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When I first started yoga I didn’t know how to perform yoga breathing and I was a reverse breather – On an inhale, I would suck in my stomach, and on an exhale, I’d expand it.
Thankfully, yoga taught me how to breathe correctly. On an inhale, the belly goes out, the diaphragm goes down. On an exhale, the belly draws in and the diaphragm comes up.
But belly breathing is only part of our breath.
Did you know our lungs are actually made up of 3 parts: Top, Middle & Bottom.
Here’s how you can use your full lung capacity!
TOP-DOWN & BOTTOM UP YOGA BREATHING
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.
This is called TOP DOWN breath.
As the lungs fill, the diaphragm drops down, the organs move down gently, the belly expands and the pelvic floor expands.
The levator ani, pelvic floor muscle, is the FIRST muscle that contracts 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.
This is called BOTTOM UP breath.
Therefore, the proper way to breathe is to inhale from the TOP DOWN and exhale from the BOTTOM UP.
Many yoga teachers have been taught to only breathe in to the belly which can actually cause damage to the pelvic floor muscles.
The best way to teach our students to breathe is Dirgha Pranayama or Full Body Breath.
First, teach your students to breathe into the 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.
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.
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.
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