Sunday, January 8, 2012

Breath: Duration and Volume (Can breathing loudly wreck your body?)

Recently, I've been thinking about a few things relating to the breath in practice. First, I've been thinking about length and duration: How long should the inhalation be relative to the exhalation? I've also been thinking about volume: How loudly (or softly) should one breathe during practice?

Sharath has recently said some very illuminating things about the length and duration of the breath in practice. In her report on the December 18th conference in Mysore, Suzy writes that Sharath has this to say about the breath during practice:

"In practice the inhale and exhale should be the same duration – you have to bring that rhythm in you. Some people do very shallow breathing – the breath doesn’t go inside. If you do relaxed breathing so that the breath does go inside, this activates jatar agni (digestive fire). If you have pain in your lower back or pelvis, if you do deep breathing into that area, this is how the body heals."

I think this is one of the clearest and most lucid explanations that I have read in a while about the relationship between the breath and healing in asana practice (Thanks for posting this, Suzy :-)).

There is actually another, related reason for maintaining inhalation and exhalation at equal length. My teacher in Milwaukee once observed that people who are new to the practice have a tendency to have short, abrupt inhalations and long, forceful exhalations: These practitioners appear to be "sucking" in the inhalation, and then expelling the air through a longer, forceful exhalation.

Actually, I don't think it's just new practitioners who do this: "Old" practitioners also tend to lapse into this breathing pattern when they encounter challenging postures in the practice (Kapotasana is a prime example; I'm speaking from experience, of course :-)). In any case, my teacher observes that one who breathes this way ends up releasing more prana than one takes in: As a result, more prana is "lost" to the surroundings than taken in, and the practice tends to leave the practitioner more tired than refreshed. Because of this, it is important to make a conscious effort to keep the inhalation the same length as the exhalation, so that one does not lose energy while breathing.

And then there is the question of volume: How loudly or softly should one breathe during practice? This seems to me to be a less clear-cut matter. Many of us have probably heard funny (or not-so-funny) stories about Ashtangis who have loud Darth Vader breaths that can be heard a mile away (okay, I'm exaggerating, but probably not by too much...). In the course of my, uh, practice career, I have also had the dubious fortune of practicing beside a few such individuals. Actually, I don't really know how loud my own breathing is, so I probably shouldn't be judging anybody here...

In any case, I have a couple of questions here. Is there anything bad or wrong with breathing like Darth Vader, other than the possibility of annoying one's shalamates and becoming the butt of shala jokes? Is breathing loudly in any way deleterious to one's practice on a physical or prana level? Or--to borrow a turn of phrase that has become very popular in the yoga blogosphere lately--can breathing loudly wreck your body?

If you have anything to share about this, I'll love to hear from you. 

Lord Vader performing Utthita-Light-Saber-Padangusthasana
[Image taken from here]


  1. Hi Nobel!
    Here in Halifax, there seems to be a bit of debate over how loud the breath is supposed to be. Many teachers discourage Darth Vader style breathing, encouraging students to breathe with sound so that their breath is audible to them, but does not penetrate their neighbour's practice. I think that beginners can get hung up on making the sound and as a result, they constrict the throat excessively, resulting in strained, shallow breathing, and possibly overheating. For many beginner, simply breathing through the nose is challenging enough.

    I distinctly remember one practice in Montreal during which my breath was very audible and, I thought, full, but the Mysore teacher informed me that I was pretty much stuck in my chest and nasal passage. Rather embarrassing. Imagine not getting something as simple as the breath, right ;)

    That said, I'm not sure that the breath has to be so quiet that your neighbour shouldn't hear you. Certainly, I could hear Darby and Joanne breathing. And it seems that on Kino's videos, you can hear her breathing. So some sound is okay and good. According to the conference notes I've been inheriting, Sharath has been advising "Free Breathing with Sound." Ujayi is apparently reserved for an advanced pranayama practice.

    In terms of length, I remember one of kino's podcasts recounting Guruji's recommendation for ten second inhalations and exhalations. Fun times for Navasana.

    Anyways, this is turning into a post on its own and I should get to the mat! To sum up with my non-expert humble opinion, I would say: Breathe deeply; make a little noise; never strain.

    Happy breathing and practicing.


  2. Thanks for sharing all this, Erica. So it seems that the key here is "Free breathing with sound." For most people, if they sound like Darth Vader, then their breathing is probably strained (which translates into strain on the rest of the body).

    Ten second inhales and exhales for Navasana? Interesting. I might just to do this in practice one of these days :-)