Why The Breath Is So Essential In Yoga + 4 Yogic Breathing Techniques
From the outside, yoga may seem like simply a strange way to contort the body into bizarre poses. However in reality, the physical poses are a very small component of what is a full-spectrum spiritual practice.
Most yoga styles today are derived from an eight-limbed philosophy with one entire limb devoted to breath, or pranayama. Breathwork is integral to yoga—as important (or even more so) than the poses.
As senior yoga teacher trainer and author of Yoga: A Manual for Life, Naomi Annand explains, “Bringing your total focus to your breath isn’t part of the practice. It is the practice.” Conscious breathing is what creates the deep mind-body connection that makes yoga so beneficial for calming the mind and understanding the self.
“It is only when your awareness and breath are yoked together that you start to be able to experience your body through your breath, instead of through the thinking, judging part of your brain," Annand adds.
In the yogic tradition, the breath is thought to carry a person's life force. Pranayama, or breathing exercises, are believed to clear the emotional and physical obstacles within us to free up life force (prana) and extend (ayama) our lives.
Here's a peek into the benefits of yogic breathing and how to get started with the technique.
The mind-body benefits of yogic breathing.
Studies have repeatedly shown that conscious breathing is an effective way to combat stress. A 2017 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology1 found that participants who completed eight weeks of breathwork training had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared with those who did not receive the training.
If you find your mind constantly wandering, breathwork might help. A 2018 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition2 found that breath-focused yoga boosted attention span in participants. Furthermore, deep breathing can improve oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex (the area of our brain responsible for reasoning, logic, and acuity).
Breathwork can help improve digestion in two ways. Firstly, by calming the stress response and lowering cortisol, it naturally frees up energy that the body can then use for digesting food. Secondly, powerful abdominal breathing such as the pulsating method in Kapalabahti (see below) works by massaging the internal organs3, which is thought to improve the digestive system.
4 breath techniques to try
Basic Breath Awareness
The breath is like a mirror; it reflects our personal state back to us. For example, if we’re stressed or anxious, we may find the breath is shallow or rapid. This is why in yoga we always start with simply noticing the breath, so that we can learn more about our inner worlds and use that knowledge to support ourselves.
How to do it:
Begin by bringing your awareness to your breath; breathing through your nose, observe the inhalation and exhalation. Be inquisitive but non-judgmental: what’s the depth like? The direction? The quality? No need to change or do anything. Stay here for a few minutes.
Deep Belly Breathing
A very important part of any yoga practice is sending the breath into the belly. This is our natural, resting state of breathing. (If you look at babies sleeping they breathe into their bellies.) Deep belly breathing calms the nervous system by targeting the largest cranial nerve in our body, the vagus nerve, which in turn soothes the stress response in the brain.
How to do it:
With the hands resting on the belly, breathe in deeply, sending the breath away from the chest and down toward the abdomen. Imagine there is a balloon in your belly: On the inhale that balloon expands into your hands, and on the exhale it deflates. Try this for a few minutes at the beginning and end of your yoga practice, or any time throughout the day.
Ujjayi (“victorious”) breath
Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai-y) has been used for thousands of years to enrichen hatha yoga, synchronizing breath with movement to make the practice more rhythmic. Ujjayi is practiced by gently constricting the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. Due to the sound this creates, it’s also referred to as “oceanic breath”.
How to do it:
The key here is to stay relaxed so that you don’t generate a “rasping” sound. Inhale through your nose, then open your mouth and exhale slowly, making a “HA” sound. Try this a few times, then close your mouth, keeping the back of your throat in the same shape you used to make the “HA,” as you exhale solely through the nose. Try introducing this into your yoga practice, feeling the oceanic-like waves of breath guiding your movement.
Kapalabhati, also known as Breath of Fire or “skull shining breath” is a brilliant way to enliven the body and mind, and to jumpstart your yoga practice when you’re feeling lethargic. Try a few rounds before you start moving.
How to do it:
To start, take a full, deep inhalation through the nose and exhale slowly through the nose. Keeping the mouth closed, inhale again, and begin exhaling by quickly pulling in the lower abs to force air out in short spurts. Your inhalation will be passive between each active, quick exhalation. The pumping sensation should feel a little as if someone is poking you in the stomach on the exhale. Try 10-20 breaths, take a break for a few deep, regular breaths, and then try another round.
The bottom line.
Breathwork is an excellent tool to supercharge your yoga practice. Breathing consciously during yoga helps us access the practice’s deeper spiritual levels of connection, as well as prevent injury by keeping the body and mind in a relaxed and aware state. The best way to learn how breathwork can help your yoga is to experience it for yourself. So go forth, and don’t forget to breathe.
Lily is a holistic life coach, yoga and meditation teacher, and writer whose coverage of technology, mental health, and spirituality has appeared in Vogue, Refinery29, DOSE, Women’s Health, and The Guardian. In addition to writing, she currently helps Extinction Rebellion program their yoga and meditation offerings and hosts a monthly self-help book club called Books To Change Your Life.