Inevitably, after almost every yoga class I teach, someone comes up and asks “What is the right way to breathe?” While I appreciate their eagerness to learn, there is no one right way to breathe.
Think of breathing like you think of your shoes. As we all know, it is great to have a lot of shoes to choose from when deciding what to wear. It depends on the situation and what is appropriate. Sneakers are perfect for a workout, but you wouldn’t want to wear them to a wedding, would you?
There are two main kinds of shoes (ie. breathing patterns) that are really useful to have in your closet, as the “staples” of your breathing wardrobe. But there are many more that can and should be explored, once these staples become comfortable. It is my goal as a yoga teacher to help students first explore all the breathing options available, and then to trust their bodies to transition seamlessly between them.
One useful breathing pattern is easily identified by what happens on the inhale: the belly rises. Many yoga teachers refer to this as “belly breathing.” It is often touted to be the “best” way to breathe, in yoga and in life. We’ll get to that assumption later, but first let’s look at what is really happening here.
There is no air going into your belly in a belly breath; the air goes into your lungs. With the abdomen completely relaxed the diaphragm can contract and move down on the inhale, gently bulging your abdominal organs outward.
Belly breathing is like a pair of flip flops in your anatomical closet: Not much support, but comfy and carefree. There are many yoga poses where deep belly breathing is appropriate, mostly where you’re lying on your back and you have no need to support your spine since the floor is doing that for you. On these occasions, belly breathing can help release tension as you twist or bend or stretch. It can also promote a profoundly relaxing state in your nervous system during savasana. Ahhh.
However, there are numerous times where belly breathing is not the best thing to do. As a general rule, unrestricted belly breathing in any standing position or powerful inversion actually destabilizes your spine.
Your breathing muscles and your postural muscles are actually the SAME muscles, so either you tell them to focus more on breathing deeply or you tell them to focus more on standing solidly (on your feet or your hands). One necessarily compromises the other.
At the other end of the spectrum is what is referred to as “chest breathing.” In the yoga world, this is something you are often advised not to do. While some yoga schools set up an artificial dichotomy of belly breathing=right, and chest breathing=wrong, neither is right or wrong. It’s a matter of context.
Chest breathing or “thoracic breathing” is identified as a kind of breathing pattern where the belly does not move freely on the inhale and the movement of the breath is more visible in the chest. In thoracic breathing, the diaphragm does not descend as deeply into the abdomen, so the organs do not bulge out. The edges of the diaphragm move more up and out, taking the ribs with them. A relaxed thoracic breath can be a beautiful – and useful – thing.
Thoracic breathing is like that pair of hiking boots in your closet. It works particularly well when you are doing “core” exercises or any challenging position where your spine needs extra support. Examples are Downward Facing Dog, Tree, Warrior, Handstands, Cobra, and picking up heavy bags of groceries. It is not appropriate when you are winding down after a long day and preparing to go to bed. That would be like wearing hiking boots to the beach.
The difficulty for many people is that the upper back and ribs are so tight from sitting at a desk all day, the diaphragm has no place to go but their belly. Consequently, when they try to firm up the belly and move their ribs more, they encounter their own restrictions. What’s really happening is that they’re stuck in a RUT of belly breathing. Yoga anatomist, Leslie Kaminoff, calls this “misplacing your lungs in your belly.”
A “breathing rut”, like a “shoe rut” is less than ideal. If you only feel comfortable wearing flip flops, going hiking in the Grand Tetons is not going to go well.
When you can only breathe one way, whether it is a “belly breath,” a “chest breath” or anyplace in between, you lose the full range of support for your spine. You may be able to do challenging poses, but your breath will be labored and you won’t be able to sustain them without strain. Or you may not be able to fully relax and get into that all-important state of bliss at the end of a yoga class, where deep healing and cellular repair take place. In the long run, you may experience nagging pain that progresses into a chronic condition.
Here is where the shoe parallel gets a bit supernatural. I’d like you to imagine that there is a magical pair of superhero shoes in your closet that can morph and change according to your circumstances. That it can give you the support of a hiking boot when you are running to catch a bus, and then just as quickly change into a delightfully freeing flip flop when you relax into your window seat. This ability to transition efficiently and automatically from high support to low support (or anything in between) is the ultimate goal of any kind of breath training.
So, take those yoga classes! Try out different classes, teachers, and styles, like you would try on shoes if you were going shoe shopping. Try breathing techniques with Sanskrit names you can’t pronounce like kapalabhati, ujayii, anuloma viloma, and “the bandhas”. Try out left pinky-toe breathing if you like. Rather than trying to master one “right way” to breathe, know that anytime you focus on your breath in a safe, controlled environment, you are preparing your body to respond better to all the split-second challenges of the world outside. You are one step closer to wearing your superhero shoes.
Special thanks to Leslie Kaminoff for his advice on this article! For more information about his approach to yoga and breathing, see his videos: