Ride the Breath Wave in Yoga

Time and time again I see new yoga students being confused about whether to do a certain movement on the inhalation or the exhalation. “How does it go?” they ask me. “Should I inhale or exhale when I bend down?” There is no need to remember how to breathe with every specific movement, as long as we understand the main principles that guide those choices. Let’s explore those principles today.

The main principle we use when deciding on how to breathe in a particular posture is succinctly defined by Gary Kraftsow in his book Yoga for Wellness. He writes: “The particular techniques of breathing used in asana practice are designed to maximize certain structural effects of the inhale and exhale, and the postures themselves can be considered as a way to deepen or extend these structural effects of the breath.”

Remember, breath always comes first. Both inhalation and exhalation move the physical structures of the body in a certain subtle way, and in our yoga practice, we choose to coordinate the action of asana with this subtle movement. Here is a quick reminder of the subtle movements that happen with inhalation and exhalation.

Mechanics of Inhalation and Exhalation Diagram

How the Breath Moves the Body in Yoga

The shape of your skeleton plays an important role in the subtle movements of your breathing, specifically the shape of your ribcage and your spine. “The ribs are semi-rigid and serve to relay the pulling forces of the inspiratory and expiratory muscles and point them in specific directions. The semi-rigidity of the spinal column affects the movements of the trunk and of the rib cage, and consequently of breathing actions.” (2)

The movement of the ribs and the movement of the spinal vertebrae are closely linked. Because of the spinal and ribcage shapes, as well as the pulling force applied by muscles, different spinal movements move the body either in expiratory (supporting the exhalation) or inspiratory (supporting the inhalation) directions.

How to Breathe Naturally in Yoga’s Forward Bending Poses

the exhale breath and forward bending, moves body in expiratory direction

Bending the spine forward moves the body in an expiratory direction, which is emphasized by the ribs in the front moving closer together and the volume of the thoracic cavity decreasing. This movement could be augmented by intentional compression of the abdomen. That’s why we bend forward with exhalation.

How to Breathe Naturally in Yoga’s Backbending Poses

Backbending and the breath work of inhaling with the backbending

Bending the spine backward moves the body in an inspiratory direction, which is emphasized by the ribs in the front moving farther apart and the volume of the thoracic cavity increasing. This movement could be augmented by the intentional lifting of the chest away from the navel. That is why we bend backward on inhalation.

How to Breathe Naturally in Yoga’s Side Bending Poses

Sidebending and the breath work emphasized is exhaling

Bending the spine sideways moves the body in an expiratory direction, which is emphasized by the ribs on one side moving closer together. But creating a lateral stretch on the opposite side can only happen if we lift the ribcage away from the pelvis, move the ribs farther apart and increase thoracic volume on one side, which happens on inhalation. That is why we move into a side bend on exhalation, and then “work the pose” by emphasizing inhalation on the opposite side of the body.

How to Breathe Naturally in Yoga’s Twisting Poses

Yoga Twisting with the breath work focuses on the exhale

Most of the spinal rotation happens at the level of thoracic and cervical vertebrae. Rotating the spine produces a reduction in the overall height of the disks between the vertebrae and slight compression of the nucleus because of the torsion effect on the fibers, which moves the body in an expiratory direction. This is emphasized by abdominal compression that happens with twisting, which pushes the diaphragm up, and decreased thoracic volume. This is why we twist on exhalation.

How to Breathe Naturally in Yoga’s Axial Extension Poses

Axial extension poses and the breath work featuring the inhale, spine lengthening, inhale

Lengthening the spine upward (axial extension) lifts the ribs upward and slightly away from each other, which moves the body in an inspiratory direction. This is emphasized by the intentional expansion of the ribcage.

We can choose to augment any of those movements to create a deeper stretch in the body. For example, raising the arms up and widening the chest will support the skeletal actions of backbending, side bending, and axial extension, while facilitating inhalation. Lowering the arms down and compressing the abdomen will support the skeletal actions of forward bending and twisting while facilitating exhalation. It doesn’t mean that we can never lower the arms down on inhalation. All it means is that we consciously choose to enhance the natural process of inhalation and exhalation, to “ride the wave of the breath”, so to speak, in our asana practice. This makes the practice more organic and allows us to link the physical and physiological dimensions.

Reprinted with permission from Sequence Wiz.

Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006, becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz— a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability, and medical history, specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.

  1. Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga by Gary Kraftsow
  2.  Anatomy of Breathing by Blandine Calais-Germain
  3. Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain

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