How To Breathe Properly In Yoga (& In Life).Apr 04, 2020
Take a deep breath in through your nose, and a cleansing breath out through your mouth.
Those are words I’ve heard and spoken thousands of times. In yoga class. When I’ve been upset. When I’m trying to calm down a friend.
I’ve been taught that deep breathing, sighing, and yawning through the mouth are all great things to do. It never dawned on me to question the method. Surely those who taught me to breathe this way were privy to the secrets of great breathing techniques.
So if I knew how to breathe so well, why was I still out of breath after running uphill for 30 seconds? Why was I still trying to “catch my breath” in yoga in a sequence I’d practiced hundreds of times? Could it be that I maybe didn’t have the answers to how to breathe properly after all?
After all my yoga pranayama (a Sanskrit word that roughly means breathing techniques) training, all my practicing of ujayyi-make-the-sound-of-the-ocean-with-your-throat-breathing in yoga, it didn’t seem to be paying off with the best results.
This led me to a heightened interest in how to breathe properly during yoga practice and in life. At this point in my studies, I have merely dipped my toes in the research of breath science and the application of scientifically proven breathing techniques, but I have learned a few things that have helped tremendously with my stamina, endurance, energy levels, and mood regulation. I can boil these tips down to one-liners, which we’ll need to explore in a bit more detail to see exactly how they work in our bodies:
Breathe light to breathe well
Your nose is for breathing, your mouth is for eating
Breathe low, below the chest
Breathe Light to Breathe Well
I have been taught since childhood that a deep breath is the remedy for pretty much any minor physical or psychological ailment. Stub your toe? Take a deep breath. Didn’t make the cheer team? Take a deep breath. Failed your first test in college? Take a deep breath. Got dumped? Take a deep breath.
This advice is based on the common misconception that taking in more air amounts to more oxygenation of our tissues. But tissue-oxygenation doesn’t work that way.
Tissue-oxygenation starts with hemoglobin, which is the oxygen-carrying protein in our blood. Oxygen binds to hemoglobin in our lungs and is transported to the rest of the body through the bloodstream. The release of oxygen to our tissues is dependent on the amount of carbon dioxide in our lungs and blood. If CO2 is not at the required level of 5%, oxygen will stick to the hemoglobin and will not be delivered to our tissues.
Fun fact: The relationship between CO2 and hemoglobin has been understood since 1904 and is known as the Bohr effect.
When we breathe heavily, we deplete our system of CO2, thereby decreasing the amount of oxygen delivered to our tissues. Isn’t that wild?!
Our body is very efficient at oxygenating our blood. Whether that blood is delivered to our tissues depends on whether we have enough CO2 in the system. Our bodies actually have more oxygen than we need. Between 25-75% of our oxygen in any given moment is excess--we actually take in more than we can use.
This tells us that we probably don’t need more oxygen. But we might need more CO2. So the best practice for breathing--whether we’re at rest or exercising--is to breathe light. To breathe light, we need to breathe through our nose, which gets me to my next point.
Close Your Mouth
Your nose is for breathing, your mouth is for eating. The only times we should really be breathing through our mouth is when we’re talking, singing, swimming or sprinting away from a legitimate threat. Even then, we should try to regulate our breathing through our nose as much as possible.
Unlike breathing through our mouth, breathing through our nose:
Filters the air before it reaches our lungs, removing germs and bacteria
Warms the air to our body temperature by the time it reaches the trachea, reducing the likelihood that our air passages will narrow from becoming too cold
Moistens air so that our air passages stay open and hydrated
Regulates air volume so that we aren’t over-breathing
Dilates airways for improved blood circulation and airway dilation
When we breathe through our mouth, we are more likely to experience snoring, asthma symptoms, allergies, congestion and anxiety, among other symptoms.
When I learned about this, I was surprised to notice how often I breathe through my mouth. It had never really dawned on me to take inventory of my breathing habits, but suddenly I noticed myself breathing through my mouth in all sorts of situations: While sleeping, in the shower, while thinking about a stressful work encounter, when exercising.
We are a culture of chronic mouth-breathing and over-breathing. There are many reasons for this, including over-eating, highly acidic diets, sedentary lifestyles, persistent stress, and our western belief is that big-breathing is better breathing. So it’s best to take inventory of these factors in our own lives and do what we can to influence them so that we’re able to breathe through our nose whenever we can, even during strenuous exercise.
Breathe Low, Below the Chest
The lungs are shaped so that they are wider at the bottom than at the top. Because of this, blood flow is greater in the lower part of the lungs. If we are habitualized to breathing high in the chest, we take in less air and there’s less oxygen transfer to the blood. Upper-chest breathing also activates our fight-or-flight response.
By contrast, when we breathe low in our bodies, the movement of the breath stimulates the vagus nerve, which is associated with our parasympathetic nervous system--the part of the nervous system that puts us into a state of rest-and-digest.
When we breathe in our abdominals rather than our chest, we utilize our primary breathing muscle: The diaphragm. Using our diaphragm (rather than bypassing it with chest breathing), assists with our lymphatic drainage. The lymph system is our sewer system, but it doesn’t have a pump like our circulation system has with the heart. Instead, lymphatic drainage relies on gravity and muscular contraction to move our lymph. Activation of our diaphragm helps assist this process, which means we’re able to detox more efficiently.
Abdominal breathing helps us feel calmer, gives us more energy and allows for better performance. So, when in doubt: Breathe low, below the chest.
How To Breathe Properly in Yoga
Let’s put this all together: When you’re practicing yoga, strive to breathe lighting through your nose into your abdomen.
Try to breathe this way even during the most challenging parts of class. When something becomes so challenging that it starts changing the way you’re able to breathe, take this as a sign to pull back and take a break before re-entering. If you practice like this, my prediction is that within a short while, you will start to see improved stamina, endurance, energy level and mood both during yoga and in life.
If a particular pranayama exercise is offered to you, do what you can to stay within those parameters. Pranayama is a skill that helps you gain control over different aspects of your breath, it is not intended to be your default way of breathing.
I realize this advice perhaps flies in the face of some of what you are asked to do in yoga class. If that’s the case, do not fault your yoga teacher for speaking about “big” breathing or asking you to breathe out through your mouth--this is just the way we were educated, and most of us haven’t the luxury or interest in studying science-backed systems of breathing. The important thing is that you are on your way to becoming an educated manager of your own body, and that these tips produce real results in your life.
The claims I have made in this blog post are derived from several sources that I am happy to share with you. My preferred way of learning is via social media, videos and reading, and there are two books that have been very helpful in learning about breathing. I encourage you to get these books and continue your research into the best ways of breathing, moving and living:
Close Your Mouth | Buteyko Breathing Clinic Self Help Manual by Patrick McKeown
The Oxygen Advantage | Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques by Patrick McKeown
About Yoga In Your Living Room
Our yoga platform features smart, simple movements that help you feel better without confusing you, overwhelming you, or asking you to do impossible things. We believe you are capable of moving well, resolving pain, overcoming obstacles, and feeling capable beyond your wildest dreams. Try our online yoga membership risk-free for 7-days, or subscribe to our mailing list to stay in touch.
Live Better, Longer.
Our online yoga membership helps you discover movement that feels great. Unlock the most powerful tool we have to slow down and reverse the effects of aging: exercise. We've helped hundreds of beginners develop movement strategies to get out of pain and live a higher-quality life. You could be next.
Stay in touch!
You'll love being on our email list. Exercise. Nutrition. Sleep. Emotional health. We cover all the bases. Get smarter about your health with tips to help you live longer, better in your inbox every Sunday.
Always free, never spam.