, begin where you’re comfortable, and move easily from there with your breath as lead. Each person breathes at a different pace naturally, and even this could vary day to day, from practice to practice. The important thing to do is slow down, breathe deeply enough to feel, and start connecting your body with your breath. This could take a while to sink in. Be patient, continue your practice, and just remember to keep breathing.