Deep breathing is the most-universal feature of any yoga practice. No matter what discipline of yoga you practice, be it Kundalini, Kripalu, Iyengar or Ashtanga (among others), breathing exercises will be part of every session and every pose sequence. Breath is the bridge between the mind and the body. When we focus consciously on our breath, we are making a conscious connection to an activity that’s largely automatic; so we thereby connect the conscious and unconscious mind.
Focus first on the rib cage
To begin yogic breathing, get into a comfortable position and bring your focus to your rib cage. Is your rib cage tipped forward? Check on this.
If your stomach feels folded forward, then your rib cage is tipped forward and your back is a bit overstretched. Act as if you have a string attached to your sternum-the bone between your ribs in your chest.
Then act as if the string that’s attached to the top of your sternum is being pulled upward. This lifts your rib cage and straightens your stomach muscles. Support your lifted rib cage with your elongated stomach muscles.
Add the abs to the mix
Begin voluntary breathing by moving the stomach muscles with your breath motion. Note that this isn’t like doing crunches. You have to let your stomach puff up when you inhale-like a baby’s stomach moves when he or she is lying in a crib. When you exhale, gently draw your stomach muscles back inward. Be sure to keep sitting up tall. You don’t want the stomach muscles to fold and shorten.
Stay connected to your rib cage
We start with the stomach movement because it is easy to feel the movement and connect your mind to it. Your mind-body connection with the rib cage, and the muscles between the ribs called intercostals, is a bit more subtle.
The intercostals are triggered both by involuntary and voluntary action. This is where the popular yogic phrase “letting go” comes in. When you inhale and let your stomach muscles puff out to make room for air, you have to let go of your intercostals so they can stretch and make rooms for your lungs to expand.
When you exhale, the intercostals will act like slackers if you leave it up to involuntary muscle movement to shrink your rib cage. You need to consciously engage the intercostals to shrink the rib cage and help empty the lungs.
Breathing should stay slow and steady when learning
Most yogic breathing exercises involve steady breathing that is relatively slow. Faster breathing exercises like Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati) do involve the intercostals, but the focus is on the diaphragm and since the upper abdomen moves so intensely in fast breathing, the intercostals are triggered automatically.
Most other yogic breathing exercises, which should be learned first for a lot of reasons, are done slowly. For example, you may count to three while you inhale, filling your lungs by the time you reach three, and do the same to exhale; your lungs should be completely empty when you reach three.
As you get comfortable with counting and breathing, you can add slight movements that are synchronized with your breathing. You can apply the same concept as you move into a basic pose, such as triangle. You’ll be amazed by how much control you develop over your movements. It will happen almost immediately.