For yoga breathing, we use a technique of drawing the lower belly in throughout the exhalation.
The movement should feel natural and smooth, without force.
As a student progresses with this technique, they can gradually draw the belly in from the lowest point, just above the pubic bone, up to the middle/upper abdomen, and this method of breathing leads into uddhiyana and mūla bandha practice.
For most new students I see, this technique is unnatural and difficult. The level of control it requires for the breath and deep musculature of the abdomen requires a lot of focus.
Especially for students with anxiety, gradual movement of the belly seems entirely out reach. In fact, for many stressed or anxious students, the natural movement of the breath is reversed, with the belly expanding on exhale and drawing in on inhale.
How to Begin Exhale Technique
This technique can't be forced. Forcing the breath to move a way that is uncomfortable creates even more strain and stress, and can provoke symptoms of anxiety, including breathlessness, racing heart, and even feeling faint. Modifying the breath needs to be approached gradually.
Here are the steps I usually guide students through to find this technique:
- Begin lying down on your back, with your knees bend and feet on the floor. Support your head with a folded blanket or small pillow if you like for comfort.
- Place one or both hands on the lowest part of the belly, below the navel and just above the pubic bone. What do you feel in this space? Can you feel the warmth of your hand? Can you feel the weight of your hand? Just see what this space feels as you breathe naturally.
- Add a soft sound to each exhale, either saying "aaaah" or "mmmm" in a low, soft voice. Try to keep the volume and tone the same through the entire breath.
- Can you feel your belly gently sinking toward your spine when you make this sound? If so, continue making the sound as you exhale, feeling the sensation of your belly being drawn down toward the spine. If not, just concentrate on making the sound in the breath very smooth, and feel the warmth/weight of your hand on the lower belly as you breath.
As the movement becomes easier to feel, and the sound in the breath is easy to sustain, I will teach students ujjayi breath. I also teach postures like apānāsana or uttānāsana to get the abdomen involved a bit more on the exhale so that the movement of the breath becomes linked with the movement of forward bending of the spine.
Especially in private lessons, I try not to bring students' attention to the movement of the belly until I can see that it's happening, or the exercise creates more stress!
Try it for yourself:
I have several yoga videos and class recordings for beginners that focus on developing and exploring this pattern of breathing, and most are very gentle and relaxing. Here are few lessons to give it a try:
Why do we prefer this breathing pattern?
There are a few reasons we use the exhale technique in yoga, as it improves breath capacity, improves lengthening in the lower back for forward bending poses and moves the apāna vayu region to help eliminate waste.
For me, one of the biggest benefits is the feeling of stability and groundedness that comes from the technique, since it gives students a feeling of being strong and calm. As the deepest muscles of the core become firmly engaged by the end of the breath cycle, students have greater stability and a foundation they can lift or extend from safely.
Drawing the lower abdomen also aids movement of lower digestive organs, promotes health and function of reproductive tissues in the abdomen and pelvis, and it stabilizes pelvic floor muscles and soft tissue.
In yogic anatomy (also called subtle anatomy), there is an idea that undigested food and experience sits like dirt (mala) in the lower abdomen, and that the action of drawing the abdomen up brings the dirt up to the digestive fire (agni) of the stomach. This stoking of our fire, improves our vitality and enables us to process and eliminate the stuff that's been around too long.
There is some science, too, that attempts to validate the experience.
Bottom line is, being able to engage and utilize the abdomen during the exhale opens a lot of doors for an effective practice. It's such a valuable tool, that I designed the entire Beginning Yoga class around practicing and experiencing it.
It takes regular practice at an appropriate level over time to develop this pattern so that it is subtle and done without force. One of my teachers, Dolphi Wertebecker, describes the breath as wild and skittish, like a feral kitten. You need to move gently and help it to trust you as you work with it.
How does it work for you? Have you tried it? How do you feel when you use it?