When I first started yoga, like most people, I was a reverse breather. On an inhale, I would suck my stomach in, and on an exhale, I’d expand it.
Thankfully, yoga taught me how to breathe correctly. I was taught that on an inhale, the belly goes out, the diaphragm goes down. On an exhale, the belly draws in and the diaphragm comes up.
When I was first taught, the primary cues I heard referred to the belly moving with the breath. So for several years, this is how I also taught it.
I focused all of my teaching cues on feeling the movement of the belly with the breath. I encouraged my students to place their hands on their belly and feel it rise and fall with each breath.
But over the years, I started to realize that focusing on just this one part of breathing is doing our students a disservice.
The belly is just one area to focus on when breathing. And it’s arguably, the least important. In fact, focusing just on belly breath can actually cause more harm than good!
In a very brief way – our lungs are made up of 3 parts; the top, middle, and bottom.
When we inhale, the air enters the nose, travels down the throat, and in to the lungs. The air fills the lungs in 360 degrees from the top (the upper chest) to the middle (the ribcage) to the bottom. As the lungs fill, the diaphragm drops down, the organs move down gently, the belly expands and the pelvic floor expands.
Did you know that your pelvic floor is the first muscle that contracts during an exhale?!?!? The levator ani, a muscle of the pelvic floor, is the first muscle that we contract on an exhale.
When we exhale, we reverse the pattern above. We use the muscles of the pelvic floor to draw the breath up, the diaphragm moves up, the organs move up, and the breath moves out of the lungs from the bottom to the top.
SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH BELLY BREATHING?
You may be thinking- Got It Allison! I know how to breathe. Now, what’s so wrong with belly breathing?????
When we breathe just into the belly, we force the diaphragm to descend further, our organs to push down and we put a lot of pressure on the pelvic floor.
If your pelvic floor is weak, pressure is not good! Having that pressure is what causes leaking or prolapses. Think of doing a jumping jack or whenever you’re sneezing or coughing, that puts pressure on the pelvic floor which causes that incontinence or a little bit of leaking.
How do you know if you have a weak pelvic floor? Check out my other articles to learn.
Breathing into the belly too much can actually weaken our pelvic floor.
What about if you have a tight pelvic floor? Then you want to focus on the inhale and the relaxation of the pelvic floor, but not the intense downward pressure on the pelvic floor.
HOW SHOULD I BREATHE?
Let me start by saying- Belly breathing isn’t bad and it’s not the problem in this situation. The problem in that us yoga teachers (myself included for several years!) teach our students to ONLY belly breathe.
While belly breathing is an easy way to get our students to stop reverse breathing, it’s not the only way to breathe.
If your students have weak pelvic floors, the excessive pressure from belly breathing can cause more harm.
So how should we teach breathing?
I’ve personally had the most success by teaching my students Dirgha Pranayama or 3-part breath, or full-body breath. (I’ve also heard this called diaphragmatic breathing, but isn’t all breathing diaphragmatic breathing???????)
When we breathe, we need to engage all three parts of our lungs. We need to breathe into the chest, the ribcage, and into the belly. Breathing into all three parts is a full body breath.
First, start by teaching your students to breathe into the chest.
Teach your students to breathe into the upper chest. As they breathe, make sure they aren’t lifting the shoulders to breathe. The breath should come into the upper chest right under the collarbones and expand 360 degrees. Encourage them to keep the shoulders relaxed and the neck long.
- Use Ganesha Mudra
- Thumbs under armpits
Second, teach your students to breathe into the ribs.
This is my favorite way to breathe and I typically highlight this when I teach. The ribs are quite pliable and expand 360 degrees! Encourage your students to breathe into the ribs and feel them expand. When we do this ribcage breathing, it allows the diaphragm to descend naturally without pushing down on the pelvic floor too hard.
- Place hands around rib cage while seated.
- Place hands around rib cage while lying on the ground.
Third, feel the belly and low back gently expand.
The breath moves in 360 degrees. Encourage your students to find the breath not just by pushing out their belly (too much pressure!) but by breathing into the lower back and the sacrum.
- Place one hand on belly and one hand on low back to feel the breath.
- In a child’s pose, feel the belly and the low back expand on the inhale.
- While doing a pelvic tilt, feel the sacrum gently move with each breath.
Full Body Breath
Now that you’ve mastered each individual part, engage in a full body breath.
Inhale Top to Bottom
Inhale into the chest, expand the rib cage, feel the belly and back expand in 360 degrees and allow the pelvic floor to gently expand and relax.
Exhale Bottom to Top
Exhale and gently draw the pelvic floor, up, draw the low back and belly toward each other, contract the rib cage and feel the breath leave the chest and travel out of the nose.
Note: the exhale is sometimes taught as a top to bottom breath. I personally feel like this does not properly engage the pelvic floor. The bottom to top is a better experience for me so that’s how I teach it. Play with it and determine what feels best in your body.
I like to break down this breathing week-by-week for my students. For one or two weeks, we will work just the chest breath, then the rib cage breath then the belly/low back breath. We then begin to link all three together. In my pelvic floor classes, I place an extra emphasis on the pelvic floor and teach the rib cage breath primarily.
Breath is one of the most important aspects of a yoga practice. Learning how to properly breathe has a huge positive effect on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of our students. Pranayama is the link between the physical and the mental/spiritual and proper breath control helps our students manage their energy better so they can live healthier lives.
If you don’t regularly teach pranayama in your yoga classes, I encourage you to start with Dirgha Pranayama. It helps our students learn the proper way to breathe and full muscle engagement and control.
Yoga Teachers – Are you ready to help your yoga students Restore Their Pelvic Floor? Attend my online workshop – Teaching Yoga for the Pelvic Floor- to learn stretches and strengthening exercises for the pelvic floor. By the end of this workshop, you’ll have the tools to teach your own workshop or class series!