As the spine moves forward, exhalations become your friend. As you hold a forward fold, you’ll notice that every breath in floats you slightly up, then every breath out will settle you deeper. Notice that exhalations can encourage you to round your upper and mid-back. Be careful with this movement, as too much forward flexion can be rough on the spine and disks. Keeping a longer spine is generally a good idea—even if that means you don’t fold very far forward.
We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now,” “Breath to Support Movement,” and “Breath to Support Movement in Your Yoga Practice.” While we aren’t always moving our bodies in yoga, we are always moving our breath. It’s in a constant flow. In this sense, all yoga classes are flow yoga classes—there is always movement of the breath, and therefore always movement in the body.
Breath and Balance
When you’re holding a balance pose, it can be quite tempting to hold your breath. When you’re on the verge of finding balance, the breath can feel disruptive. But not breathing isn’t a long-term solution! When you’re in a balance pose:
- Keep your breath flowing
- Establish a steady rhythm of breath—counting out a rhythm, in-2-3-4, out-2-3-4 can help
- Count your breaths, too: take 5 or more in a balance pose, and build this over time
- Notice if you are tempted to hold your breath
Breath and Seated Twists
In twists, full inhalations will slide you marginally out of the pose, and exhalations will create space for you to deepen. When you’re in a seated twist:
- Use inhalations to reestablish height up your spine
- Use exhalations to twist deeper naturally—don’t force
Breath and Reclining Twists
Next time you’re neck deep in a pool or bathtub, notice how your full inhalations buoy you out of the water, while exhalations sink you deeper. The same experience applies when you’re on your back in a twist:
- Feel the inhalations unwinding you slightly
- Use the exhalations to settle even deeper to the floor
Next time, we’ll look at how the breath interacts with holding backbends and forward bends.
We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now” and “Breath to Support Movement.” You may be most familiar with watching your breath in your yoga practice, especially as many teachers cue your inhalations and exhalations. Here’s the thinking behind this cueing.
Generally, we use inhalations to help as we lift things. Consider the instructions, “Inhale, lift your arms,” “Inhale, grow tall,” “Inhale, rise up.”
Notice your next few breaths come in, and you’ll probably feel this lifting energy through your chest, and maybe in your belly. As your lungs inflate, your ribs expand outward and upward. Moving your arms up or lifting your torso up then naturally follows this rising energy—what we’d call prana.
Conversely, exhalations often help as we lower things: “Exhale, hands to your heart.” “Exhale, hinge at your hips.” “Exhale, lower to the mat.” On the other side of the breath, exhalations help you settle down and in. Watch your next few exhalations, and you’ll feel this movement through your chest and belly. It’s a release in your diaphragm that can be assisted by light contraction through your core muscles. This sensation of downward-moving energy is called apana.
On the Mat
Pay attention to the cues your teacher issues, and you’ll see this pattern at play. At home, experiment: try inhaling as you lift, and exhaling as you lower. Then try breaking the pattern and see how that feels. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, and consciously testing them will help you stay present and engaged in the interplay between breath and body.
This week I have been sitting a lot. Between writing and catching up on end-of-summer paperwork, I’ve logged more time in a chair than I usually do. Yesterday I ran in the morning and later I put down my mat for a lunchtime yoga practice. But today I didn’t have the luxury of extra time, and after a morning of sitting, my body was calling for yoga. Sound familiar? When you have an unusually full day and you’re trapped behind a desk, this 5-step simple sequence is the answer.
Step 1: Go for a 5 minute walk. If you’re home, go check your mail or wander into your backyard. If you’re in an office, take a lap around the building or mosey into the parking lot. Take these 5 minutes alone and with no electronic devices. While you move, bring your attention to your breath. Aim for steadier, deeper breaths, and allow yourself to get curious about your habitual breathing patterns.
Step 2: Seated side stretch. Come back to your desk chair. Sit tall in the middle of your chair. Allow your right arm to settle onto the armrest or relax into your lap. Reach your left arm overhead, and find a side stretch that feels ahhh to you. (Add more: look up toward your left hand and allow your neck to get a stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.
Step 3: Seated twist. Wrap your right arm around the back of your chair. Sit tall, and look over your right shoulder, twisting from your core. Your left hand can hold onto the right side of the chair or the right-side armrest to help you twist deeper. Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.
Step 4: Seated forward fold. Take your knees and feet wider than hip width. Settle your hands onto your thighs and sit tall. Engage your core and lean forward, keeping a long spine. You don’t have to go far: a few inches may be all you need. If you have any bone density issues, skip this move altogether. (Add more: take your hands to the back of your chair, and you’ll feel an additional stretch in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.) Hold for 10 breaths.
