The way we 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 we are on the day
• the phase of the menstrual cycle (in the 2nd half progesterone levels increase causing an increase in the pace of breathing)
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.
While experience is not the only factor to determine your breathing during yoga; in this article I will use that as a reference to suggest how to breathe during your asana practice.
HOW SHOULD NOVICE YOGIS BREATHE?
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 if you are starting out now to follow the following 3 rules :
- If you are not feeling comfortable with the pose, make sure you breathe regularly. Things that will help are: remind yourself to breathe every so often & establish a slow breathing pattern.
- In poses that you are comfortable to observe your breath. Usually the moment we observe our breathing it is slowed down. Refrain from trying to alter it – just observe it.
- To the extent that you do not feel suffocated 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.
HOW SHOULD AN INTERMEDIATE PRACTITIONER BREATHE?
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 Timophy 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 2
Maintaining ujjayi breath at all times will allow you to :
• stay focused
• maintain good energy levels throughout the whole practice
• oxygenate your muscles and brain adequately
HOW SHOULD AN ADVANCE STUDENT AIM TO BREATHE?
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.
BREATHING DURING AN ASANA PRACTICE
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 long.
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 you shown to achieve higher lumbar stability compared to hollowing [ref 3].
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.
HOW TO BREATHE IN INVERSIONS?
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:
- Saaresranta, T., & Polo, O. (2002). Hormones and breathing. Chest, 122(6), 2165-2182.
2. McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine: the yogic prescription for health & healing: a yoga journal book. Bantam.
3. 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.