Have you noticed how your breathing changes in some Yoga positions? It’s your best guide on your Yoga journey, helping to steer your progress.
How we should breathe
Breathing happens automatically – you cannot control whether you breathe or not, your autonomic nervous system takes care of that to keep you alive. When we let our autopilot take charge, our breathing is fairly shallow, exchanging only about 500-750 ml of air, even though our lung capacity can reach up to 6 liters!
Luckily, you can control how fast, and how deeply you breathe – and you can also decide the shape your body makes with each inbreath. The latter simply means that by paying attention to your breath, you can expand your breathing so that it’s not just chest- or belly-breathing but you’re using the whole range – from your belly up to your collar bones. It’s no surprise this can also improve your posture!
When you make your breathing consciously deeper and slower, you’re not only getting more oxygen into your body, you are also sending feedback to your autonomic nervous system to relax, to lower blood pressure and release tension. That’s not to say that slower and deeper breathing will make you drowsy – it’s the opposite! It brings more oxygen to your brain, making you more alert but also less stressed. What’s not to like?
There are several Yogic breathing techniques to help you go deeper in your breathwork if you’d like to try.
Breathing slow and deep also has amazing physical effects. When you breathe deeply in various Yoga positions, it stretches your muscles from the inside, providing delicious release to many back and core muscles.
What does it mean when your breath gets out of control
You may start your Yoga practice breathing slowly and deeply, drawing your breath into your belly and chest, yet there might come a point when your breathing becomes fast and shallow. You may not even realize it at first but if you catch yourself doing that, it means you’re working harder than you should in the particular position.
First, try to adjust your breathing – sometimes we breathe faster than we need out of habit. If you deepen your breath without great effort, that’s excellent! You’ve discovered your autopilot is undermining your efforts and rectified the situation. You may even discover you can go deeper in the position as a result!
However, if it doesn’t work and you’re fighting for your breath, it means it’s time to ease off and opt for an easier variation or simply hold the position for a shorter time. When we strain ourselves, our breathing is strained too and it’s a clear signal that you’re pushing yourself too much. If you sound like a steam train or even make grunting noises, you’re definitely trying too hard. It doesn’t mean you should not do the position – it simply means it’s something to work on, and that you should pace yourself. Sometimes that means working on your mobility or strength, at other times it means you should do for example three short holds rather than one long one. Your breath is your Yoga teacher!
As always, there’s an exception – this rule doesn’t apply when you’re doing strength or HIT style Yoga training that is meant to challenge your abilities. In those cases, it’s normal for your breathing to become labored and you can’t do anything about it. The important thing is that your breath then returns to normal and can become slower and deeper again.
Respect the position
Some Yoga positions naturally limit your breathing space – for example in twists, it would be hard to breathe into your belly and it’s perfectly fine to breathe just into your chest. On the other hand, in the shoulderstand, it’s difficult to breathe into your chest so breathe mainly into your belly. Each Yoga pose has its specifics but it’s usually intuitive whether your whole torso can expand with each breath or a part of it is squished and therefore limited. The main goal is to breathe deeply and relatively slowly no matter what shape your body is in.
Don’t hold your breath
Many of us have a habit of holding our breath when we focus, whether we’re working at a desk or on the mat. If you hold your breath in your Yoga practice, it’s a sign that you’re in your head too much.
As you move between positions in sync with the breath, that should prompt you to breathe correctly but when you’re supposed to hold a pose for several breaths, your concentration may make you stop breathing for a while. Try to stay mindful of your breath, alignment, bodily sensations and your surroundings to stay present. You can also count your breaths to stay in the moment – it’s a simple trick but works like a treat!
If you catch yourself holding your breath, slowly let it out and breathe deeply. Some people hold their breath and build up so much pressure in their chest that the outbreath then sounds like a volcanic eruption. Don’t do that! Holding your breath is depriving you of oxygen and is taking away some benefits of the Yoga practice as it might make your body stressed with the perceived danger of a lack of air.
Having said that, sometimes, there’s a cue in Yoga to hold your breath – it may be a part of a breathing exercise or done in a transition, usually from plank down to chaturanga. In these cases, the breath retention serves a purpose (and what comes before and after compensates for the retention) so it’s different from randomly holding your breath.
Sometimes, your breath is sending you signals about the state of your body, and it has nothing to do with your Yoga practice. If you arrive on your mat, taking a moment to stay still before the start of your practice, and you notice you’re breathing fast even though you’re not moving, something else is going on.
Chances are this fast breathing means you may be stressed, afraid, angry, ill, or anxious. Our mental states affect our breathing big time – when you’re in the fight-or-flight mode, your heart is beating faster and your breathing speeds up to get more oxygen into your muscles to prepare them for action. When that happens, consciously slowing down and deepening your breath is one of the best things you can do because it immediately starts sending signals to your nervous system to calm down. You can also try box breathing before you start your Yoga practice.
If you are too hyper to do slow breathing first, another option is to choose a more challenging Yoga practice that will help you to burn some of the stress hormones. The physical side of the practice will not only do that, it will also make your body release some endorphins, the feel-good hormones. At the same time, your mind will have something to occupy itself with, and will get a break from what was and what will be. It’s entirely possible the Yoga practice will release some bubbling emotions too – whether you want to let out a scream or cry, it’s not just allowed, it might help a lot! Then you can settle down and breathe slowly and deeply at the end to get the full benefits of the practice and soothe your mind.
Your breath is your teacher
There’s a lot we can learn about ourselves when we pay attention to our breath. It’s one of the best indicators of what’s going on inside us, and also the best tool for de-stressing. Use it wisely and you’ll transform your Yoga practice, become more mindful, calmer, and it can even help you recover faster – lowering your stress hormones speeds up muscle repair!