Q&A: Inhale or Exhale Into a Backbend?

Shouldn't we exhale when we rise up into backbends? Why do instructors teach us to inhale to come into these poses?
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Q: Usually we're taught to exhale when we make a muscular effort. So shouldn't we exhale when we rise up into Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and other backbends? Why do yoga instructors teach us to inhale to come into these poses?

—Himanshu Kothari, Mumbai, India

Max Strom's reply:

In my opinion, the primary benefit of inhaling as you come into these poses is that backbending helps you take a deeper breath. The diaphragm can expand more fully and it becomes easier to inflate the upper lungs. From a breathing standpoint, it's probably better to inhale into a backbend than to exhale into it.

From the standpoint of spinal mechanics and safety, though, it might be best to exhale as you come into these poses. Exhaling automatically engages the transversus abdominis, the deepest muscle of the abdominal wall, eliciting Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock, a slight lift up and in of the abdomen) and supporting the lumbar spine. Protecting the spine against collapsing forward makes the backbend more mechanically sound and safer. I've noticed that even advanced practitioners often neglect Uddiyana Bandha in backbends, leaving the spine relatively unsupported and vulnerable.

So what should you do? If you're a beginner or have lower back issues, I recommend exhaling as you rise. After you've lifted as far as you can on your exhalation, take a full inhalation, keeping the lower abdomen gently lifted. If you're more advanced with a strong back, it's probably fine to rise into backbends on an inhalation. Just make sure you engage Uddiyana Bandha to protect your lumbar spine.

The co-founder and former director of Sacred Movement Yoga in Los Angeles, Max Strom is the creator of the DVD Max Strom Yoga: Strength, Grace, and Healing.