Are You Holding Your Breath? Here’s How (and Why) to Stop Pausing

November 26, 2015    BY Michael Grady

Breathe in. Breathe out. The yogis say the in- and out-going breaths are the two guards of the City of Life. When the guards are well coordinated, the city’s defenses are strong. When the guards are disorganized and disconnected, the city comes under attack.

If we study the breath we soon realize that our breathing habits not only reflect our state of being, but have a profound effect on it as well. The manner in which we breathe influences our entire being: our mental-emotional states, the nervous system, hormonal balance, muscular tension, and all the functions of body and mind. Bad habits cause strain and stress; good habits keep us strong and healthy, and create a sense of well-being.

The yogis say the in- and out-going breaths are the two guards of the City of Life.

A smooth, even, quiet, diaphragmatic breath passing through the nose is the optimal breathing pattern from the standpoint of both good health and spiritual practice. It is the ideal breath in most situations, short of running a marathon or being chased by a tiger. Unfortunately, however, if you closely observe your breathing habits and those of others, you’ll notice this ideal breath is rare. Most of us assume that our guards are doing their job, but we seldom check up on them. It doesn’t occur to us that they might be showing up late for work or are poorly trained. But, in fact, inefficient guards are quite common. Four deviations from the ideal breathing pattern are particularly prevalent.

First, if the diaphragm is restricted the breath is shallow and confined to the chest. This overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system and results in the physiological symptoms of stress and feelings of anxiety. It also tends to keep us locked into our worries and anxious thoughts. Second, a noisy breath indicates that the nasal passages are obstructed. A third problem is breathing with jerks during inhalation and exhalation. Pausing at the end of inhalation or exhalation is the fourth and often the most thorny problem. Yogis have discovered that all of these patterns disrupt the rhythm of the lungs, disturb the nervous system, and have an adverse effect on the heart.

He Who Pauses Is Lost

The fourth problem—pausing at the end of inhalation or exhalation—is often the most difficult to correct. For one thing, pausing at the end of inhalation is a natural response to mental stress. If someone asks you a difficult question, you might naturally inhale, hold your breath, close your eyes, and think intently for a second or two before trying to answer. Pausing briefly any time your posture is slumped or after a deep sigh is natural, but according to the yogis, any habitual pause in the breathing pattern drains the life force.

How can even breathing be mastered? How can we train our guards and fortify the city?

There are practices in hatha yoga in which the breath is retained or held, but those techniques are effective and safe only if a healthy, even, breathing pattern has been mastered. That means perfecting the steady, unbroken flow of inhalation and exhalation. How can even breathing be mastered? How can we train our guards and fortify the city? Can we learn to breathe without even a hint of a pause at the end of inhalation and exhalation?

The secret lies in the abdomen. First, notice how you breathe with a relaxed abdomen. Sit reasonably straight in a chair. Don't slump, but don't pitch yourself forward, either. Make sure your lower abdomen is not restrained by tight clothing. Now breathe so that your lower abdomen moves out during each inhalation and relaxes during each exhalation. Make sure your chest does not move at all.

Notice that for even, relaxed breathing, the critical moments occur at the changing of the guard—at the end of inhalation and at the end of exhalation. The in and out breaths must be smoothly merged. It may help to visualize a circular pattern. 

Imagine that you are observing a car on a Ferris wheel. You will observe an ascent of the car, a leveling off of its upward motion, then a descent, followed by the leveling off of the downward motion before the next ascent.

If the upward motion represents inhalation and the downward motion exhalation, you have a wonderful model for how the breath can flow without a pause. The breath slows just as the vertical motion decelerates—at the transitions after exhalation and inhalation. Imagine how the ascent of a car on a Ferris wheel (inhalation) slows at its peak and merges smoothly into the descent (exhalation).

Although the image of the Ferris wheel is still useful, the actual pattern of breathing is elliptical rather than circular. That means there is more time spent during the inhalation and exhalation phases than during the transitions between the two. In practice there may be pauses at both junctures. We'll look at them separately because they present different challenges of the breath.

Transition Between Inhalation and Exhalation

The end of inhalation is the least troublesome of the two because normal neurological impulses operate to smooth the transition between the end of inhalation and the beginning of exhalation. Some nerve impulses keep impinging on the muscle fibers of the diaphragm as exhalation begins, slightly inhibiting its relaxation, until the diaphragm finally releases, yielding completely to the motion of exhalation. If you make the transition from inhalation into exhalation in slow motion—ever so slowly initiating your exhalation—you will feel a slight hesitation as you start to exhale. This feeling reflects the continuing flow of nerve impulses into the diaphragm even as it is beginning to relax for exhalation.

