Without the breath, yoga is no longer yoga. And with the wrong breath, yoga can adversely affect the body. Knowing when to inhale and when to exhale is imperative. There are five golden rules of breathing that can be applied to all sequences and all styles; and understanding how the breath works will make each of these rules intuitive.
Inhalations are the active process of the breathing cycle, driven by the movements of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles. When air is drawn into the lungs, the diaphragm descends and the external intercostal muscles contract, raising the ribs and sternum. The thoracic cavity broadens, the pressure within the lungs decreases, and air flows in.
The process of inhaling causes the front body to expand, and the movement of the intercostal muscles opens the chest upward and out. As the diaphragm moves downward, it compresses the contents of the abdomen, and the belly expands outward.
Exhalations are the passive process of the breathing cycle. During exhalation, the diaphragm and respiratory muscles relax. The lungs’ elastic tissues that were stretched during inhalation suddenly recoil, pressure within the lungs increases, and air is forced out of the lungs. Unlike inhalations, the front body moves inward during exhalations and tends to collapse.
Breath changes the shape of the body, as does movement. Asanas either open out the chest and abdomen or compress them. At the same time, the shape of the body affects movement and breath. Because breath and movement are naturally linked, they must be intelligently paired in yoga. Correct yogic breathing supports the asana movement and deepens its effects. Incorrect breathing, however, inhibits the movement and negatively affects the body.
These five guidelines should be applied to all yoga practices.
As explained, inhalations expand the chest and abdomen. To intelligently link inhalations to movement, any asanas that open the front body should be practiced on an inhalation. These include backbends, raising the head, and raising the arms.
Cobra pose is a great example of this pairing. As you peel off the floor in Cobra pose, the head is lifted, the chest is expanded, and the belly moves downward. This movement, then, is supported by inhalation.
Forward bending movements tend to compress the front of the body. In Seated Forward Bend pose, for example, the back is stretched and the front of the body contracts. This movement and all forward bends, then, should be practiced on an exhalation. Twists and side bends, which restrict expansion of the chest and abdomen, should also be practiced on an exhalation.
If you were to inhale while coming into a forward bend, twist, or side bend, you would be expanding your chest and abdomen with the breath, but compressing them with the movement. This contradiction would adversely affect the body.
Inhalations have a max point, but their effect can be prolonged by momentarily holding the breath afterward. This technique is sometimes used in yoga.
At the end of an inhalation, the chest and abdomen are fully expanded. The body will naturally resist any further movement. Therefore, only suspend the breath after inhalation when holding an asana, and not while moving.
Similarly, the effect of an exhalation can be prolonged if the breath is momentarily suspended. Because the lungs and abdomen are relaxed after exhalation, the body isn’t as resistant to movement. Forward bending movements are safe to practice at this point in the breathing cycle.
This is the goldest of yoga’s golden rules of breathing. The breath should serve as a guide in all movement. The moment the breath becomes strained or disturbed, the body’s been pushed too far. The goal of any asana is to be completely comfortable and relaxed; to move and hold with deep, effortless breaths. Only then can one derive the benefits from an asana. If the body is under strain and tension, and the breath is adversely affected, the purpose of the asana is defeated—and it’s no longer yoga. Always use the breath as a guide.
No matter the asana, these five golden rules of breathing will always apply.