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Pranayama

The Secret to Slowing Your Breath

This simple technique will help you finally master lengthening your inhalations and exhalations.

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In one of my earliest yoga classes as a student, the teacher ended practice with what seemed like a simple breath ratio: inhale for 10, exhale for 10.

I gave it a go, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make it past a count of six without straining. Each time, my breath sputtered and fizzled out toward the end.

Years later, still chasing this “simple” breath ratio, I took a Viniyoga workshop on breathing. What I learned there helped me slip past the wall that had kept my breath restricted for so long. One of many things that stood out for me from this training is that rather than running headlong at our goal, we worked up to it slowly. So when we finally arrived, the breath was still comfortable.

“With pranayama, we don’t ever want to strain to arrive at our goal,” says Amanda Green, C-IAYT, E-RYT, a certified yoga therapist in the Viniyoga tradition. “If there is straining in our breath, then there’s an imbalance somewhere in our system.”  Green cites Yoga Sutra II.50, in which the breath during yoga is described as being “long” (dirgha) and “subtle” or “smooth” (suksmaḥ).

See also: The Science of Breathing

An incremental approach to slowing your breathing

Before you seek to change your pranayama (breathing) practice, whether in a yoga class or in everyday life, it helps to know where you’re headed. Green explains that goals are essential to a yoga practice because they take you “somewhere where you aren’t already.” Opt for something that is achievable—whether your intended timeframe is a single practice or, more likely, over the course of days or weeks.

While breath ratios are not a “flashy” type of pranayama, when done properly, they can be very effective. What Green appreciates most about a measured approach is that it helps you make more progress when you select an objective. “There is a way of doing breath ratios so that we have intelligent steps toward our goal. This is vinyasa krama (progression in steps or stages),” says Green. “It applies to anything we’re setting out to achieve, including asana and other things in our life.”

Breath ratios are not an end in themselves, cautions Green, but one of many tools to help us achieve a state of yoga. “The ratios and the numbers are all facilitating a connection with something within us—steady attention, and a calm and present way of being,” says Green, who explains that what happens after praṇayama is just as important. “That [state of yoga] then translates into the rest of our life.”

How to use ratios in slowing your breathing

Over time, you will find that your breath capacity expands while maintaining a subtle quality of breath. Rather than jumping right into a ratio like a 10-count for each inhalation and a 10-count for each exhalation, approach it incrementally. “We give our system a chance to integrate what is happening, and then we take the next step,” says Green. “The bulk of our experience is with our goal, but the preparation has helped us to arrive there.”

These steps are “intelligent” because each one takes you in the direction of your goal without unnecessary steps—or straining—along the way. Reaching a breath ratio that stretches your capacity requires practice and time. How you get there depends on many things, including where you are starting and your current breath capacity.

There are different ways to lead up to a goal ratio. What works best will vary for each person, although there are a few things that can improve your experience:

  • Work with one component of the breath at a time. Rather than trying to lengthen both your inhalation and exhalation at the same time, focus on one or the other.
  • Take enough time to get there comfortably and spend most of your breath practice at the goal ratio.
  • Avoid straining your breath.
  • Know that your breath capacity will vary from day to day. Adjust your practice accordingly. Never force it.

When choosing a breath ratio to work toward, it should be one that challenges your capacity appropriately. “If we can sit down on our cushion—or lie down on our back—and easily achieve the goal ratio that we have in mind, then it’s probably not really a good goal for us,” says Green.

A breath ratio for extending your exhalation

Here are two examples of how to work up to a goal ratio. Both are focused on developing the exhale. While each of these is presented as a single day of practice, it could take days or weeks to comfortably reach your goal ratio. If you’re able to easily breathe for a six-count, you incrementally lengthen the exhale a small amount until you reach the goal ratio. You then spend some time at this peak ratio—which gives your system time to adapt—before returning to the starting point.

Inhale : Pause After Inhale : Exhale : Pause After Exhale

6:0:6:0 Practice 2 times

6:0:7:0 Practice 2 times

6:0:8:0 Practice 2 times

6:0:9:0 Practice 2 times

6:0:10:0 Practice 10 to 12 times

6:0:6:0 Practice 2 times

A breath ratio for extending the pause after exhalation

Another way to develop a longer exhalation is to first lengthen the pause after you exhale. This approach is useful if you find that you have difficulty moving past a certain length of exhalation.

The aim here is not to develop a very long pause, but to use the pause to prepare your system for a longer exhale. So generally, you don’t need to pause longer than the exhale, and often the pause is shorter than the exhale. (This same process can be applied to developing a longer inhalation.)

After spending several breaths working with the pause after exhaling, the pause is dropped. Some of the time spent with the pause is then transferred to the active exhale. As before, you return to the starting point after the goal ratio. “This approach is respectful of our system and the time needed to integrate changes along the way,” says Green.

The following example is shown as a same-day practice or you can spend days or weeks working on lengthening the pause after the exhalation before you can comfortably extend the exhale itself. An experienced teacher can help you design a practice that works for you.

Inhale : Pause After Inhale : Exhale : Pause After Exhale

6:0:6:0 Practice 2 times

6:0:6:2 Practice 2 times

6:0:6:3 Practice 2 times

6:0:6:4 Practice 2 times

6:0:8:0 Practice 10 to 12 times

6:0:6:0 Practice 2 times


About our contributor

Shawn Radcliffe is a yoga teacher and writer who explores the world through words and movement. His personal practice and teaching are influenced by the Viniyoga style of T.K.V. Desikachar, and he continues to study with teachers in this lineage. He also draws on the power yoga and vinyasa flow of his early yoga years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon., as well as Buddhist-based meditation practices. At university, he studied both science and writing, which eventually led him to his current job as a science journalist. Shawn lives near the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada, where he teaches online and in-person yoga classes.

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