What is yoga breathing?
There are various breathing practices called “pranayama”. In yoga, you breathe in through the nose, deeply into the belly and slowly without aggressive force, and then out through the nose slowly and gently. A hold for one to four seconds at the end of the exhalation is called “kumbhaka” or breath retention.
The throaty style of breathing most commonly heard in yoga is “ujjayi” (victorious) breath. By creating the same actions of fogging up a bathroom mirror with your breath, only with the mouth closed as you exhale with a push from the abdominals, there is greater engagement of the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles as well as an audible soundtrack to your movement. It has also been suggested that the vibrations in the larynx stimulate a calming effect by sending signals to the vagus nerve (a nerve in the brain that travels down the neck).
How can I refine my breathing?
While there’s a common idea that an advanced yoga practice means doing more difficult poses and postures, in fact, to really and meaningfully advance, breathing is the key.
If you can slow your breathing and keep it constant – without holding your breath in poses or transitions – you’re doing an advanced practice. This is difficult, as it’s very common to hold our breath and not realise it until we take a gasping breath or find our hearts racing.
Particularly in poses that require balance or where we’re opening the chest (like in Camel Pose, Bow Pose or Upward Facing Dog), the vulnerability of the pose can cause us to become nervous and protective. This can result in short, shallow breathing, which has the effect of signalling to the body that it should be in protective mode. This only serves to enhance the feeling of fear, discomfort and impatience.
You don’t need to be in a yoga class to practise your breathing calmly and rhythmically. There are many guides to pranayama online and in books or podcasts. By becoming comfortable with a full, invigorating breath and making this a regular part of your daily routine, it can feel much more natural to bring it into your movement and vinyasa yoga classes.
As with all challenges, take every class and every day as an opportunity to recognise that you have a lifetime to refine your breathing, your movement and the synchronicity of these. It’s never too early – or too late – to start.
How do I breathe in a yoga class?
In Hatha yoga, vinyasa is the flow of movement and also the flow of breath. As we inhale, the belly and ribs expand and allow an extension of the spine. An exhalation lifts the diaphragm and pelvic floor, shortens the abdomen and deepens a posture. An inhalation is generally the entry point to a pose and moves against gravity, while an exhalation draws us out of a pose with the assistance of gravity and enables a rounding of the spine.
This takes time to master, which can be refined with repetitive sequences and postures. We can deepen our practice through slowing the breath and the movement, or by experimenting with other breathing techniques such as “kapalabhati” (skull-shining breath) and “nadi shodhana” (alternate nostril breathing).