The way you breathe during a yoga class is affected by many parameters including :
• our level of experience
• the style of yoga
• our familiarity with the sequence
• how tense you are on the day
• the phase of the menstrual cycle
If you have been practicing yoga for a while you may have noticed how your breathing changed with time. You may have also noticed that beginners and more advanced practitioners will be performing the same poses (even with the same technique/form) but following a completely different breathing pattern.
In this article, I will analyze how the level of experience, style of yoga and phase of the menstrual cycle affect how you breathe during yoga. Let’s start with those starting out.
Breathing based on experience
When one starts practicing yoga (especially in a group class), she/he has many challenges to face. I remember having to :
• perform poses on the limit of my flexibility, if not poses completely inaccessible to me
• hold poses for longer than my lactic acid tolerance allowed me
• learn the name of poses
• remember the alignment my teacher indicated
• breathe in and out based on my teacher’s queues
While the whole experience at the end can leave the novice student with a sense of relaxation, there is a lot to take in. For that reason I suggest the following 3 rules for those starting out:
✔️ Remind yourself to breathe every so often & establish a slow breathing pattern.
✔️ Observe your breath. Usually, the moment we observe our breathing it is slowed down. Refrain from trying to alter it – just observe it.
✔️ Maintain nasal breathing at all times. The best way to achieve that is to refrain from mouth breathing at all costs. This may not be accessible to you in the beginning due to chronic poor respiratory habits, but it is the foundation of any breathwork, so do not give up.
By the time you consider yourself to be an intermediate practitioner, you should be switching to ujjayi breath throughout your yoga (asana) practice.
Ujjayi breath in my opinion is: SILENT • SLOW • INTENTIONAL
This description is in line with that of Timothy McCall (author of the book “Yoga as Medicine”) :
“When you first learn Ujjayi, you will breathe with an audible noise. But as you progress, the sound may become so subtle that someone sitting next to you would not hear it.” Ref 1
If you maintain ujjayi breath at all times you will be able to :
✔️ stay focused
✔️ maintain good energy levels throughout the practice
✔️ oxygenate your muscles and brain adequately
As an advanced practitioner, you can work towards gaining control of your breathing, independent of the asana or vinyasa performed. Breathing can support your concentration and help perform the yoga poses but it can also challenge them. Advanced practitioners can challenge their asana practice through breathing.
✔️ The 2 pillars of breathwork are: hypoxia and hypercapnia and they can both be practiced during any yoga class. in the section
Breathing in different yoga styles
Ashtanga, Bikram, …
In sequences that are standardized such as Ashtanga and Bikram, practitioners are asked to follow a set breathing pattern. The breathing pattern usually requires:
• inhalation during spine extension (ie. upward dog)
• exhalation during spine flexion (ie. uttanasana)
• no breathing holding at the end of the inhalation or exhalation
Three things to keep in mind:
✔️ During a vigorous physical practice, CO2 levels will increase, challenging the respiratory system. If one maintains nasal soft breathing she/he can maintain good cellular oxygenation. if instead there is a shift to hyperventilation the muscle tissue will be deprived of oxygen (due to the Bohr effect) and thus promote fatigue.
✔️ Abdominal integrity may be challenged in poses (asanas) and transitions (vinyasas) that involve both spine extension & flexion. During exhalation abdominal tension is reduced as the diaphragm moves towards the stomach. Over time as abdominal strength increases, it will become easier for the breath and the movement to be synched.
✔️ In studios where yoga classes take place, the temperature is often elevated causing a shift of the Oxyhemoglobin Dissociation Curve (ODC) to the right promoting the release of oxygen to tissue. This should make breathing easier.
Iyengar inspired styles
In styles of yoga where postures are held for long the biomechanics & biochemistry differs from vinyasa style classes. The way we should breathe during poses depends on how comfortable we are with the pose. Breath becomes primarily important when we are learning a pose or when we are holding a pose for periods close to our limit.
✔️ When learning a pose that requires stability in the lower back (lumbar) we should brace our abdominals, as opposed to hollowing.
Bracing our abdominals is achieved by holding our breath aiming for an isometric co-contraction of all abdominal muscles (as if we were about to receive a punch in the stomach). Hollow belly, often cued as belly or naval in achieves the activation of the transverse abdominis (TVA). When the 2 techniques were compared: bracing was shown to achieve higher lumbar stability compared to hollowing [ref 2].
Once someone is comfortable with a pose, hollowing the abdomen and maintaining lateral breathing is good idea as this will maintain a calmer Nervous System and the ability to hold the pose longer.
Certain asanas (such as backbends & side flexions) will require specific breathing patterns to help us access the pose. The progression above is valid for the majority of introductory poses.
Breathing in different stages of the menstrual cycle
In the 2nd half of the menstrual cycle (luteal phase) the sensitivity to CO2 levels increases [ Ref 3 ] due to an increase in progesterone levels. Women during this phase are expected to breathe heavier or faster [ Ref 4 ]. However this will very much depends on their CO2 tolerance (in plain English their respiratory capacity). The better their respiratory capacity breathing can be maintained regular throughout the entire month.
How good is your breathing?
Your ability to breathe right during a yoga class is determined not only by your experience in yoga but also by your respiratory capacity. If you want to find out what is your respiratory capacity at the moment do the following 2 tests:
1. McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine: the yogic prescription for health & healing: a yoga journal book. Bantam.
2. Grenier, S. G., & McGill, S. M. (2007). Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 88(1), 54-62.
3. Dutton, K., Blanksby, B. A., & Morton, A. R. (1989). CO2 sensitivity changes during the menstrual cycle. Journal of Applied Physiology, 67(2), 517-522.
4. Saaresranta, T., & Polo, O. (2002). Hormones and breathing. Chest, 122(6), 2165-2182.