Yoga is now a popular form of physical activity. Workplaces, schools, and most fitness centers now offer a yoga class as a regular part of wellness programing. You may be getting curious about yoga because it helps relax your body and mind. But you may be surprised to learn that yoga is much more than downward facing dogs, crows and warriors; there are actually eight “limbs” or areas of yoga, and the physical practice only makes up one.
No less important than postures is the breathing that underlies yoga practice. According to yoga theory, the breath is an “extension of the life force,” and so we can control our energy by controlling our breathing. The breath is therefore considered to be vital to health and to the pursuit of finding inner peace. Peace during finals? Now that’s something to breathe hard about!
There are many types of breath work and each one serves a unique purpose. This article covers two important breathing exercises that you might see in a yoga class.
Two types of breath
Diaphragmatic breath: Think of this as basic deep breathing, which helps sooth the nervous system while preparing the body and mind for meditation. It’s done by contracting the diaphragm and allowing the lungs to expand downward, as opposed to outward through expansion of the rib cage. Since it can be hard to feel the diaphragm and thus control the breathing through it, follow these simple steps:
- Focus on your chest and abdomen as you take a deep breath in through the nose.
- Focus on expanding the abdomen, not the chest.
- Inhales should be long and slow so that the body can absorb the maximum amount of oxygen, which will create a more relaxed state.
- Exhale slowly and with control.
- Wear loose fitting clothing because tight clothes can constrict the stomach’s ability to expand.
Though it might feel strange at first to focus on breathing through the abdomen, it’s a much more effective way to get oxygen flow through the body and will fill the lungs with more air. Diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful tool for relaxation that can be used on and off your yoga mat.
Ujjayi Breathing: Translated as ‘victorious breath,’ this type of breathing is often carefully guided in class by yoga teachers. It builds heat in the body, which then loosens the muscles and joints and prepares them for the physical part of yoga. Ujjayi breathing is thus most helpful during yoga practice, and can be done by taking the following steps:
- Begin by slowly inhaling and exhaling through the nose.
- Lengthen inhales and exhales, drawing each one out so that it lasts at least three seconds.
- On the next exhale, slightly clench the back of the throat but do not open the mouth. Think about whispering or making a ‘hsss’ noise that sounds like the ocean, or Darth Vadar.
- Exhale through the nose but continue to focus your attention on the back of the throat.
- Know that ujjayi breathing will build heat in the body, so if you’re practicing yoga in a heated studio, it may not be necessary. Listen to your body and if you feel yourself overheating, start to let go of ujjayi breathing and just go back to breathing with the abdomen.
If you’re new to yoga, it may seem like there’s so much to remember, between finding proper alignment in each posture and following a solid breathing pattern, so take your time and don’t feel as if you have to master everything all at once. No one was born a master yogi, but everyone is born knowing how to breathe and can successfully practice yoga. These breathing exercises just encourage awareness and improve air flow so the yogi practicing them can progress in his or her yoga practice. And maybe it will even help relax your nerves before that big date or athletic meet! So go ahead and breathe….
Last reviewed May 2018 by Tara Cousineau, PhD.