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Yoga Basics: Breathing Well

April 16, 2010
Is there are right way to breathe while we're turning ourselves inside-out and upside-down during our daily yoga practice? Ask several different teachers and you're likely to hear a variety of answers.

An Ashtanga teacher, for example, will likely instruct you to practice a particular technique called the ujjayi, or victorious, breath all the way through your practice. A Viniyoga teacher might direct you when to breathe in and out as you move, and may ask you to hold a pose for a specific number of breaths. And an Iyengar teacher likely won't focus too much on breathing in the beginning, at least until you've refined the practice of the postures.

If you are studying yoga within a particular tradition, it's a good idea to follow the breathing guidelines your teacher has given you. Just keep in mind that there are many opinions about the “best" way to breathe and that plenty of respected yoga teachers follow differing approaches.

Almost all yoga teachers do agree on a few breathing basics. First, an easy one: Keep breathing! This sounds like a no-brainer but you may be surprised to notice how often you forget to breathe, or barely breathe, when you’re deeply challenged in a new posture. Yogis have been known to hold their breath for long stretches, but they do so intentionally and usually after long periods of advanced practice.

Most yoga teachers will also advise you to breathe through your nose whenever possible, since the nasal passages warm, moisten and purify the air on its way to the lungs. Yoga practices where the mouth is kept open are the exception rather than the rule. Be thankful you have a choice, but consider the mouth a trusty backup.

In addition, throughout your practice invite the breath to be steady, smooth and rhythmic. A calm and even breathing pattern helps promote a sense of inner ease and balance, and invites a deep sense of relaxation. The breath becomes a soothing heartbeat that fuels the movements you are learning.

Teachers sometimes disagree about whether it's best to inhale or exhale as you move into specific postures. Most will advise you, though, that generally it's a good idea to exhale your way through difficulty. When you're moving into a pose that demands a hefty dose of exertion - like hoisting yourself up into an arm balance or moving into a deep backbend - you may find it optimal to exhale as you move into the deepest phase of the posture.

Finally, if you feel dizzy, panicked or alarmed, drop all techniques and return to your normal, off-the-mat breathing. Slow down and simplify. When life gets a little too complicated, recite the advice of senior Iyengar instructor John Schumacher, who sometimes reminds his students, “Breathe in on the inhale and breathe out on the exhale."

This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (January 2003)