How Can Yoga Improve Your Breathing?

How Can Yoga Improve Your Breathing?

Often I am asked, "how can yoga improve your breathing?" When you’re moving, you’re putting your lungs and your heart to work.  The lungs and heart work together to increase oxygen intake and to send additional oxygen to the muscles that are working.  This works to improve circulation and also helps by building strength in the tissues that support and surround the lungs which improves lung function.

how can yoga improve your breathing

Not only does movement of all kinds improve your breathing, but simple breathing practices can improve your quality of breath.  In yoga, we call breathwork “pranayama.”  Pranayama practices are breathing techniques that we use in yoga to harness and regulate our prana, or our life force energy.  Pranayama is a Sanskrit word.  Prana means life force energe and yama means “control.”  Ayama means “extension” or “expansion.”  In yoga, the breath symbolizes prana and we view pranayama as breathwork methods to expand our life force energy through controlled respiration.  

Pranayama helps to strengthen the diaphragm and train the body to breath properly and effectively.  This improves lung health.

What kind of yoga exercises and breathwork can we practice to improve our breathing? 

Diaphragmatic Breathing

  • Diaphragmatic Breathing, also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is one of the best breathwork practices for improving lung function.  It is safe for beginners and helps to train the body to breathe properly.  To practice Diaphragmatic breathing:

    • Begin in a comfortable seated position.  

    • Sit up nice and tall in the body, extending through the crown of the head.  Let the shoulders glide naturally down the back, away from the ears.  

    • Breathe in through the nose, taking in as much air as you can.  Imagine that you could fill your belly up with the air, almost like inflating a balloon.  

    • As you exhale through the nose, imagine that the balloon is deflating. 

    • Continue to inhale fully and exhale fully.  On the inhales, feel the sides of the waist expand as the belly feels with air and as you exhale, feel the belly empty

    • Keep the chest still and focus on pulling the oxygen deep into the belly

    • Continue this practice for 5-10 minutes for best results 

Box Breathing

  • Box Breathing can be very helpful in strengthening the diaphragm and training the body to breathe effectively, improving lung function and lung health

    • Begin in a comfortable seated position, sitting nice and tall.  Let the shoulders slide away from the ears.

    • Exhale completely, letting all of the oxygen out of the lungs

    • Inhale through the nose to the count of 4

    • Hold the breath to the count of 4

    • Exhale through the nose to the count of 4

    • Hold the breath to the count of 4 before inhaling again to the count of 4

    • Repeat this for 5-10 minutes daily for the best results

Stretch the Spine in All 6 Directions

  • Stretch the Spine in all 6 directions to open up the lungs for full capacity breathing

    • Sit up nice and tall in a chair or on a mat

    • Reach behind the back and interlace the fingers on an inhale.  Straighten the arms to open the chest, rolling the shoulders back and spreading the collarbones wide.  Turn the gaze up and hold here for a few breaths.  This is spinal extension.

    • On an exhale, release the arms and reach them out in front of you.  Interlace the fingers in front of the chest and press the palms away, out in front of you.  Round the back, round the shoulders and tuck the chin to the chest to open the back.  This is spinal flexion.  Hold here for a few breaths and then release.

    • As you inhale, lift the right arm up to the sky and gently bend to the left, opening the right side body.  Relax the right arm down to the side and lift the left arm on an inhale.  As you exhale, gently bend to the right opening the left side body.  Continue to glide back and forth, moving with the breath.  Inhale to lengthen and exhale to side bend.  This is lateral flexion in both directions.

    • Relax the arms to the sides and sit up nice and tall on an inhale.  As you exhale, bring the right arm towards the left knee and bring the left fingertips behind you, on the floor or the back of the chair.  Inhale to lengthen and exhale to twist.  Hold here for a few breaths and release.  This is spinal rotation to the left.

    • Next, bring the left hand to the right knee.  Walk the right fingertips behind you or bring the right hand onto the chair behind you.  Inhale to lengthen and exhale to twist.  Hold the twist for a few moments.  This is spinal rotation to the right.

What forms of movement or styles of yoga help improve quality of breath?

All forms of movement and all styles of yoga contribute to lung health and different types of movement help in different ways.

Whenever we are moving in a way that increases the heart rate, this will get the blood pumping and put the lungs and heart to work.  When we are moving with aerobics, walking, jogging, cardio or fast-paced yoga, our heart rate is rising and our circulation increases as oxygen intake is increased to provide additional oxygen supply.  This helps to improve lung function.

When we are lifting weights, practicing pilates or yoga for the core, or engaging in other forms of resistance training and toning we improve our posture and tone the muscles we use for breathing. Oxygen intake increases because the body needs more oxygen to send to those working muscles.  This helps to build strength in the tissues that support and surround the lungs and improves lung function.

When we practice breathwork or pranayama in yoga, we strengthen the diaphragm and teach the body to breath in a more effective manner.   

How should you modify your yoga practice if you suffer from some kind of lung disease, such as asthma or COPD?

Modifying your yoga practice for COPD is easier than you may think.  I’ve worked with many students with COPD and have spoken to medical professionals to make sure that our yoga and breathwork practices are safe.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • People with COPD need movement and breathwork for improved lung function just like everyone else

  • Gentle stretching, such as a gentle yoga practice, can be very helpful in opening up the airways and improving lung function

  • Stretching the spine in all six directions opens up the lungs for full and effective breathing.  The spine can go into flexion (rounding forward), extension (backbending), lateral flexion to the left and the right (side bending), and rotation to the left and the right (twisting).  From a seated position in a chair or on a mat, people with COPD can start the day with stretching the spine in all 6 directions for optimal lung function

  • Daily walks are a safe and effective way for people with COPD to increase the heart rate slightly and improve lung function

  • People with COPD should not engage in movement of any kind without consulting with a doctor first.  

  • Signs that people with COPD should back off during exercise include chest pain, nausea, fever