Breathing in Yoga Asanas

“Breath is central to yoga because it is central to life.”
T. Krishnamacharya

As a Vedic story goes; mind, breath, tongue, ears and eyes came together and began to discuss about which one of them is more important. Instead of becoming one and unified, they started to compete with each other. At the end, they decided to leave the cave they live in respectively, so each one of them would be away for one year.

First, the tongue left the body. The body kept on living in silence. After one year, when the tongue came back, other organs said, “We could not talk but we have survived.” Then the eyes went away. The body kept on living as a blind. The organs said, “We could not see but we have survived.” When the mind left the body, the body kept on living unconsciously. Finally, when the breath was about to go away the body began to die and everything in it started to lose its energy. All the other organs convinced the breath to stay in the body and they accepted its superiority. As a result, the breath was the one who won the discussion.

In daily life, indeed, the breath is not very much emphasized. If we inhale and exhale normally everything is considered to be fine. When we do yoga postures the situation is completely different. The breath is in the center of yoga. The theme of this article is the breath we use in yoga asanas.

My teacher Gary Kraftsow explains that as a sutra: “We bring the awareness into the breath. The breath moves the spines, and through the movement of the spine the arms, legs and the head move.” Everything becomes synchronized with the breath. Years ago, I attended a yoga class where the instructor was giving guidance as the following: “Breath in, yes very nice, breath out, super.” But I did not understand what was very nice and what was super. So, how can we use the breath while doing yoga asanas?

Breathing = Shape Change

Leslie Kaminoff who is coming from the T. Krishnamacharya lineage defines breathing as shape change of thoracic and abdominal cavities. In 2012, I took a 72-hour online Yoga Anatomy training and I was surprised that one-third of the training was about breathing. Were there so many things to tell about breathing? Don’t be afraid, I will not explain them all in one article.

In this article I will talk about not only the teachings of Leslie Kaminoff but also what I have learned from my teacher Gary Kraftsow. Without him, the article would not be complete.

There are two separate cavities in the body, thoracic and abdominal, and between them is the diaphragm. Through breathing, both of these cavities change shape but in different ways. While the shape of abdominal cavity changes, its volume stays the same. If we focalize our breath to abdominal area, the abdomen forms a bulge. In case of the thoracic cavity, both shape and volume change. The increase of volume in thoracic cavity creates a three dimensional change in volume: top-to-bottom, side-to-side and front-to-back.

In fact, a breath-centered yoga practice is part of the respiration process. In my classes I say over and over again to use breaths while moving, that means using the inhalation while lifting the arms up to the sky and using the exhalation while lowering the arms. Yoga practice is a change of shape in the body. The spine is a moving structure behind these cavities. The spine lengthens through inhalation and becomes stable and stretches through exhalation.

In Warrior One (Virabhadrasana I), the ribcage is lifted away from the pelvis, which provides a structural support to us for staying in the pose through inhalation, as we tighten the tummy, the belly button comes closer to the spine and the back of the body lengthens through grounding down with the back foot. In brief, the spine is behind the breath and the breath is in front of the spine. They are not separate from each other.

It is like swimming in a river. Breath is the flow in the river. Breathing starts before the movement and emphasizes the natural movement of spine. Asana merges in this movement.

Practice 1: Observing the curvature of the low back through breathing

Lay down on your back. Bend your knees and put your soles on the floor.

  • Observe the curve in lower back. Put your hand under the lower back to understand the distance between the lower back and the ground.
  • Realize that with inhalation, the lower back curve deepens and the lower back moves away from the ground.
  • Observe that the lower back is getting closer to the ground with exhalation.

Do not try to push the lower back expressly to the ground or take it away from the ground. Let the breathing continue as natural as possible. The distance of the lower back from the ground differs from person to person. It is completely related to different anatomical structures.

I think that I managed to better describe the back of the body in Warrior One pose that I previously gave as an example.