With a little effort you can tune this mechanism to make a smooth transition from inhalation into exhalation.

With a little effort you can tune this mechanism to make a smooth transition from inhalation into exhalation. If you do not have healthy breathing habits, however, you might find yourself holding your breath at the end of inhalation. In that case it is better to concentrate on breathing evenly in the hatha yoga postures (asanas) until the postures themselves correct your bad breathing habits.

For example, it is easier to merge inhalation evenly with exhalation while you are repeating a posture such as the cobra (raising with the inhalation, lowering with the exhalation) than while you are simply sitting and watching the breath. If you are trying to “fix” your breath while sitting, either your mind may get caught up in extraneous thoughts, or you may try so hard to breathe evenly that the concentration itself causes you to hold your breath—just as students sometimes hold their breath while concentrating on difficult problems.

Transition Between Exhalation and Inhalation

Making a smooth transition between the end of exhalation and the beginning of inhalation is more of a problem. As exhalation proceeds to completion, the diaphragm relaxes completely. This can be experienced when you sigh. Try it. Take in a fairly deep breath, and let it go completely. If you don't make any noise or restrain exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes completely.

The problem with a completely relaxed exhalation is that the beginning of inhalation creates a perceptible jerk as the neurons that innervate the diaphragm start firing nerve impulses. It is like starting a car on a cold morning—it cranks in fits and coughs before it runs smoothly. You can try to begin inhaling as soon as exhalation ends, but most people will still have difficulty avoiding a jerk.

The remedy for this is to press in gently with the abdominal muscles as exhalation proceeds, maintain tension with these muscles throughout exhalation, and tail this tension into the beginning of inhalation. This technique is easier described than learned.

Begin by emphasizing the exhalation. Purse the lips so that only a small amount of air can escape and blow gently, as if you are blowing up a balloon. Notice that the abdominal muscles are responsible for the forced exhalation. Keep blowing as long as you can. Because you are emphasizing exhalation, the beginning of inhalation will be passive—the chest and the abdomen will spring open of their own accord. As you continue to inhale, retain a lingering tension in your abdominal muscles. Allowing the motion of exhalation (contraction of the abdomen) to overlap with the motion of inhalation (contraction of the diaphragm) prevents a gasp.

The Perfect Breath

Now we’re ready to combine our techniques into the perfect breath. First, experiment with posture. Sit perfectly straight and breathe evenly. Try to breathe without jerkiness or pauses. Now slump forward, allowing your lower back to collapse. Notice three things: inhalation is more labored, exhalation starts with a gasp, and it is more difficult to use the abdominal muscles smoothly to aid exhalation. Breathing evenly is impossible. To breathe evenly, you have to sit up straight.

Now we’re ready to combine our techniques into the perfect breath.

And so—in a straight and upright posture—begin breathing through the nose in two-second exhalations and two-second inhalations. Do this without noise, pauses, or jerks. Remember how observing the flow of breath can be like tracing an ellipse. Smoothly decelerate your rate of inhalation and merge it into exhalation exactly as you would round off an ellipse at the top of a chalkboard. Then use your abdominal muscles to smoothly accelerate your exhalation as you imagine drawing the chalk down the ellipse. Smoothly decelerate your exhalation and merge it into the inhalation as you carry your mark around the bottom of the ellipse: allow some tension to linger in the abdomen as the exhalation merges into the inhalation.

Here’s another technique: think of the abdomen moving down and in for exhalation, and up and out for inhalation—down, in, up, out, down, in, up, out. Another technique is to mentally repeat the words hum-m-m during exhalation and so-o-o during inhalation—hum, so, hum, so, hum, so. Or imagine a scooping feeling from the lower abdomen, pushing in from the lowest portion of the abdomen, and then moving up to the middle and upper position of the abdominal wall toward the end of exhalation.

If you are still having trouble, work with the asanas, especially those that strengthen the diaphragm (like the crocodile) and abdominal muscles. When the body is strong, flexible, and relaxed, proper breathing will follow with minimal effort.

On Guard

A smooth, even breath builds our vital energy. From the habit of such a breath arises a calm and balanced mind and a healthy body. When our twin guards are well trained and constantly at our service, the city grows stronger and stronger, and the vicissitudes of life are no longer able to shake its foundation. It’s then that the body, breath, and mind become fit instruments for spiritual practice.

Michael Grady
Michael Grady has been teaching yoga breathing practices for over 25 years.