breath

Yoga Breathing: Exhale Technique

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

Beginner Yoga Practice Video

Short Evening Yoga Practice Video

Recordings from Beginning Yoga Class - March 2018

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?

3 Things You Can Do to Breathe Better Now

When it's hot and humid outside like it is now, a lot of people tell me they can't breathe.

Especially if you have asthma or COPD, the air feels too heavy to pull in and your breath is short and unsatisfying.

You try to breathe in, but the inhale feels tight, like there isn't enough space.

But what you may not feel is that the exhale is probably also short.

When you don't get enough air out of your lungs on the exhale, then you don't create the natural vacuum your body relies on to pull air in for your inhale.

Now, forcing all the air out in a big whoosh is not going to solve the problem. Do that a few times, and you'll either hurt yourself, or you'll make your breath even shorter.

Here are three easy things you can do to breathe more easily today:

I've put them in a five-minute yoga practice recording for your convenience.

Try to do the practice once a day for a few days in a row, and your breath will be so much easier and full.


Why do we use Ujjayi breath?

Most new yoga students are surprised by how much I talk about the breath during class. In fact, I probably give more directions for your breath than your body in a typical group class.

Our ability to control our breath is one of the most powerful tools we have in yoga practice. Consider the vital role that breath plays in our body--its influence is everywhere! 

What's very cool about yoga is that a long time ago, people realized they could change how they feel and how their minds and bodies work by changing their breathing patterns. Notice your breath as you imagine being surprised, excited, relaxed, angry or sad. It changes a lot.

One of the things we might do in yoga is breathe in a relaxed way, and that way of breathing persuades the other parts of your system that you are relaxed. And then you really are relaxed.

It's a little more complicated than that, and we spend a lot of time talking about and practicing this stuff in teacher training, but that's the gist of how it works.

There is a great deal of utility in manipulating the breath if you know what you're doing. And learning something like ujjayi breath is a perfect start to yoga breathing practices.

First, here's a little tutorial on how to do ujjayi breath:

  1. Breathe in through your nose, and as you exhale, whisper "ahhhhhh" a few times.
  2. As you make the whisper sound, listen to it. See how smooth you can make the sound and see if it can last the entire length of your exhale.
  3. Then, close your mouth and see if you can still make the same whisper sound as you breathe out through your nose.

That's really all there is to it. You may also be able to add the whisper sound to the inhale right away, but in my experience, the inhale is a bit trickier to work with for new students. I suggest sticking to exhale only for a week or so and add the inhale as it becomes easy.

If you prefer to listen and practice, I have a recording all about ujjayi breath here.

Admittedly, spending a lot of time thinking about your breath and making a sound with it is strange at first. But there are three very useful things that ujjayi breath brings to your yoga practice:

1. Makes the breath more substantial

Creating a noise gives your breath a sound and a feeling that makes it easier to notice and control. Something as subtle as air becomes more tangible, and it's more satisfying to work with and focus on, especially for beginning students.

The sound and sensation also give students something to focus on. You can't tell someone to clear their mind and expect them to successfully keep their mind empty and still. Our minds don't work that way. They need something to do. And focusing on creating and listening to a sound in the breath is a nice little challenge to keep the mind engaged.

As the student advances, his breath grows more soft and subtle, so that even ujjayi breath is barely audible.

2. Provides feedback

One of primary elements of ujjayi breath is that the sound or sensation created should become entirely smooth and require almost no effort.

You'll notice in the beginning that the volume may change throughout the length of your exhale, or the breath may sputter or break up a bit. But as you become more proficient, you'll be able to maintain a very smooth sound even during movement and in more challenging breathing practices.

A break or unevenness in the breath is an indication that you are working beyond the level of effort that's useful or desirable in yoga. Most of the systems we are working with in yoga are highly refined, and they don't welcome forceful disruptions. Listening to the breath and staying at a level where the breath is smooth keeps your yoga practice healthy and effective.

3. Lengthens the breath

To create the whisper-like sound in your breath, your throat needs to gently constrict a bit. And this constriction slows the stream of air that passes through, in the same way that a drink flows more slowly through a narrow straw than through a wide one.

I won't spend a lot of time on it here, but one of the main ways that we influence the breath in yoga is by using different ratios for the inhale and exhale.

A inhale that is longer than the exhale is excitatory, and can produce anxiety, so I don't use it in yoga class.

An exhale that is longer than the inhale, on the other hand, tends to have a very relaxing influence. I use that one a lot.

Creating the sound with ujjayi breath gives students the ability to more precisely control the stream of air as it leaves or enters. So if I ask them to breathe in for 6 counts and out for 12, they have more capability of controlling the breath.

 

There you have it: three very good reasons to practice ujjayi breath.

If you're curious, the word ujjayi is in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, and comes from the root "ud," which means up. The entire word means something like "one who is moving up," and in the case of yoga studies, one who is advancing or becoming enlightened. You may have heard your teacher refer to ujjayi breath as victorious breath or ocean breath as well. We yogis are quite fond of this tool and give it many names!

Enjoy your breathing! As I always say (not really, but perhaps I should), "Breathing every day keeps the doctor away!"