Take a deep Breath!

Who hasn't heard that advice? And amazingly it actually works! Anxious, apprehensive, worried, sleepless, shocked? These are all great times to take a deep breath. When in these states the breath is often short and gaspy and taking a slow deep breath can really bring us back from a sometimes scary and essentially unreal place the mind has taken us. But how about when our needs are more subtle, when our emotions more hidden from notice by an on-looker or good friend? This is probably the exact time that a yoga practice incorporating a few mindful deep breaths would do us the world of good and bring us back into balance before we find ourselves way off kilter. But the importance of a yoga practice was not what I wanted to get into right now, however the importance of the breath in the practice is. There is no yoga without the breath. There is no life without the breath! The breath is the only involuntary process of our physical being that we can control and therefore the key to linking your mind to your body. As babies we breathed full complete breaths, it just came naturally, no stress. So wouldn't it be a good idea to find our way back there again, by learning how we strayed away and re-learning how to do it again properly?!


As mentioned, the breath is the only involuntary or automatic process of the body that we can have some influence or control over if we wish to, but not in the way you might think. Controlling the breath actually is less about taking a breath and letting it out again but more about the art of receiving it and giving it away, and this is when the fun starts. When we breathe in the diaphragm goes down and the entire circumference of the abdomen expands. At the same time the intercostal muscles lining the ribs lift the ribcage, expanding the entire circumference of the chest. Then on the exhale, the belly draws in, and the diaphragm releases back up into the chest as a second set of intercostal muscles contracts and returns the ribcage to its starting position. This interaction of the diaphragm and the ribcage is like that of an umbrella opening on the inhale and closing on the exhale. When we open the umbrella we create a vacuum and air then enters the body, so "receiving the breath". When the umbrella closes we are actively pushing the air back out again, so "giving it away".

It might be hard to feel all these subtitles and that's OK. The first step to feeling all these dynamics is to visualize the movements taking place. Doing that will help draw the senses inward and keep you focused on the breath, in the present moment so you do not drift off with your thoughts.

Posture, Optimization and Prana

Correct posture is essential for full complete breathing. When the spine is not held correctly, the respiratory system cannot function efficiently. If the spine is collapsed and the back rounded the diaphragm (responsible for 75% of the power used in respiration) is unable to extend to its fullest range. Rigidity in the upper back and shoulders and a resulting rounded upper back creates shallow breaths in the chest. This constricted breathing severely diminishes a person's energy. Balanced posture begins at the feet. With the feet placed evenly on the ground with equal weight distributed between the ball and the heel and a balanced lifting of the inner and outer arches then the leg muscles are correctly engaged to support the weight of the torso. This then creates relaxed shoulders and the breathing muscles in the trunk are free to breathe full complete breaths as they were designed. When you notice someone with correct posture and easy flowing breath, that person's poise, self-esteem and calming presence commands your attention. We can find this balanced posture to practice full complete breathing by practicing the yoga asanas. Releasing mental and emotional stress also helps us to breathe fully and completely as fears, insecurities and suppression affect our breathing patterns and tighten the muscles of respiration. Fortunately and conversely, it is the buildup of this mental stress that breath awareness and breathing practices can help to neutralize and calm, some of which we will later explore.

Chest Breathing - this tends to create a shallow inhale and this pattern is usually the result of unconscious tension in the belly which shortens the exhale and limits the energy coming into the body on the breath. There are times when emphasizing an inhale in the chest area can be beneficial for example when needing a burst of power or when twisting the body. Belly Breathing - is generally the result of tension in the chest cavity. Belly breathers tend to have sunken shoulders and weak back muscles and can be prone to anxiety or sluggishness. There are times when emphasizing an inhale in the belly area can be beneficial for example when relaxing.

Neither chest nor belly breathing is necessarily correct. We all tend to favor one or the other and engaging in breathing practices helps us to find freedom from restriction and bad habits and to have the ability to naturally choose the appropriate style of breathing for situation we are engaged in.

