How to Breathe (Or My First Yoga Lesson)

My First Yoga Lesson

What I remember of my first yoga lesson wasn’t the first time I raised my arse in downward dog, or falling asleep in corpse pose… it was learning how to breathe.

The teacher patiently blew our minds with the possibility that there was another way to breathe. That we, for 17 years, had spent our breaths on an arguably inferior method of oxygenating.

At first, the idea of breathing into my belly (or diaphragm) seemed simply that: just an idea. I couldn’t actually do it. I figured teacher was just a little batty from all that head-standing.

After some time, some persistence from teacher, and some imagination from her students… I got the hang of it.

Of course I’d be lying if I said I’m always super aware of my breath and have a rich, full breath at any time of day or night. Of course it takes a lot of reminders to myself that while I’m breathing enough to keep alive, my breathing could be deeper, slower and benefitting not just my body but my mind.

But over the past 13+ years, I’ve come to see my breath for what it is: an automated process that I can use, for free, as my all natural Prozac or stimulant. It’s pretty neat. And I have yoga to thank for that.

Pranayama? The History and the Science

I should probably explain a bit more about the place of the breath within the big fluffy blanket of yoga. In case you didn’t know, yoga isn’t just the moving; the chaturangas and downward dogs. Those postures (yoga asanas) are just one of eight ‘limbs’ of yoga, covered in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras—a foundation of classical yoga philosophy…. which I’ll cover in more depth soon.

For now, just note that controlled breathing, of pranayama, is another one of those limbs.

Prana = breath or life energy

Ayama = to stretch or expand

Combined, I suppose pranayama = to expand the breath of life.

Athletes and martial arts practitioners access the breath’s primal force by timing moments of exertion with forced exhalation. Yogis refine this by coordinating the rhythm of the breath with movements in the asanas, generally coupling inhalation with expansion and exhalation with deepening. Pranayama perfects this process.

~ Ray Long

Naturally, the questioner in me wondered why this breath stuff was so important. Sure, it felt mildly pleasant and relaxing – but does it really make a difference to my performance or life in general? So I did some research…

Fun with your autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system (or ANS) controls our digestion, respiration, heart rate, immune function and excretion – the things we (hopefully) don’t have to consciously think about. Within the ANS are two distinct systems, known as the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).

Whilst we can’t consciously control other jobs of the ANS, respiration is one we can definitely work with – and because of that, we can play with our ability to hype ourselves up (fight-or-flight) or calm ourselves down (rest and digest). Neat, eh?

Fun with blood pressure

Alternate nostril breathing is one type of breath practise (oh yes, there are lots) which has been shown to have a significant effect on reducing blood pressure, as well as improving performance in speed and agility. Not bad for five minutes of sticking your fingers up your nose. [1]

Fun with brain wave activity

Another type of breathwork, brahmari, was studied to determine its effect on brain wave activity.

Eight participants practised brahmari for five to 10 minutes twice a day for four months. The research found that brahmari increased theta brain wave activity, which is normally exhibited during deep meditation. It also induced feelings of blissful thoughts and lowered stress. [2]

Fun with diabetes

Diaphragmatic breathing was found to significantly lower oxidative stress in diabetic patients by reducing body mass index, waist-hip ratio, fasting and post prandial plasma glucose, glycated hemoglobin, and improving antioxidant levels. This is meaningful because oxidative stress associated with hyperglycemia, which can lead to diabetes mellitus as well as conditions like atherosclerosis and neuropathy. [3]

There have been other studies, also showing the positive effects of breath practise on a wide range of ailments from chronic pain to gastrointestinal disorders as well as athletic performance.

Personally, I don’t need much convincing in this particular area, because I’ve felt the difference just a few deep breaths can make when I’m getting lost in my reactive mind.

Types of Breath Practise

This is where things get weird. Well, as weird as you want to make them. Some breath practises take quite a bit of… getting used to… and used to feeling and looking rather silly, in order to feel the full effects.

Some, you might try and never take to, others you’ll try once and be hooked on your first round of breath.

My advice: experiment! Be open to the wackier ones (I’ve surprised myself) and note that you can always try them again another time. Many of my experiences have been dependent on the teacher as well as the environment and my own present state of mind.

There are several more I won’t delve into today (you can check more out here) – I’m just going to include my top 3:

Ujayi Pranyama (Conquerer Breath)

Pronounced oo-jy (rhymes with pie)-ee

If you’ve heard someone (or yourself) make a hissing sound, kind of like what you hear when you hold a seashell up to your ear, when performing yogic postures, you’ve heard ujayi breathing.

When we breathe, the air passes through the nasal sinuses, which create a kind of force or turbulence, warming the air before it passes into the lower parts of the body.

The glottis is a muscular aperture that sits in our throat, regulating the flow of air into the lower respiratory tract. Normally we control the opening and closing of the glottis unconsciously but yogic breathing techniques like ujayi involve consciously regulating airflow through the glottis.

Our very attractive glottis

When we consciously restrict the amount of air passing through the glottis, we can raise the temperature of the air above normal. Neat, eh? Plus we hear our breath as a vibration, that can sound a bit like the sea waves, in my opinion.

This process of increasing heat and creating a sound with the air is known as ujayi breathing.


Nadi Shodhana (Channel-Cleaning Breath)

Pronounced nah-dee show-DAH-nah

nadi = channel
shodhana = cleaning, purifying

This is one breath practise that took me a while to enjoy, mostly because it takes a bit of co-ordination to get into. The idea here is to use your ring and thumb finger (in Mrigi Mudra) to open and close your nostrils alternately, taking in breath through one nostril at a time.

I know.

So your ring finger/pinky pair will close the left nostril, the thumb will close the right (unless you’re using your left hand). When you close a nostril, apply just enough pressure to block the opening, not so much that you interfere with the flow of breath through the open nostril.

Start by keeping the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, (optional: retain your breath for a beat) then open and exhale slowly through the left. Then, inhale through the left, sealing the right, pausing… and exhaling through the right, sealing the left.This is one cycle. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then release the hand mudra and go back to normal breathing.

… and enjoy having full use of your nostrils.


Finally, my favourite and most ridiculous…

Simhasana (Lion Pose)

Pronounced sim-HAHS-anna

simha = lion

No description here, just a video (this must be seen – and tried! – to be believed)

Well that’s it for today’s 101 on How to Breath (in case you weren’t sure…) and I hope it’s inspired you to give some breath practise a try.

  1. Telles S, Yadav A, Kumar N, Sharma S, Visweshwaraiah NK, Balkrishna A. Blood pressure and Purdue pegboard scores in individuals with hypertension after alternate nostril breathing, breath awareness, and no intervention. Med Sci Monit. 2013 Jan 21;19:61-6
  2. Vialatte FB, Bakardjian H, Prasad R, Cichocki A. EEG paroxysmal gamma waves during Bhramari Pranayama: a yoga breathing technique. Conscious Cogn. 2009 Dec;18(4):977-88

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