In yoga class, the instructor often assigns part of a yoga exercise ‘an inhale’ and the other part ‘an exhale’. For example in the very popular sun salutation sequence, you traditionally inhale as the arms “raise up” and you always exhale as you “forward fold”. But how exactly do they know which part of the exercise to pair with an inhale or an exhale?
Well, the breathing cues are based on the anatomical design of the respiratory system (breathing system). As you inhale the domeshaped pulls the lungs down making more room for air in the lungs. The muscles between the ribs called the intercostal muscles also work to open the ribs, helping to make even more room for air in the lungs. The chest thirdly rises up opening the top area of the lungs then as you exhale, the opposite happens: the returns to a dome shape pushing air out of the lungs, the intercostal muscles relax, and the chest sinks and pushes air out of the lungs as well.
So by practicing yoga, which challenges those intercostal rib muscles to contract more on the large yoga inhales, you can actually increase your breathing abilities over time. Posture can affect the intercoastal muscle abilities, which many yoga poses help to correct as well.
Hand on the stomach and on the chest while breathing
This exercise will help you achieve deep breathing, perfect for “yoga belly style breathing”. Hatha Yoga, in particular, uses this deep belly breathing style. Come to easy pose, lotus pose, or any comfortable seated position. Place one hand on the stomach and the other hand on the chest. Close the eyes and imagine your pulling the lungs open as you inhale. Feel the hand on the stomach rise as the air comes in. Continue breathing in as the chest then rest your hand on the rising chest. Reverse the process on the exhale starting with the chest sinking and then the stomach. Notice how far your hands sink down. Repeat 5 times.
Deep breathing on the back
Place the palms on the ribs as you lay down on your back with your knees bent feet flat on the floor. Begin to breathe deep as you feel the ribs expanding as far as they can go. Then exhale and notice the ribs going inwards. See if you can exhale a little longer than normal as we often cut out exhales short.
In general when transitioning into a yoga pose and during a yoga sequence, you inhale when you would like to lengthen in a pose or when the pose naturally expands that lung area. In other words, inhale in order to expand the torso area including sitting up tall, expanding the chest, and raising the arms upward.
Exhales are for twisting and folding. any motion that contracts the torso area. Even though you are exhaling in a fold or a twist be careful not to fully collapse and risk pinching a back muscle, for example. Use the exhale as a moment to deepen the direction of the pose instead.
Poses are great for improving Posture and strengthening your intercoastal breathing muscles. Here are just a few:
- Gate Pose
- Twisting of the Torso Pose
- Cow Face Pose
Give these breathing exercises and poses a try next time and enjoy breath to pose coordination which will improve your health, safety, and sense of peace!