"To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds." Thích Nhất Hạnh
The primacy of the breath is one of the main ways that yoga distinguishes itself from stretching, gymnastics and other forms of exercise. In yoga, we synchronise breath and movement, aim to make use of our full breathing capacity and learn how to adjust our breathing patterns to affect our internal state. In Sanskrit (the ancient Indian language of yoga), this “limb” of yoga is called prāṇāyāma, which translates as “rhythmic control of breath”.
Benefits of focusing on the breath
There are not only physical but also mental and emotional benefits to focusing on the breath, as the mechanisms of breathing affect both your physiology and your nervous system.
Breathing in and out through the nose strengthens the diaphragm (the primary breathing muscle), as nasal breathing requires more effort than mouth breathing. This improves your cardiovascular fitness and stamina.
Yogic breathing practices improve posture, maximising the space in the chest cavity. This allows you to breath more deeply and efficiently.
Conscious breathing relaxes the central nervous system, allowing you to go deeper into each stretch. This improves your flexibility and range of motion.
Diaphragmatic breathing can alleviate pain, especially at the lower back, neck and shoulders.
Breathing deep into the abdomen can help you to feel calm and composed in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations.
Paying attention to and deepening your breath decreases your base level of internal tension, allowing you to move more easily and think more clearly in everyday life.
Your yoga practice will advance exponentially—you will be physically more capable and experience more moments of yogic bliss.
Mastering the breath
In the Yoga 15 videos, we aim to finish each session feeling calm and energised, and the breath plays a vital role in this. Typically, we start with a few rounds of centring breath, breathe rhythmically in and out the nose throughout the sequence, and finish with a short meditation. The breathing techniques that we practice at the beginning and end of the session are neither highly stimulating, like kapalabhati (Breath of Fire) nor are they intended to send you to sleep, as you might find in yoga nidra (Yogic Sleep). They are designed to bring you into balance.
Getting the breathing right is a deceptively advanced yoga skill that can take a lifetime to master. It’s therefore great to establish good habits early on so that you can continue to refine your breathing alongside other aspects of your practice, including strength, flexibility and alignment.
Before I take you through these three phases, let’s look at some basic breathing mechanics.
The anatomy of breathing
Although it may seem counterintuitive, your lungs are unable to expand and contract under their own steam. The primary driver of respiration is the diaphragm—a dome-shaped muscle that sits underneath your lungs, separating the chest and abdominal cavities.
When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and flattens, increasing the volume of your chest cavity. At the same time, the intercostal muscles between your ribs, the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid in the neck, the pectorals in the chest, and the trapezius, rhomboids and serratus anterior in the upper and mid-back, lift and expand the chest. This combined increase in volume creates a vacuum that draws air into the lungs.
As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, reducing the volume of the chest cavity and increasing the pressure. The intercostals and accessory breathing muscles in the neck, chest and back contract, and these actions, along with the elastic recoil of the ribcage, push air out of the lungs.
Breathing is part of the autonomic, or involuntary, nervous system. This means that we continue to breathe, without having to consciously control the process. However, we can also choose to alter certain qualities of the breath by contracting and relaxing the accessory breathing muscles listed above. This makes it a unique physiological process.
1. Centring breath
We start each sequence with a short breathing exercise, designed to relax your body and calm your mind. We alternate between two different techniques, depending on the objective of the routine. Either the inhalations and exhalations are equal in length, which triggers a state of focus and clarity—this is called sama vritti in Sanskrit. Or, when the sequence is more relaxing, we practice a technique in which the exhalations are twice as long as the inhalations, to calm the central nervous system. (Extending the inhalations and shortening the exhalations activates the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” nervous system.)
At the beginning of each session, when you are focusing on your posture and breathing, you have the opportunity to fine-tune your breath in a way that becomes more difficult when you start to move. It can also help to bring your mind and body together. Here are a couple of refinements to consider.
Stand or sit up straight. A straight spine, supported by strong back and abdominal muscles, allows for the healthy expansion and contraction of the rib cage. If you slump over and allow your chest to collapse, you restrict the flow of air coming in and out of your lungs, so make sure that you keep your back straight in the opening posture. (This is equally important both on and off the mat.)
Deepen your breath. Your opening breaths should be slow, deep and smooth, making use of your full lung capacity. Full, deep breaths relax your body and bring maximum oxygen into your system. Relax your jaw, throat, neck, and shoulders, letting go of any unnecessary tension.
360° breathing. Breathe deep into your abdomen, allowing your belly to inflate like a balloon. At the same time, breathe into the sides of your waist and into your lower back. Allow your rib cage to expand in all directions—front, back and sides. Maintain this 360° awareness for the duration of the exhalation.
2. Moving with the breath
This is where things gets tricky and you are by no means expected to be perfect. In yoga, the most challenging aspects of breathing are maintaining deep, diaphragmatic breaths throughout the sequence and synchronising that rhythmic, calming breath with your movement. You have probably experienced first-hand that the mind’s natural tendency is to drift off. Even if we start the session off strong—focussing on each and every inhalation and exhalation, at some point, we get distracted by thoughts or the difficulty of the pose and lose our rhythm. This is completely normal. Just like meditation, it is harder than it sounds and can take years to master.
Right now, all you have to do is to try your best to follow my cues and each time you notice you have lost contact with the breath, gently bring your attention back. As a general rule, we inhale to open up or expand the body and exhale to twist or contract the body. (This pattern of breathing is most obvious in Sun Salutations.) When you come into static poses, try to maintain your rhythm.
3. Focus on the breath
In Final Resting pose, you can completely let go of your control over the breath. Notice how your body breathes itself. Try to focus on the way that your body responds to your breath. Observe the gentle rising and falling of your belly and your chest. The effortless expansion and contraction. Try to stay focused on your breath for the last few minutes of the class. Each time you notice you have been distracted, gently bring your attention back.
I personally find meditating at the end of a yoga session much easier than seated meditation. Your body is relaxed, there is more space in between your thoughts and you have tuned in your powers of interoception (the sense of what is going on inside your body). If you are interested in going deeper into meditation, this is a great place to start.
Benefits for athletes
"If you plant the right seed in the right spot, it will grow without further coaxing." BJ Fogg
Breathing is one of those things in yoga where you wake up in a couple of months and discover that you’ve made significant progress both on and off the mat. It just takes time and patience.
This is what François, OG of the brutal Sufferfest Cyclists and Triathletes Training app, had to say after 9 months of a regular Yoga 15 practice.
“Better breathing on, but also off the bike, has been the most significant improvement my yoga practice has given me. I’ve reached a point where I feel more able to “breathe with” rather than “breathe against” and this makes a huge difference both on the mat and on the bike. My power on the bike, especially at VO2max, has gone up significantly and although I’ve trained relatively hard for it, I can feel that my breathing has helped a lot. It is not as laboured as it used to be when put under a massive stress. Best of all is that I can now recognise the signs that I’m tensing up, reverse the trend and prolong my high intensity efforts just that little bit longer.”
Putting it into action
Experiment with making breathing the focus of your session every couple of days.
Try to maintain nasal breathing throughout the sequence.
Aim to make use of your full breathing capacity both in the opening posture and as you move through the poses.
See how long you can maintain the synchrony of breath and movement.
Notice how natural it feels to inhale as you open the body or extend the spine and exhale as close the body and flex or twist the spine.
Each time you notice you have lost your rhythm, gently bring your attention back.
If you catch yourself holding your breath, it could mean that you are using too much force. Try to slow down your breathing and relax