Breathing during Yoga: Do I Inhale or Exhale?

“How do I breathe during yoga?”

I have received this question multiple times over the years. My answer is three part:

  • What do you want your pelvic floor to do during the movement?
  • What feels right in your body?
  • Does it matter?

The movement of pelvic floor muscles and diaphragm during breathing has been studied with functional MRIs.

When we inhale our diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles both descend toward our feet. When we exhale our diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles both ascend toward our head.

Knowing this, a lot of physical therapists will use the natural movement of the pelvic floor and breath to augment what is happening naturally.

For example, when I am teaching a patient how to contract the pelvic floor muscles it might be helpful to contract on the exhalation, especially using a “shhh breath.”

That being said, the pelvic floor muscles do not have to be linked with the diaphragm. You can:

  • hold your breath while contracting and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles
  • inhale while you pull your pelvic floor up and in
  • isolate the pelvic floor muscles, keep them contracted, and breathe in and out at the same time

Our diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles are expert multitaskers. When you raise your arm to reach for a door knob, your diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles will pre-contract to stabilize your trunk.

Example: Cat/Cow

How do I know if I should inhale or exhale during Cat Pose and inhale or exhale during Cow Pose?

Let’s refer back to my three part answer.

What do I want the pelvic floor to do?

Dustienne Miller in cat pose

Cat pose

When we move into Cat Pose we go into spinal flexion (curling the spine). We visualize the tailbone reaching towards the head as we create a C curve.

Dustienne Miller in cow pose

Cow pose

When we move into Cow Pose we go into spinal extension (arching the back). We visualize the tailbone reaching towards the ceiling.

Because the pelvic floor muscles expand with inhalation and tailbone extension, I choose to pair inhalation with Cow Pose and use the visualization of releasing the tailbone up towards the ceiling.

What feels right in your body?

I always go back to the idea that the patient or student knows what is best for them. If you feel like you are able to soften and get the most out of your Cat/Cow practice by inhaling during Cat….I say bravo! Do it!

Does it matter?

I don’t think so!

One thing I will say about what one “should do” is be sure to not hold your breath during yoga, unless you are specifically working with a breath holding technique.

In conclusion, follow the pelvic floor movement…or do what feels right in your body!

2018-08-31T19:43:34+00:00

3 Comments

  1. Sarai October 10, 2018 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    But what about moving from one Asana to another i.e. transitions? If you are taking a big step to the side to prep for a warrior stance or wide legged forward folds, for instance, should you step in inhale or exhale? I have heard it said “exert on the exhale” so that makes me think we should make big transitional movements on exhale. However I notice that a lot of yoga teachers cue to move on the inhale! This could be a miseducation or over sight. For many it may just not matter. But for women with dysfunctional pelvic floors I think moving on exhales is likely most therapeutic… What do you think??

    • Dustienne Miller October 11, 2018 at 2:25 pm - Reply

      Thanks Sarai for a great discussion point!

      Agreed that we usually hear “exert on the exhale”. When we exhale (as I imagine you know) we naturally pull in our abdominal wall and pelvic floor muscles. This can be protective for our spine and for those with pelvic organ prolapse and diastasis recti abdominis. Therefore, providing a little extra support in a transition (ex: Warrior 1 to Mountain Pose) might be warranted, therapeutic and good for coordination training. That being said, for some people that specific transition may not be a load that is challenging for their core system and it might be just fine for them to transition on an inhale. So, yes, I agree with you again that for some people it may not matter! In regards to the pelvic floor being on the “tighter” end of the spectrum (for those with vulvodynia, interstitial cystitis, pudendal neuralgia for example) we are probably not going to have them actively contract during transitions until they are further along in the rehab process and working on strengthening in addition to lengthening.

      I’d love to hear your thougths and I encourage other people reading to chime in as well!

  2. […] periods of time, be sure to get up every 20 to 30 minutes if possible. If this isn’t possible try Cat Pose and Cow Pose while you are sitting. Other chair yoga postures will help increase blood flow and decrease […]

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