Different Views on Breathing in Yoga
PUBLISHED: Monday, December 28, 2020

Different Views on Breathing in Yoga

The role of breathing exercises in yoga is well established, but the way those exercises and ideas about breath control are applied can vary wildly from one style to another, and even from one instructor to another. There are essentially two divergent schools of thought on the issue: integral styles incorporate pranayama into the earliest sessions, while traditions like Ashtanga and Iyengar don’t introduce pranayama until much later in a student’s practice. Some focus on deep, rhythmic breathing as a fundamental part of the exercise, while others merely focus on mindfully inhaling and exhaling during a session. These differences, admittedly, can be subtle, but understanding them can be useful for evolving your own breathing during yoga sessions.

The Integral Tradition

Yoga practices modeled on the teachings of Swami Satchidananda, some of the most well-known in the West, use an integral model of pranayama. From their very first lessons, are taught the importance of mindful breathing and several fundamental techniques like Kapalabhati—rapid breathing from the diaphragm that actively engages some of the core muscles. Teachings in this tradition hold that students should learn to integrate breathing into their practice early, even if their mind-body connection isn’t fully established. Instead, yogis in this tradition believe that good bodily habits help to better establish the connection.

Other Traditions

Some other schools of yoga practice, like Ashtanga, hold that students shouldn’t concentrate on pranayama (or any real sort of breath control) until they reach a more advanced level. Yogis in these traditions will typically only hold asana and meditation in beginner and intermediate sessions, reserving pranayama and lessons about mindful breathing for students that have some level of mastery over their physical and mental teachings. The reasoning is typically that practitioners need to be able to hold some specific pose (usually lotus) for an extended period of time to mentally connect with pranayama, and so those teachings necessarily cannot come until students are physically able to maintain that pose (or poses).

Appreciating some of these differences and the logic that fuels them can be useful for adapting yoga to your specific spiritual needs. Those who practice to expand their mind-body connection may find some merit in the Ashtanga tradition, while those who practice primarily for fitness may find integral models work best for them.