Step 5: Seated extension. Slide to the front edge of your chair. Reach your hands to the back of your chair and hold on to the seat. Engage your core, and extend your sternum skyward. Draw your shoulder blades down. (Add more: lift your chin and find a front-of-the-neck stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths.
More yoga is better than less, but some yoga is definitely better than none. This took me just under 12 minutes, including my walk. It was the perfect midday reset for my body and mind. This is simple to do and simple to remember. The next time you’re stuck at your desk, be a desk chair yogi!
In my last post, “The Right Breath for Now,” I posed a series of questions to help you observe how your breath coordinates with your movement, both during your workouts and in your yoga practice. This observation is a lifelong practice—once you get really curious about your breath, you need never be bored again! There’s always something interesting to watch, and the more you pay attention the more you’ll find fascinating subtleties in every breath.
This observation gives you baseline data about how your breath operates to support your activity. With this in hand, you’ve got a target to return toward when your breath gets out of rhythm. Keep watching!
Here are some ideas about how the breath can support you as you move in your workouts.
- Use exhalations on exertion. Let your exhalations give you some extra oomph when you are pushing, lifting, or swinging. Exhalations help you engage through your core, especially your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. These help support your spine and pelvis so you can better send power against the ground or the weight, or send power through the racquet or the club.
- If you get a side stitch, reset your breathing pattern by varying which foot hits the ground or strokes down when you start inhalation and exhalation. That is, change from right to left, or left to right. This repositions your diaphragm on impact and can alleviate the stitch.
- Use your breath to gauge exertion. At an easy warmup and cooldown effort, nasal breathing should be comfortable; at harder efforts, it may not.
- Listen to your body—literally. If your breath is loud or wheezy, ease up. Look for a regular rhythm that helps you feel controlled and steady.
Your yoga teacher talks a lot about the breath, because breath is, obviously, critical to your survival, and even defines your life. You may have found yourself practicing breath exercises in class—applying a ratio of inhalation to exhalation, for example, constricting your throat to create an ocean sound (ujjayi), or exhaling forcefully while pumping your abs like bellows (kapalabhati). Just like lifting weights are a means to an end, making your muscles strong so you can use them as you like, these exercises train you to strengthen and control your breath so that you can always find the right breath for now.
The beauty is that you probably already know what to do. These questions will help you discover the right breath—let them be a starting point to your self-study—and in my next posts I’ll add some suggestions.
In Your Workouts
- When you walk, run, cycle, or swim, which foot hits the ground or pedals down, or which arm is raised, as you begin your inhalation?
- Which is moving down as you begin your exhalation?
- Are these the same?
- How many steps or strokes are you taking on an inhalation?
- How many on an exhalation?
- When you lift weights or swing your racquet, stick, or club, are you inhaling or exhaling?
- How forceful is this breath?
- Are there times when you hold your breath?
In Your Yoga Practice
- How does your breath move in the space of your body when you rest on your back?
- On your belly?
- How loud is your breath at rest?
- How loud is your breath when you work—in standing poses, balance poses, or core exercises?
- How long does your breath take to come in?
- How long does your breath take to go out?
- When you lift your arms, do you prefer to inhale or exhale?
- What do you prefer when you lower?
There’s no need to change these yet—just notice.
Last week, while teaching a five-day intensive for teachers interested in working with athletes, I spent a lot of time talking about “the gauge.” How nice it would be, I said, if as teachers and coaches we could glance at a panel that would tell us how the students and athletes are doing. Are they redlining? Are they at a level of effort enough to induce positive change in the body? Are they snoozing?
Hitting the sweet spot—finding the middle that Goldilocks looked for: not too hard, not too soft, but just right—is best for growth. We see this in sports training and in asana practice. You have to have enough stress to encourage the body to adapt, but apply too much stress and the body will break down instead of building up. We want the porridge to be not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Yet none of us have an externally readable gauge. Sure, you can measure your heart rate or power, and your teacher or coach can see the tells of over-efforting: a grimace, a gritted jaw. Ultimately, however, it’s up to you to choose the poses and workouts that will challenge you enough for change but not enough for corrosion or crisis.
Happily, age is an advantage. With a history of sports injuries or muddling through unproductive training cycles, you have the intuition to read the gauge from the inside. Your breath is your best tool—and that’s what I’ll discuss next time.