Balancing the Breath: The Importance of Exhalation in Yoga and Pranayama Practice

In yoga we often focus on taking deep breaths in, but the exhalation is actually as, if not more important, than inhalation for full, deep breathing. In the following excerpt from YogaUOnline’s course with Doug Keller on Yoga, Breath, and Health—An Introduction to Pranayama Doug addresses the importance of exhalation for freeing the breath.

In pranayama practice, the focus is often on establishing deep, even breathing, and students are encouraged to take a deep breath in. In fact, however, mastery of the art of exhalation is as important, if not more important, than the inhalation.

A focus on exhalation is important, because it offers a way of increasing the fullness and the efficiency of the inhalation, especially when the breath is limited in different ways.

Breathing deeply and fully during pranayama practice, in fact can lead to overbreathing, if you’re breathing too quickly or breathing at a pace that doesn’t match the body’s needs.

Overbreathing is a prevalent syndrome among adults, affecting between six and ten percent of the population. The symptoms that arise from overbreathing include the obvious things like anxiety, muscle pain, and fatigue, along with allergies, “foggy brain,” dizziness and digestive problems.

The Effects of Overbreathing

Overbreathing is defined as moving more air through the chest than the body can deal with. It can be caused by breathing faster than normal (more than 15 breaths a minute) mouth breathing, sighing or yawning frequently.

The balance between the oxygen-rich air we breathe in and the carbon-dioxide rich air we breathe out is balanced by the lungs. In chronic over breathers, too much carbon dioxide is flushed out of the system, altering normal body chemistry and disturbing the body’s pH (acid/alkaline balance), producing unpleasant physiological changes.

Even slight falls or fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels will directly affect nerve cells, as well as blood flow to the heart and brain, producing a wide variety of symptoms in any organ or system in the body.

If you have every gotten slightly dizzy e.g. while singing or doing a pranayama practice, these are signs that you have been over breathing and need to back off.

Balancing the Inhalation & Exhalation

A good portion of the population is continuously over breathing, thus living in a constant state of low-level stress. Conscious, relaxed breathing can be the antidote to this, and the secret lies in balancing the exhalation.

There is a simple technique to this: When teaching yoga, instead of telling people to take a deep breath, focus on having them exhale fully. Once we exhale fully and completely, the body naturally responds with a fuller and deeper breath in. Adding a simple movement of the breath is another way to help people move beyond their conditioned breathing patterns into fuller and deeper breathing.

Forcing the breath during yoga or pranayama practice is always counterproductive. The act of moving on the breath tends to take the mind out of the equation, and thereby the ‘shoulds’ that tend to trap people in a certain perception of how they should be breathing. Try things like a simple supine pelvic tilt (anterior and posterior) having people focusing on exhaling completely as they move into the posterior tilt and press the low back into the ground. Another simple place to start is moving the arms in sync with the breath.

In Surya Namaskar, the traditional way of moving on the breath, offer instructions that help people focus as much on the exhale during the sequence, as on the inhale.

When we understand pranayama and yogic breathing in this way, especially on the background of the tendencies of our mind and body in our present culture, yoga and pranayama can help address (on a very practical level) one of the most prevalent breath pattern disorder from which people suffer.

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