Full yogic breathing is a deep breathing pranayama practice with a number of profound benefits.
- Embodying an understanding of effective use of the diaphragm
- Expansion of the Alveoli — improving oxygenation and circulation of the blood
- An experience of becoming centered, or grounded
- Full motion of the diaphragm improves digestion and metabolic function
- The release of endorphins which make you feel calm and happy, reducing the effects of stress and anxiety
In order to practise full yogic breath correctly and effectively, a number of different mechanisms of breathing have to work in harmony. For this reason, when I teach full yogic breathing I split it into three components — and encourage students to learn just one of these components at a time.
Then, when you’ve mastered each component, you’ll be ready to utilise the full capacity of your full yogic breath.
So, let’s break it down. What are the three techniques that come together to form a full yogic breath?
1. Abdominal (Diaphragmatic) Breath
This form of breath work focuses on healthy and full use of the diaphragm, while lessening the movement of the ribcage as air enters and leaves the lungs. It develops the awareness of breath in the lower part of the lungs, making way for greater understanding and control of the breath.
To practise abdominal breathing:
- Find a comfortable position, preferably lying on the back or seated if an experienced practitioner. Take a few minutes to simply observe the breath as it is, without trying to direct or control it.
- Then place the right hand on the belly and the left hand on the chest.
- Allow the abdomen to be soft and relaxed. Begin to draw deeper breaths in the body; the right hand will rise and fall with the breath. Aim to keep the left hand still — the chest and ribcage do not rise and fall dramatically with the inhalations and exhalations.
- Gradually deepen this abdominal breath — expanding the belly as much as possible with the inhale; as if you’re blowing it up like a balloon. The ribcage does not expand.
Tip: As you begin this practice, there’s no need to think too much about the diaphragm. You don’t need to force any movement in this muscle. It’ll happen naturally, as a result of the breath travelling into the lower half of the lungs rather than staying higher up in the ribcage.
2. Thoracic Breath
When you’ve established your abdominal breathing practice, you can begin to work with thoracic breath — the second component of full yogic breathing. This helps you to notice the middle area of the lobes of the lungs.
Thoracic breathing is an economical method for drawing oxygen quickly into the lungs, with minimal effort — making it vital for supporting the body during physical exertion, such as running or other intense exercise.
Rather than emphasising the movement of the abdomen, you allow greater movement in the ribs and minimise abdominal movement.
Building awareness of thoracic breathing means that you become able to notice when you’re doing it, and consciously move towards deeper abdominal breath when thoracic breathing isn’t necessary.
To practise thoracic breathing:
- Again, find a comfortable posture — it’s important that you’re relaxed. Notice the natural breath for a few minutes, until you feel present and aware.
- Then slow the breath down. Take a long, deep inhale into the ribcage. Notice the movement of each of the ribs as they make room for air to fill the lungs. Expand the chest and ribcage as much as you can without allowing the abdomen to expand.
- To exhale, first relax the chest muscles. Allow the contraction of the ribcage to push the air out of the lungs.
- Keep going with this for a few minutes. Slow breaths into the chest, and out of the chest.
Tip: If at any point during this practice you start to feel dizzy, lightheaded, or anxious pause! Take a few easy, natural breaths and resume when you’re ready.
3. Clavicular Breath
The third component of full yogic breath helps you to develop sensitivity to the upper lobes of the lungs, and build a holistic understanding of breath mechanics. It’s important to learn abdominal breath and thoracic breath before clavicular breath.
This type of breathing is necessary during physical exertion; clavicular breath will naturally take over from thoracic breath when the respiratory and cardiac systems are under a high level of strain. It allows the body to absorb more oxygen into the lungs, quickly.
To practise clavicular breathing:
- Find your comfortable posture. Become aware of the natural rhythm of the breath and, as with the previous exercises, maintain this awareness for a few minutes.
- When you’re ready, take a deep inhale to full expand the ribcage. When you feel that the ribs are expanded to maximum capacity, inhale further until you feel expansion in the upper part of the lungs — right up to the collarbone. The shoulders will move upwards a little.
- This requires effort, and you may not feel completely at ease.
- To exhale, first release the breath from the collarbone and upper chest, and then allow the ribcage to contract so that the breath leaves the body.
Tip: Don’t practise clavicular breathing for too long. A short period of five breaths, performed regularly, will be enough to gain control and to observe what happens in the body when the breath remains in the upper part of the lungs.
4. Full Yogic Breath
When you feel confident that you’ve got the hang of each of the components above, you’re ready to begin the wonderful practice of full yogic breath.
First, take a sweet moment to appreciate the practice you’ve done to get here. Dedicating time to your pranayama practice is a powerful act of self care. Well done!
In full yogic breath, you draw together all of individual components you’ve learnt to build the deepest possible breath:
- First, find your comfortable posture and concentrate on that conscious awareness of the natural breath.
- Breathe slowly and quietly.
- First, allow the lower abdomen to expand. The nostrils flare as you inhale, without rushing and without force. Fill the belly with the breath.
- When the abdomen is full, allow the ribcage to expand outwards and upwards. Air fills the middle of the lungs. The whole chest expands.
- When the chest is full, keep the inhale going just a little longer to fill the body right up to the collarbone. The shoulders move up, just a little.
- And then the exhale begins. First, relax the collarbone and upper chest. Then the breath leaves the middle of the chest, and the ribcage. And finally, the abdomen falls; draw the naval back towards the spine to expel all air from the lungs.
- Hold the breath out for a few seconds at the end of the exhalation.
And that is one full yogic breath. It’s a continuous, smooth movement of filling up and emptying out. It takes practice.
Be gentle with yourself, and enjoy the process.
Saraswati, Satyananda. (2002). Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Munger: Yoga Publications Trust.
Saraswati, Muktibodhananda. (2000). Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Munger: Yoga Publications Trust.