However, deepening the lower back curve too much with inhalation or flatten it completely is not what we want. In my classes I always define that as a dance. If your lower back is already too curvy like mine, you don’t need to deepen that curve.

With this practice you have only observed the change in lower back curve.

Breathing into the belly and chest

The concepts “Sthira” and “Sukha” which Patanjali used to define asana are present also in breathing process. With a very simple translation, they mean strong and relaxed. We live in an environment where the gravity is experienced everywhere. Inhalations lift us up, exhalations makes us to let go and support.

Practice 2: Where to breathe while doing yoga asanas

Do this practice while sitting up straight or standing.

  • With inhalation, while the ribcage lifts up and away from the hips, reach your arms up to the ceiling. Repeat that for several times.
  • Now take the breath into your chest again and this time without lifting up your arms, just imagine yourself doing it. Repeat for several times.
  • Breathe into your belly and imagine that you are lifting up your arms.

Did you feel that you lose the support of the breath? We need the structural support provided by breath while doing yoga postures, especially in standing asanas where the ground has a narrower space like the soles. As the ground gets bigger like in sitting or supine postures, breathing would differ. However, instead of perceiving those sentences I wrote as a recipe it is more important to experience it on your own.

Breathing into the chest provides lengthening and stabilizes the abdominal wall. Inhalation has a lengthening effect and it creates more space in the body. Breathing into the belly allows to expand and to root towards every dimension.

When we breathe into the chest we limit the abdominal movement. When taking breath into the belly we relax the abdominal wall and the ribcage gets more stable.

During savasana we never mention about the movement of the chest. Now the body comes into a position that it doesn’t need any structural support or energy. The ground is much wider compared to standing postures. We want the body to relax as soon as possible.

Gary Krafsow defines the breath as a vehicle in which the awareness flows. We may take the breath into the chest, belly or finger tips but in fact the place we breathe in is of course the lungs. Thanks to our awareness we limit the abdominal movement while breathing in to the chest.

Practice 3: Observing the breath taken into the chest and belly

Sit down and bring your soles together. Take the heels as closer to your hips as the knees are comfortable. Grasp outside of the feet or the ankles with the hands.

  • Lift the chest up from the pelvis by inhalation. When tightening the tummy with exhalation lengthen the body to the feet. Repeat several times.
  • When you lengthen to the feet stay there.
  • In the posture, take the breath into the chest and observe its effects.
  • In the posture, take the breath into the belly and observe its effects.

To focus on real sensations, repeat this practice another time. Realize your breathing habit. Can you realize the habit and focus only on sensations?

What is diaphragm breathing?

Diaphragm is one of the primary muscles related to respiration. Others are intercostals and abdominal muscles. Sometimes the shape change in abdominal cavity is called as abdominal– diaphragm breathing. Since diaphragm is one of the primary respiration muscles, breathing cannot be possible without it.

Now, let’s talk about the diaphragm. Through inhalation, the diaphragm contracts. The ribcage moves as a whole. Diaphragm by itself can create this three dimensional expansion in the chest and ribcage.

We cannot breathe in and out like babies anymore. Because we grown up. Our lungs are not as stiff as the babies’, our bones and cartilages are not as flexible as theirs. Since they are in supine positions most of the time, their main focus is on the abdominal movements. Babies are not good examples for us. Sthira and Sukha in case of a baby are completely different.

Direction of breath

Same as diaphragm’s direction. It means that the diaphragm muscle moves down with inhalation and lifts up with exhalation and takes its mushroom/helmet shape.

Practice 4: Taking the breath first to the chest or belly

Do this practice by sitting on the floor or on a chair.

  • Breathe in first to the belly and take the breath up to the chest.
  • Breathe in first to the chest and then fill the belly with the breath.
  • Repeat several times and write down your experience.

During the training, when I let the students do that practice, two different groups arise. Those who feel more comfortable with breathing in to the chest and the ones who breathe in to the belly more comfortably. Is that perhaps just about habits?

I am eager to hear about your personal observations. You can contact me through