Removing restrictions from your breath is not rocket science but it does require patience and persistence. A general awareness of attempting to allow the inhale and exhale to be even lengths is a great start. Inhalation sets up the exhalation and vice versa. When one is hampered or restricted the other will be the same. If they are equal we can work to extend and lengthen both and begin to take longer, smoother deeper breaths. This is an example of the practice of pranayama - which literally means to lengthen and direct or control the prana (life-force), which yogis believe is carried on the breath. Pranayama is the 4th limb of the 8 limbs of yoga (the popular asana practice is the 3rd) and can be used at any time to transform not only your breath but your state of mind. Where the mind is focused, so the prana follows. It is for this reason that it is important to visualize a full complete breath even if your body is not yet physically able to perform one. Your breath is the metronome, the sound track, and if the object of your attention while you practice, the link that holds mind, body and spirit together. Practicing ujaii pranayama is the best way to create this soundtrack - see below.

Breathing Practices (Pranayama)

  1. Basic Breath Awareness: this quiets and calms nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety and improving self-awareness and digestion. Lie comfortably on your back with knees bent and feet flat on floor, slightly wider than hip-width apart. Place palm on abdomen and notice quality of breath, tense, strained, uneven, shallow. Observe without judgment. Notice the length of the inhale and exhale compared with each other. Begin to make your breath as smooth as possibly introducing a pause at end of in-breath and out-breath. Once this feels comfortable notice the movement of body with breath, feel the expansion and contraction. Try to enhance this movement to support movement of diaphragm in order to experience pleasure of giving yourself a full relaxed breath. Notice again the length of the inhale and exhale compared with each other.
  2. Bellows Breath (Kapalabati): If during the breath awareness you found your inhale was longer than your exhale this pranayama exercise will help you to lengthen your exhale. Sit or kneel on floor in comfortable position. Take a normal inhale and exhale. Take a moderate inhale and then as you exhale by sharply drawing in your navel, feel the diaphragm pumping the breath out of the nostrils as though you were trying to blow out a candle with this air. Don't worry about inhaling this will happen as you relax the abdomen back out again, the focus is on the exhale. Exhale keeping a steady rhythm for a number of rounds (30-100). Rest and repeat one to two more times. Lie on your back and rest for one minute.
  3. The Long Exhale: This pranayama exercise is great for helping calm the nervous system before bed, reduce insomnia during the night or any time of the day to calm stress or anxiety. Begin lying on your back (as in the basic breath awareness), place a palm on the abdomen and stat with a few relaxed breaths feeling the gentle expansion and contraction of the belly. Attempt to make the exhale at least as long as the inhale. Then once they are equal gradually increase the length of the exhale by 1-2 seconds by gently contracting the abdomen. Continue to increase the exhalation by 1-2 seconds, making sure you experience no strain and that the breath remains smooth and relaxed. Do this until the exhalation is up to twice as long as the inhale but not beyond. For example inhale for 4 and exhale for 8. it is important not to go beyond your limit otherwise the sympathetic nervous system will be activated and the stress response and you will feel agitated rather than calm. If this happens then go back to a more relaxed ratio before trying to lengthen the exhale again. Finish with 6-8 relaxed non-controlled breaths.
  4. Cooling or Snake Breath (Sitkari/Sitali): If during the breath awareness exercise your exhale was longer than the inhale this pranayama exercise will help you to lengthen your inhale. This breath can also be used when you feel physically or mentally hot (aggravated/angry/anxious) or to improve focus when you are feeling drowsy in the early morning or in an afternoon slump. Sit in a comfortable cross legged position, either roll your tongue and protrude it out of the mouth like a straw and or place your tongue behind the top row of teeth and breathe in through the sides of your mouth. Your inhale should feel cool inside your mouth and it should sound like a hissing snake. Breathe out through your nostrils, feeling ribcage narrow and lower. Be careful not to overdo the inhale or else you could end up feeling a bit spacey!
  5. OM Breath: This works on the nervous system to remove mental and emotional blockages. Lie on your back, as you did in the basic breath awareness exercise. Inhale through nostrils and as you exhale open the mouth and make an "Ahhh" sound feeling this vibrate around the base of your spine. Do this three times. Next make the sound "Oooo" feeling this vibrate in your chest area around your heart. Do this three times. Next make a "Mmmm" sound (the mouth will need to be closed) and feel the vibration through the crown of your head. Do this three times. Next link them all together "Ahhh, Oooo, Mmmmm" as you feel the energy move from the base of your spine through to the crown of your head. Repeat nine times then rest in stillness for one minute.
  6. Victorious or Ujaii Breath amplifies the breath to make it easier for us to focus on it. This breath is performed whilst doing the physical postures or asanas. Ujaii is a full complete breath achieved by narrowing the back of the throat so stimulating the epiglottis, the flap that covers the trachea so we don't get food in our lungs when we eat. When the epiglottis is engaged the breath creates an echoey sound like an ocean wave or Darth Vader's breath! The result is (1) it is impossible to breathe too quickly or hyperventilate (so we stay relaxed) and (2) the core body temperature increases because of friction and the increased effort that this type of breathing requires (which helps warm the muscles for strengthening and stretching). It also has the knock on effect of strengthening the diaphragm and so increasing our breath capacity. Lie down as you did with the simple breath awareness exercise. Blow air out from your mouth onto your open palm as if you were trying to fog up a mirror. Retain that same feeling but close your mouth and breathe out through your nostrils. Once you have felt this successfully on the exhale try the same throat narrowing on the inhale. It should feel less like a sniff and more like a snore. Neither the inhale nor exhale should feel forced. Listen closely to your breath and the messages it is sending you. Take the time to really understand this pranayama, feel it and practice it. It seems simple enough but it is often the first thing we forget how to do properly once we start trying to figure out where to line up the feet, arms and left eyebrow in the yoga postures. Always let the breath begin just ahead of the body's movements and let the movement end at when the inhale or exhale is complete. This will ensure that the mind, body and breath stay inexorably linked, which is the key to experiencing that unbound, unlimited energy that exists at the core of your being.

