Have you ever been confused about how to breathe in your yoga class?
Do I breathe through my mouth or nose?
When do I inhale / when do I exhale?
Do I need to follow the teacher's counts for breathing?
What if I feel dizzy or light-headed?
QUESTION from a student
"Recently, I’ve started going to yoga once or twice a week to help with my recovery from surgery. I know a lot of yoga is about breathwork but I feel like it hasn’t been fully explained to me.
The instructor will say ‘hold this pose for 8 breaths’ ... but then everyone else will be done when I’m only halfway through my 4th breath.
I notice I’m consistently breathing at roughly 50% cadence of everyone and as soon as I try and amp it up, it throws me off.
I’m definitely getting a lot out of these classes but the breath thing sends me on weird mental spirals trying to ‘catch up’."
Video animation by Amanda León
- Stop trying to follow the counts of the teacher's breathing instruction.
- Pay attention to the pace and depth of your own breath (at every single moment).
- Breathing tips:
#1 MOST IMPORTANT
Are you breathing through your MOUTH or NOSE?
- Close your mouth (jaw relaxed, lips soft), breathe through your nose.
- For many of my students, this is very difficult as they are so used to being mouth-breathers. Unless there is a nasal blockage or deviated septum issue, keep practising nasal breathing.
2. Notice when you are HOLDING your breath.
- This tends to happen in challenging asana OR when the pace of the sequence is too fast for you.
- If it is too fast, stop, and just stand still, or you can kneel on your mat. Avoid going into child's pose as it brings all the blood down to your head and getting up from that and returning to a (fast-paced) class is not ideal.
- When the mind is stressed out, we can "forget" to breathe. The key is to use your calm breathing, to calm your mind, even in the most challenging asana
- Imagine your breathing like a nonstop FLOW - in and out. Don't stop the flow.
3. Notice when you are FORCING the breath.
- Avoid this.
- Many students treat yoga like a gym workout and like forceful exhalations. No need for this. Be quiet. Your breathing should be virtually soundless.
- Keep the flow smooth and even.
- Notice the pace of your breath.
- Slow down.
4. Notice WHERE you are breathing
- Where is your body expanding when you inhale - Is it your CHEST or DIAPHRAGM?
- The diaphragm is a muscle just below your lungs that separates your chest and upper abdomen.
- It is the primary muscle for pushing air in and out of your lungs when you breathe.
- When you breathe, your shoulders / chest should be still.
- Diaphragm is expanding up and outwards.
- Practise this throughout your yoga practice (and after).
5. As A General Rule...
- Inhale when you are EXPANDING the body
- Exhale when you are squeezing or CONTRACTING the body
- Inhale BEFORE a spinal twist
- Exhale softly AS you twist
- Continue breathing softly and slowly IN your twist
- Avoid taking deep breaths in poses like spinal twists and Child's pose when your inner organs are being pressed / squeezed.
There are special breathing techniques in yoga known as pranayama which is the practice of breath regulation. In Sanskrit, prana means "life energy" and yama means "control".
Some of these breathing techniques can involve holding the breath and forceful exhalations.
They are not suitable for every body, so if you do attend a class where pranayama is taught, pay very close attention to how you feel BEFORE, DURING AND AFTER. If you begin to feel dizzy or light-headed, do not be afraid to return to your normal natural breathing pattern (soft, slow breaths).
If you are attending a class where such breathing techniques are regularly taught, it is best to let the teacher know before class that you may prefer to skip the pranayama. You can sit and breathe normally / quietly without distracting anyone.
WHY Nasal vs Mouth Breathing?
Developmentally, the mouth is connected to the digestive system, while the nose is connected to the respiratory system. Food enters the mouth and passes through the back of the throat, down the esophagus, and into the stomach. Air enters the nose, passes through the pharynx, down the trachea, and into the lungs via a series of tubes called bronchi.
These passageways are distinct in the ways they prepare food and air for use in the body. An anatomical structure called the epiglottis, which acts like a folding door, ensures that food does not pass down the trachea, and that air does not pass down the esophagus. For normal health, it is important we keep these two pathways separate. You would never consider eating through your nose, so why do so many people breathe through their mouths? Unless we are performing intense exercise, our mouths should be shut and we should be breathing through the nose. There are numerous health benefits associated with nasal breathing, as well as numerous health issues caused by mouth breathing
Your nose is designed to help you breathe safely, efficiently, and properly. It can do this due to its ability to:
Filter out foreign particles. Nasal hairs filters out dust, allergens, and pollen, which helps prevent them from entering your lungs.
Humidify inhaled air. Your nose warms and moisturizes the air you breathe in. This brings the air you inhale to body temperature, making it easier for your lungs to use.
Produce nitric oxide. During nasal breathing, your nose releases nitric oxide (NO). NO is a vasodilator, which means it helps to widen blood vessels. This can help improve oxygen circulation in your body.
Your mouth helps you eat, drink, and talk. You can also use your mouth to breathe, but it doesn’t have many of the unique features that your nose has for this purpose.
We all encounter short-term mouth breathing from time to time, especially when we’re suffering nasal congestion or a cold. We also tend to breathe through our mouths after exercising. However, when we begin to breathe through our mouth for an extended period of time, especially while at rest, we’re long-term mouth breathing.
There are various reasons for mouth breathing, including:
Deviated nasal septums
Prolonged pacifier or bottle use
Without nasal breathing, your tonsils and gum tissues have to act as a filter for cold, non-humidified, polluted air, and there is no release of NO. This leads to inflammation of not only the tonsils (have you had to get your tonsils out?), but the gum tissues too. You may also experience the following symptoms:
Worsening symptoms of asthma and allergies
Increased risk for ear infections, throat infections, and dental issues
In addition, mouth breathing leads to development issues and related complications, including:
Improper jaw development
Forward head posture
Narrow dental arches
Out-of-position jaw or TMJ issues
Sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing
Teeth clenching and grinding
If you are a mouth-breather,
If you don't know how to breathe "with the diaphragm",
If you constantly feel breathless in yoga (or exercise),
If you have any of the issues mentioned above that you'd like to fix,
Try a slower-paced yoga class: Restorative yoga, Yin Yoga, Gentle Yoga, Yoga Therapy, Iyengar Yoga.
These styles will be better suited for you to practise breathing steadily and calmly as you move your body into various shapes.
The breath must be enticed or cajoled,
like catching a horse in a field,
not by chasing after it,
but by standing still with an apple in one's hand.
1. 'Mouth Breathing Vs Nasal Breathing: Which Is Best?' by Dr. Elizabeth Turner, Center For Sleep & Airway Health. https://bloomsleepandairway.com/2021/11/30/mouth-breathing-vs-nasal-breathing-which-is-best/
2. 'What Are The Advantages Of Nose Breathing Vs Mouth Breathing?' by dentallogic. https://www.dentallogictruro.co.uk/what-are-the-advantages-of-nose-breathing-vs-mouth-breathing/
3. 'The Benefits Of Nasal Breathing' by Mile High Spine & Sport. https://www.milehighspineandsport.com/2019/06/19/the-benefits-of-nasal-breathing/