Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: How to Breathe in Yoga

I was chatting to someone recently and she commented to me "I've been to all these yoga classes, but I'm just not clear about the breathing".

So today's Yoga Tip - first in a new series on my blog! - gives us a few simple guidelines about breathing in yoga.

First of all, a quick review of what happens when we breathe.

When we inhale:
- The diaphragm descends towards the abdomen
- The rib cage and lungs expand in all directions: up, sideways and backwards

When we exhale:
- The diaphragm rises
- The rib cage and lungs contracts
- The abdomen contracts

Generally speaking there are 4 types of movement in yoga: forward bending, back bending, side bending and twists.

  • Forward bending and twisting compress the abdomen, diaphragm and lower rib cage; so these should always be done on an exhale.
  • Side bending compresses one side of the abdomen and lower rib cage, but expands the other side. Generally we do side bending on an exhale, but it can also be done on an inhale, depending on the intention.
  • Back bending causes the abdomen to elongate and the ribcage to expand, so generally we backbend on an inhale.  However, when the abdomen expands it can reduce our core stability, which might lead to more strain or pinching on the lower back - so for a more protected and stable back bend, try back bending on or at the end of an exhale, while focusing on contracting the core muscles.

So, with those basics in mind, we can figure out how to breathe in almost any pose. For example, Utanasana is a forward bend, so we would do it on an exhale. Conversely, coming back up from Utanasana, comparatively, has the same effect as back-bending (the rib cage expands), so we would do it on an inhale. Triangle pose is a side bend, so we would  generally do it on an exhale.
Of course, sometimes it gets a bit complicated. What about headstand? Well, the way I think about it is that the preparation pose for headstand is like an inverted forward bend, so coming up from headstand is like coming up from Utanasana - done on an inhale.

Remember that these are just guidelines - at the end of the day, you should always do what feels right!

Any topic you'd like to hear tips on? Just leave a comment!


  1. Great explaination. I also keep these in mind: inhale for extension, reach, upward movement; exhale for flexion, folding, twisting, downward movement. And it's great to pause in between the inhale and exhale for a few seconds too. Purposeful breath retention makes things interesting :)

  2. @Lila - thanks!

    @LiveLoveYoga - I love how you express those - nice and simple!