The "Relaxation Response"

Most paranyama techniques work particularly to foster a long smooth exhale, which supports the parasympathetic nervous system and activates the "relaxation response". Various studies conducted since the sixties have concluded that having a regular experience of this "relaxation response" reduces stress and it's effect on the body and mind, increases your resilience in the face of challenge and helps your mind become focused and still. When the mind is still we obtain clearer perception of the truth and a greater connection with the true self. It then in turn becomes easier to see what is not your true-self: your mind, body, feelings, your job, labels and essentially all that is constantly changing all around you. The result of this differentiation is being able to live with less suffering and ultimately more joy and happiness. In this way pranayama can have a profound effect on your life.

The relaxation response can be activated simply by (1) engaging in something repetitive and (2) making an attempt to focus on nothing but that activity. For example jogging, knitting, hedge trimming, and of course breathing. The practice of meditation is somewhat synonymous with activating the relaxation response. However, everything you heard about the benefits of meditation is actually true of the practice of pranayama since pranayama (and following on the 5th limb, pratyahara, sense withdrawal) is the gateway to a meditation experience.

Stay Interested in Your Breath

As mentioned, when you get involved in the practice of the asanas it is easy to forget about the breath. It is always important to come back to an awareness of how you are breathing. Encoded in the breath is a wealth of information about how your mind and body are feeling. In order to keep you coming back to and interested in the breath, consider focusing on the following aspects of your breath:
  1. Location: Where does it go as you inhale? Where does it come from as you breath out?
  2. Inhale vs Exhale: Is breathing in or out easier? Re they equally challenging or equally comfortable?
  3. Volume: How does the space inside you change, increasing on the inhale and decreasing on the exhale?
  4. Pressure: Are you motivating the breath? Is it effortless? Do you feel any strain? Is your breath in a hurry to leave you?
  5. Sound: What words would you use to describe the sound of your breath? Dense, thick, coarse, airy, tight, clear, silken, whisperlike?
  6. Rhythm: How does your breath flow? Is it jerky or smooth? Does the inhale roll into the exhale? Are there any pauses?
  7. Anything Else? What do you find interesting about your breath?!
So explore your breath, practice pranayama and allow the fog of mind stuff to clear so you can experience your inner light shining through. The breath is your friend, with you all the way, reminding you, teaching you, giving you life. Learn how it works, how to harness its power and next time you find you need it, take (or rather receive) a deep, long, luxurious one, after all it's completely free!


"Introduction to Yoga" by Alan Finger
"Healing Breath" by Kate Holcombe (Yoga Journal Issue 248)