June 5, 2000
The Yoga Breath
Jnani Chapman, RN, BSN, CMT
The Extended Exhalation Breath
Here is a breathing practice that also will help develop awareness. The benefits that consciously controlled breathing can provide are more researched than most other aspects of yoga (with the exception of meditation). Please try this extended exhalation breathe and let yourself experience what it can do. Begin by watching the natural breath without attempting to control it. Let the breath come and go (as it was doing before you started to think about it). As it flows notice what areas of the body are involved automatically with breathing. Does the abdomen expand and contract as the breath comes and goes? Do the sides of the rib cage move? What about the shoulders? What about the chest? Try to let the muscles of the trunk relax so that they can move easily and effortlessly. When you can achieve and maintain this relaxed state you are ready to begin consciously controlling the breath.
The goal is to control the exhalation--to slow it down--to extend it until it is twice as long in duration as the inbreath. Let the breath flow out evenly and steadily for four to six seconds and let the inbreath take half that time, two-three seconds. In the beginning it may not even be possible to get to a 2:1 ratio. That's ok. Work toward a twice-as-long exhale comfortably letting the practice build with time. How long you chose to exhale should be determined by how long it can be done easefully and comfortably. Do not extend the exhalation for longer than twice the inhale. Pay attention to how each part of the body feels during the practice. If you notice tension or tightness this is a signal that you are trying too hard. Some people begin the extended exhalation breathing practice able to exhale evenly for four-six seconds and even able to let the inhalation be full and efficient in two or three seconds. Others may find that inhaling for one or two seconds is okay but the exhale is gone in three or four seconds. Accept whatever ratio feels natural for you. Let the practice be rhythmic and steady. Let yourself relax in a comfortable position while practicing this technique.
When you succeed in finding a comfortable 2:1 ratio begin extending the length of time you practice each session. As the practice develops people find that the lung capacity naturally improves with time. You may notice that doing 2 seconds in and 4 seconds out will grow to 3 second in with 5 or 6 seconds out, and eventually to longer durations that maintain the 1:2 ratio. Try it initially for two or three minutes. Always stop if there is any lightheadedness or dizziness. This is a signal of fatigue in the body. In this situation it is better to engage in the practice of watching the natural breath. Some people do the extended exhalation breath for five or 10 minutes twice a day. Other people choose it as a focus for meditation and may practice from one-half to one hour each day.
Yoga Research Note
The list is long and includes asthma, arthritis, anxiety and depression, headache, backache, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, pain management and insomnia, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. Much of this research was done in India and Europe. Yoga studies in the United States are limited. Most studies include yoga as one of several modalities of comprehensive lifestyle management programs.
- Jnani Chapman, RN, BSN, CMT
Osher Center for Integrative Medicine San Francisco, CA 94115
PO Box 316
Bolinas, CA 94924
- See also Yoga In Illness and Health by Jnani Chapman