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Yoga Isn't Yoga If You Aren't Doing This

yoga breathing

When we hear the word yoga, nearly all of us picture a pose.

It may be a simple one – lotus, with legs crossed, or a more complex twist, such as standing eagle pose, or the graceful back-bending camel – but that’s the image.

But without conscious breathing, yoga is essentially calisthenics, says Sheila Easa, ERYT 500, a yoga instructor with UH Connor Integrative Health Network.

The breath is that important – it's just as important as the poses. Poses, as Ms. Easa explains, were an add-on to yoga.

“They were designed to limber up the body and make a long seated meditation more comfortable,” she says.

But breathing serves a crucial purpose all its own, she says. “Each inhale and exhale can both calm you and energize you, and it also strengthens the mind-body connection."

How to Breathe in Yoga

There are many different ways to breathe in yoga, but here are four that Ms. Easa likes, starting with the most basic.

The simplest way is what a baby does – the way we all used to breathe when we were toddlers and young children: deep breaths, with the belly visibly moving in and out as we inhale and exhale.

You can do this sitting upright in a chair with back straight and feet flat on the floor, cross-legged on the floor, or even lying on your back.

Or try the three-part breath by beginning in a comfortable seated position with the spine erect (this can also be done lying down). Inhale through the nose into the bottom of the lungs so that the belly expands. It helps to place the hands lightly on the lower abdomen to feel it expand. Practice this first part three times or until the breath is smooth.

Inhale the first third of the breath into the bottom of the lungs as before, and then inhale the second third into the midsection of the lungs so the ribcage expands. Practice this three times or until there is a sense of ease.

Then place one hand on the upper chest, and inhale as before, into the belly, the ribcage and the final third of breath moving up into the top of the lungs. Feel the upper chest lift.

The three-part breath will help create a state of mental alertness, even as it activates the parasympathetic nervous system so that the body-mind is calm.

Another way to breathe is Ujjayi, which is also called oceanic breath. This helps us synchronize our breathing with yoga’s movements, which makes the practice more rhythmic.

The benefits of Ujjayi breath are increasing oxygen in the blood, relieving tension, and feeling present and self-aware.

Finally, here is another method you may have tried in one of your yoga classes: Nadi Shodhana, also called alternate nostril breath. It calms the mind and eases stress. It also helps focus the mind, supports the lungs and respiratory functions and rejuvenates the nervous system.

It’s really not as complicated as these lengthy directions might look.

  • First, take a comfortable seat, with your spine straight.
  • With your right hand, bring your index finger and middle finger to rest between your eyebrows.
  • Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose.
  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily.
  • Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.
  • Open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale.
  • Inhale through the right side slowly.
  • Hold both nostrils closed. Then open your left nostril and release the breath slowly, through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom.
  • Repeat five to 10 times, allowing your mind to follow your inhalation and exhalation.

Related links

Learn more about the health benefits of integrative medicine at the UH Connor Integrative Health Network.