How Important is Breathing in Yoga?
Updated: Jan 16, 2022
In pretty much every yoga class you’ll hear the teacher mention how important breathing is in yoga. You’ll hear in sun salutations suggestions to lift your arms up on an inhale and fold forward on an exhale.
But what about actually applying the subtle element of the breath to your yoga practice? And really using your breath as a guide to how fast or deep you go into yoga postures?
If you’re like me you probably know it's important to breathe in yoga. But when it comes to your physical yoga practice you have a tendancy to focus more on the postures themselves rather than allowing your breath to lead your yoga practice.
In this blog we’ll be focusing on the different types of breathing in yoga, how to breathe in yoga poses and practical tips on how you can improve your breathing in yoga.
Check out breathing in yoga and pranayama to learn the fundamentals on why breathing is an essential part of yoga and how pranayama can help calm your mind.
Different Types of Breathing in Yoga
As a beginner it can feel a bit difficult to know if you’re breathing in the right way during your yoga practice.
You might be wondering if you should breathe through your mouth or nose? Should the breathe be as long as possible or feel comfortable? Is it a good idea to count the length of my breathe during my practice?
These are all valid questions that can help guide you in the different types of breathing in yoga.
It’s important to distinguish between breathing in your physical yoga practice (i.e. the yoga poses or asana) compared to specific breathing exercises known as pranayama that are designed to be done sitting in stillness.
There are many different types of breathing exercises that can be done in pranayama that work on lengthening or shortening your inhale, exhale and pauses between each breath. If you’re curious to learn a simple pranayama take a look at how to practice Nadi Shodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing).
In contrast to the many different pranayama techniques there is just one type of breathing in yoga poses that is recommended by many yoga styles and lineages (like you find in ashtanga, vinyasa and hatha yoga).
Breathing Yoga Exercises for Beginners
The recommended breathing technique within physical yoga is to breathe slow and steadily through your nose. You can try to allow your inhale and exhale to be pretty much equal, and if it feels comfortable explore a slight pause at the top of the inhale and bottom of the exhale.
If you’re a beginner and learning to do this breathing exercise in your yoga practice for the first time you’ll probably find that this focus on lengthening equally your inhale and exhale through your nose while attempting the different yoga postures is more than enough to practice.
If however you’ve been practicing yoga for longer and are more familiar with the yoga postures themselves you’ll be able to bring more attention to the finer details of your breath. And once you’ve established a slow, steady, intentional breathing pattern you can start to learn to use the Ujjayi breathing technique in your yoga practice.
How to Do Ujjayi Breath in Yoga
The foundations of Ujjayi breath include all of the breathing fundamentals mentioned above of slowly breathe through your nose, equalizing your inhale and exhale, and exploring a quiet pause at the top of the inhale and bottom of your exhale.
One addition however with Ujjayi breathing (also known as breath of fire) is to bring a soft, warm sound to your breath. This is the element that can make it a bit more challenging at the beginning. Learning how to slightly contract your throat and let the air swirl around the back of the throat. The challenge here is to allow the sound to stay soft.
If you’re curious to learn more about three stages to practicing Ujjayi breath practice along with my YouTube video below.
The three stages of the Ujjayi Pranayama and breathing technique include focusing on:
The length of your breath
The intensity of your breath
The sound of your breath
Once you are more familiar with the Ujjayi breath you can start to use it also for your entire yoga practice of yoga poses (asana). Allowing your breath to act as your guide as you move through a series of yoga poses.
Five Tips for Improving Your Breathing in Yoga Poses (Asana)
1. Start each yoga practice with a short breath awareness meditation.
Try and take at least 2 – 5 minutes before your physical yoga practice to sit in stillness and establish your breath. You can work on lengthening equally your inhale and exhale, slowing the speed of your breath down and allowing for a slight pause between each breath. If you’re comfortable with the Ujjayi breath you can slowly add a soft sound to your breath.
The benefits of starting your breathing exercises when sitting in stillness is you can bring your complete focus to your breath. Something that’s noticeably harder when you’re moving through your yoga practice and thinking about your technique within the postures.
You’ll be able to find a regular rhythm to your breath which will then be much easier to maintain as you start to move.
2. Begin counting your breath in the first part of your practice to set up a regular rhythm for your entire practice.
One tip from my teacher Matthew Sweeney that has really helped improve my breathing in yoga is to start counting your breath during the first part of your practice. If you start with a series of sun salutations of flowing gentle movements it can be an easy way to really integrate your breath.
You might breath in for a count of three, take a slight pause and then breath out for a count of three, take a pause and then start again.
Counting your breath can make it easier to notice if your inhale and exhale really are equal length. It can also help occupy your mind so that you can bring more attention to breathing. After all if we forget to focus on our breath it’s hard to practice!
You don’t necessarily need to count your breath for your entire practice—although that can be interesting to try occasionally!
You can simply bring this count to the start of the practice and then as you move onto the rest of your yoga practice your body, mind and breath will tend to remember what to do. Practice along with my breathing in sun salutations video.
3. Start your own research on how your breath changes in different yoga postures.
Notice how your breathing pattern changes as you move through different yoga postures.
Does it have a tendency to speed up as you move through flowing yoga postures like sun salutations? Or do you feel restrictions of your breath in twists and backbends? Is there a tendency to shorten your inhale and lengthen your exhale when your in forward bends? Are there certain postures like balancing poses or inversions where you are simply holding the breath?
Challenge yourself for one practice to lead with your breath capacity rather than the yoga postures. So only go as fast or deep into poses where you can maintain an equal and slow inhale and exhale.
4. Finish each practice with a breath awareness meditation.
The end of your yoga practice is just as important as the start and middle! However tempting it can feel to move straight away from your physical yoga practice to the next thing on your to-do list see if you can pause for at least few minutes at the end.
Sit or lie in stillness and bring awareness back to your breath. See if you can work once more on lengthening, softening, deepening and slowing down your breath.
After taking a few rounds of slow and extended breath, allow your natural breath to come back. Releasing control from your breath and letting go.
5. Bring awareness to your breath at different points during the day.
Given that we spend at most perhaps one or two hours a day practicing yoga, and the rest doing other things it’s not surprising that our natural breathing patterns are established in our daily life and not our yoga practice.
Take short pauses from your daily activities to practice anywhere from 2 - 10 minutes of slow and steady breathing.
To begin with you might want to choose set times to do this until it starts to become a habit.
Something you can do when you’re waiting for the bus, in the supermarket, for the kettle to boil or any other few spare minutes you can find in your day!
Good luck and happy practicing!
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