Are All Breath Techniques Actually Relaxing?

Our epic Bali Immersion and Yoga Teacher Training start in just two weeks and we’ve seriously been upping our manual game: this article is a part of our breath section. Although our YTT has been sold out for weeks, we’ve had a few spots open just this week so if you’re up for a last minute adventure, email and join us in Canggu, Bali in May!


Are all breathing techniques truly relaxing? Do they immediately cause parasympathetic tone or the peaceful space of what we call in Sanskrit, Sattva?

Imagine a friend who is stressed or worried.  In order to calm them down, would you prescribe rapid breath of fire: i.e. pumping the belly and forcing exhalations out in rapid succession (kapalabhatti)? How about long breath holds (kumbhaka)?

Most of these traditional breathing techniques are actually stimulating to the nervous systems of novice yogis. So why would the yogis do them? My theory is twofold.

One, there are ways to keep the body calm during these techniques. For example, if you hold the breath at the top of the inhale for 12 seconds and force the glottis closed or tighter the forehead, it can create a panic, almost like a “drowning response” in some people. However, by relaxing the throat and forehead, the sensations of panic decrease and the chances of experiencing a pleasant sensation increase.

It is important to remind yourself or others whom you are teaching to utilize “yin cues” during pranayama. Yin cues are observations that help the body to relax and not resist softness. They are what happens when we exhale and let the outer body soften in a “down and out” way into the gravitational field. Some examples are “relax the jaw,” “soften the eyelids,” “keep the belly soft.”

The second reason many of the breathing techniques are stimulating for the nervous system is for the after effect. The technique itself may be a little rousing but the after effect is usually calming to the nervous system for most people.

Remember, we breathe in to get oxygen into the cells. When we breathe out, carbon dioxide is released. However, when we hold the breath, our brain senses that we need oxygen, and when we can’t take it, the buildup becomes unpleasant.

The autonomic nervous system will kick on the “mammalian diving reflex.” This is essentially the body’s “power save mode.”  It decreases the need for oxygen by slowing the heart rate down. Our body does this in order to save oxygen for its most important organs: the brain and the heart. The process of learning this technique may be described as “freaky” at best but to many it is outright terrifying.

As Roger Cole once wrote in Yoga Journal:

“The dizziness that comes with deep breathing is usually caused by breathing out carbon dioxide faster than the body produces it. This makes the blood less acidic, which apparently causes a chemical alteration in nerve function that makes you feel light-headed. The cure is to breathe more slowly and/or less deeply.

Holding the breath during asana practice is not a good idea. Asanas require free circulation of the blood and plenty of oxygen to the muscles and organs. Holding the breath can increase pressure in the chest so much that it is difficult for blood to return from the body to the heart. Too little blood goes in, so the heart pumps too little blood out. Dizziness may result when blood pressure sensors in the heart, upper chest, and neck detect too little blood volume within the heart, or too little pressure being pumped up toward the head.”

This is why, time and time again, the yogis warned initiates of pranayama to practice with a guide. “Do not try and do this on your own or in large groups” is a warning that came with these techniques.

In my opinion, if people don’t know why they are doing a pranayama technique or how to relax the mind and body during a potentially strenuous breath pattern, the risk of an unpleasant experience increases dramatically.

Key things that cause stress during pranayama and their fixes:

  1. Breathing too fast.

Inhaling too fast and not closing the glottis to slow the rate of inspiration or expiration down. The fix for this is to drink air in through an imaginary straw, as opposed to gulping it all at once.

As mentioned above, holding the throat tight along with the belly or any part of the body will use up oxygen and increase the feeling of panic.

  1. Thoughts of Resistance.

What we think can create resistance in the body and decrease the relaxation response.  Feeling as if you are going to run out of air to breathe and asking yourself “how much longer?” or “what is going on here?” send signals of muscular tension through the body.  If we are reminded to “trust the process,” or simply to “stay relaxed” it can help dramatically.

Many people breathe out too quickly.  This is usually the result of a mind that is moving too fast (Rajasic).

The fix is to say the sound “Ha” when you are breathing out. Allow students to breathe out through an open mouth, saying “haaaaaa” (aspirated) like the relaxed sound of pleasure you make when someone massages your back or when you are fogging up a mirror.

Now breathe out quickly as in the sound “ha” (unaspirated) like we are blowing out a birthday candle.

It’s like a difference between gulping down a drink versus drinking it slowly through a straw. The same amount of liquid comes in but over less time with no straw.  In the same way, imagine you are breathing in slowly through a straw and exhaling slowly through a straw. Savor the breath as it comes in and out.

  1. Holding the Breath and keeping “energy” in the upper front torso and head.

Sometimes it feels as if we are holding breath and energy in the upper torso and lungs, which adds to a feeling of light-headedness. The key fix here is to do things that “ground us.” If we are standing, we need to “find our heels,” feeling that we are supported and our energy is going down.  If they are seated we need to find the weight in the pelvis.

Of course, we need to be cued to breathe into the lower pelvic bowl (genitals and sitting bones) and also the back side of the ribs and even the lower back.

  1. Creating sensations of tightening in the Body.

It is essential to use the Yin Cues such as “relax your jaw; throat, and forehead.”  This was addressed above.

  1. Not being in sync with the inhalation.

The Fix: One note for teachers for any breathing technique is to cue the exhalation and pause first before inhalation.  As opposed to starting a breathing technique on an inhalation.  Starting with an exhalation, allows all students to “synch up” their inhalations.

  1. Not understanding why we are doing a breathing technique can cause anxiousness.

The fix: Tell people the after effect will be calming. Before you start a technique, give them tools to stay calm from the list above. And the big one that is simple but can be overlooked: remind people that they can always stop and just enjoy long deep breaths on their own at any point.

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