How to Breathe During Yoga Class

Article by Lucas Rockwood
March 07, 2022

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, your teacher probably instructed you to breathe through your nose, breathe deeply, breathe slowly, and make a whisper sound. But why? And how slowly and how deeply? What is the science behind this technique?

Yoga breathing turns every posture into a nervous system training regime.

Why Nose Breathing?

Remember this axiom: “The nose is for breathing; the mouth is for eating.” There are some exceptions, but in most yoga classes, this holds true. Here's what happens when you breathe through your nose.

  • Reduced Stress Response
    Nose breathing correlates with a relaxed nervous system state, so when you breathe through your nose during times of physically stress, such as a difficult yoga pose, it trains your nervous system to self sooth effectively.
  • Filtration, Humidification & Temperature Control
    Your nose acts as a simple air filter for particulates, allergens, and pollutants. It also helps to control the moisture and temperature of inhaled air.
  • Boosts Nitric Oxide
    Small quantities of nitric oxide (NO) are released in your paranasal sinuses during nose breathing. Nitric oxide is a strong vasodilator and is great for vascular and cardiovascular health.
  • Efficiency & Control
    The slight restriction causes by the nose improves breath control and efficiency. In yoga, if you have control over your breath, you are much more likely to have control over your body as you move through poses.

Deep & Slow Breathing Explained

The tidal volume of an average breath is around 500ml, but during yoga classes, we attempt to double that with deep yoga breathing. In a pose, to breathe deeply means to breathe approximately one liter of air per breath. Your normal, waking respiratory rate is 12 to 15 breaths/minute, but in yoga classes, we slow that way down to just about five or six breaths per minute, so we’re breathing more air with each breath but less breaths per minute. The net effect of this breathing pattern is oxygen exchange is healthy and balanced, but your nervous system gets a clear signal that you are cool, calm, and collected. As you progress to more and more physically stressful yoga poses while maintaining this deep, slow breathing, it trains your nervous system to self sooth and remain calm under pressure.

Nose Breathing: inhale 1-2-3-4, exhale 4-3-2-1

Ujjayi Breathing (aka Ocean or Whisper Breathing)

Have you ever wondered why everyone in yoga breathes like Darth Vader—so strange! That technique is called Ujjayi Breathing which means victorious breathing in Sanskrit. The slang term is Ocean Breath or Whisper Breath, and it is created by slightly constricting the back of your throat, your glottis, as you breathe in and out through your nose.

Ujjayi Breathing has two main purposes. Firstly, it gives you much more control over the breath. In the same way a nozzle on a garden hose allows you to focus the water flow, that throat constriction allows you to focus and control the breath. The second reason we make this whisper sound is to stimulate your vagus nerve. Your 10th cranial nerve, the vagus, is largely responsible for your parasympathetic response and when stimulated by breathing, humming, or singing, it has self-soothing effect.

Yoga Breathing in Action

In almost all yoga asana classes, you’ll want to breathe in and out through your nose. Aim for a rate of about five breaths per minute and try to double the volume of air you breathe. Lastly, remember to create that “ha” whisper sound both on the inhale and exhale. If a pose is so challenging that you’re unable to maintain your breath, it’s a good indication you need to back off. In some poses, you will find your torso is twisted or compressed in a posture and you will not be able to breathe so deeply. This is normal, don’t force it, but do try to maintain the rate of five breaths per minute even if you have less volume.

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