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Beginners' Yoga Sequences

This Home Practice Will Help You Breathe—and Relax—Deeply

Want to to learn how to really embody your breath in order to take bigger, deeper breaths and rest more fully as a result? Read on.

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“Inhale, raise your arms. Exhale, fold forward. Inhale, rise up to a half forward bend. Exhale step, or jump, back to Chataurunga.

As a yoga student, I’m sure you recognize this phrase from just about every vinyasa class in which you’ve practiced. Ironically, the most frequent phrase I hear from students after teaching a vinyasa class is: “I love yoga, but I don’t get the breathing part.” That’s when I usually laugh and say, “Of course you get the breathing part! You’re alive!”

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All humans inhale and exhale 24/7, but rarely are we aware of the breath in the course of our daily lives. It is during a yoga practice that we have the opportunity to become more aware of our respiratory patterns. We get to look at the quality, pacing, fullness, and texture of our inhalations and exhalations; we get to pause and appreciate the breath’s profound ability to create vitality and well-being. As we become more mindful of our breathing, naturally the question arises: Why do we need to bring awareness to the breath when respiration happens automatically?

The response is three-fold. First, on a physical level, if we coordinate movement with breath, movement becomes more effective and efficient. Then, from a physiological perspective, the breath regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous responses (the autonomic nervous system). Finally, from a psychological viewpoint, this regulation can help us cultivate better stress management techniques. In other words, when we manage the quality of our breath, we have the ability to influence our relaxation responses.

See also How to Build a Home Practice

It is important to keep in mind that breath is three-dimensional. Our lungs expand and condense forward and back, side-to-side, and up and down. By preparing the muscles of the body to support these natural shape changes, your breath capacity will be greatly enhanced, movement will be more effective, and the reactions of the autonomic nervous system will sustain greater resiliency. Because most people have postural and muscular imbalances, the body needs to be primed through yoga postures to achieve maximum results from respiration.

The following sequence will prepare your body for optimal breathing and as a happy result, relaxation. By stretching and freeing up space in tight muscles, strengthening weak postural muscles, and toning the diaphragm—the major muscle of respiration—you will attain a deeper and more efficient breath.

This Sequence Will Help You Breathe and Relax

Movement of the Cat (Chakravakasana)

Yoga and breathe deeper. Movement of the Cat (Chakravakasana).

Start in Child’s Pose (Balasana) with your arms extended forward. This pose will start to create more space between the intercostal muscles of the back. On an inhalation, energetically pull your hands toward you to initiate a forward movement into a table pose. Create a small cobra-like upper back. Keep your collar bones broad so as to begin stretching the tight muscles of the upper chest. On an exhalation, energetically push your hands away from you to engage your abdominal muscles which will draw you back into a child’s pose. Repeat this 4-6 times until you feel your back and chest beginning to feel free from muscular constriction.

Cobra Pose, variation (Bhujangasana)

Yoga and breathe deeper. Cobra Pose, variation (Bhujangasana).

Lie on your stomach with your palms facing down and rest on your forehead. On an inhalation, lift your chest/shoulders, head, and arms (in that order). On an exhalation, lower down. Do this 4 times to prepare your back to hold in this adapted version of cobra.

Hold the pose for 4-6 breaths, feeling the space between your shoulder blades engage. Not only will this pose strengthen your upper back to create a more upright posture, but with your arms reaching back, you will stretch your chest muscles more fully. Another option is to interlace your fingers behind your back for an even greater stretch for the chest.

See also This Moving Breath Practice Will Teach You to Let Go

Movement of the Cat (Chakravakasana)

Yoga and breathe deeper. Movement of the Cat (Chakravakasana); repeat.

Repeating this mini-vinyasa will help to relieve any stress that accumulated from holding the adapted version of cobra. 

Start in Child’s Pose (Balasana) with your arms extended forward. This pose will start to create more space between the intercostal muscles of the back. On an inhalation, energetically pull your hands toward you to initiate a forward movement into a table pose. Create a small cobra-like upper back. Keep your collar bones broad so as to begin stretching the tight muscles of the upper chest. On an exhalation, energetically push your hands away from you to engage your abdominal muscles which will draw you back into a child’s pose. Repeat this 4-6 times until you feel your back and chest beginning to feel free from muscular constriction.

Forward and Half Forward Fold (Uttanasana and Ardha Uttanasana)

Yoga and breathe deeper. Forward and Half Forward Fold (Uttanasana and Ardha Uttanasana).

On an exhalation, fold forward until your fingers touch the floor. It is OK to bend your knees. At the end of your exhalation, hold the pose and suspend the breath from 2-4 seconds. On an inhalation, lift halfway up until your torso is parallel to the ground and your arms are out to the side, shoulder height. Hold the pose and retain the breath 2-4 seconds. Do this vinyasa 4 times.

The retention of the breath on the inhalation forces the diaphragm to stay in a contracted state, thereby strengthening it. The suspension of the breath on the exhalation allows the diaphragm to relax. The repetition of this movement also brings additional circulation to the diaphragm keeping it free from tension. Additionally, the lifting of the torso with the arms out to the side tones the upper back muscles, creating greater strength for a better posture. The diaphragm can move more freely as you inhale and exhale.

See also Cut Through Mental Fog with These Two Common Breathing Practices

Extended Side Angle Pose (Parsvokanasana)

Yoga and breathe deeper. Extended Side Angle Pose (Parsvokanasana).

Start by placing your feet wide apart, with one foot facing forward and the other foot perpendicular to the front foot. Bend the front knee until it aligns above your front ankle and place your elbow on the bent knee. Stay lifted in your waist so that you don’t sink into your shoulder joint.

On an inhalation, sweep your other arm alongside your ear while you look toward your raised hand. On an exhalation sweep that same arm back behind you, keeping it approximately shoulder height, palm facing up. Turn your head to look over the bottom shoulder. Repeat this 4 times.

Each time you look up and down, you are increasing circulation to your neck and shoulder, an area vulnerable to the muscular effects of stress that can also restrict breathing.

Hold position A for 6-8 breaths to stretch the side intercostal muscles. Hold position B for 6-8 breaths to relieve neck and shoulder tension. Then, repeat on the other side.

Head-to-Knee Pose, variation (Janu Sirsasana)

Yoga and breathe deeper. Head-to-Knee Pose, variation (Janu Sirsasana).

This is an interesting adaptation of head-to-knee pose. Stretch one leg out in front of you and bend the other so your knee is out to the side and the sole of your foot touches the inside of your extended leg. With the opposite hand, grab on to the outside of your extended leg. Make sure your grip is firm, and instead of drawing down toward your leg, pull away toward the back of the room, from your mid-back. Hold this pose for 8 breaths.

This will create a tension releasing stretch across your mid-back, further freeing the intercostals to create mobility that will accommodate the inflation and deflation of your lungs. Repeat on the other side.

See also 4 Breathing Exercises to Help Kids (and Adults) Manage Their Emotions

Corpse Pose (Savasana)

Yoga and breathe deeper. Corpse Pose (Savasana).

Having opened the front, sides, and back of the body—as well as strengthened the diaphragm—your body is now fully ready to breath deep, long breaths. Take 8 full breaths, and then allow your body to breathe naturally.