When you hold your breath…. The 3 causes and 1 Solution

A sober message about competitive breath holding.

Image by cristyndc via Flickr

You may not realize you were holding your breath until you let it go. And in that great whoosh of exhalation you have an amazing opportunity: what was going on in your internal environment leading to that impressive subversion of sustaining rhythms?

Breath holding, as the sign says, can be detrimental, though perhaps not often deadly. Because of the interruption of normal exchange of nurturing and toxic gasses, you’re retaining the very stuff your body so wisely was prepared to let go. More importantly, you can’t receive the next breath. Mind rides breath, so you remain stuck in that moment, unable to move forward because like the monkey with a peanut in his fist, you can’t get your hand out of the jar.

Whether you’re on your mat or in traffic with that near miss, or in a meeting  – “Yeah, those words just came out of his mouth…” – the moment when you let your breath go, give yourself the gift of wondering what that was all about. I’ll wager a week of yoga class that in every case it’s a reaction to one of three things: novelty, fright or exertion.

Novelty: ever been taken by surprise, even a pleasant surprise? A room full of unexpected people, a man on one knee with a diamond ring or an unexpected visit from a friend: any of these can trigger a rapid, rushing intake of air with a potent pause.

Fear: the unexpected discharge of a gun; a rapid, unexpected motion when you are either very relaxed or very wary; watching the car in front of you spin out of control all can trigger a frozen or elongated moment and the breath can become hostage to the halting motion of time.

Exertion: You didn’t wait for help to move that massive walnut bureau, and so it’s no surprise when you’re over matched and noticed the squealing grunt of strain. And in some forms of exercise, such as kettlebells and boxing, breath holding is a technique – but accompanied by specific and intentional exhalation. This kind of breath holding creates an internally stabilizing pressure in the center of the torso which is then converted to force with a rapid and full exhalation. The key is intentionality.

Solution: Awareness and Intent The next time you find yourself holding your breath, treat yourself and your breath gently, kindly release and exhale fully and completely. Wonder: was I scared, surprised or exerting?  Bring your awareness and intent to the moment, ask yourself the question, and then just listen. You’re extra lucky if you have a chance to practice this on the mat, because you have a great chance to notice and loosen a pattern, referred to in yogic circles as samskara. Samskara are the ant hills of repeatedly going around a place of resistance, rather than investigating and remaining with the resistance itself.  Noticing breath holding is one way down the center of hill to find the source of the resistance, the source of the work around, and clear an open path for moving forward, letting go of the residue of prior experience and becoming present for all that this moment holds.

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Bhastrika

Here along the Rio Grande, we reckon Fall from the first Golden Cottonwoods. The leaves turn and fall as a result of days shortening. The decreasing light means that soon there won’t be enough light for the leaves to perform photosynthesis, so the food factories shut down, revealing the foliage along a riverunderlying chemical processes as colors.

Our bodies respond similarly to the shortening days and cooling nights, and you may feel as if your own factory has gone off-line. Yoga can help you respond with a combination of gentleness and warmth, gentleness to give ourselves the rest and reflection called for by the season, and warmth to keep your energy, circulation and mood up.

Fall is a great time to introduce strong standing poses, hip openers – best to clean out the basement before you hang out with the relatives for the holidays – and warming breaths. Two pranayam for warmth and energy are kalabhati and Bhastrika.  Bhastrika is accomplished by generating forceful inhalations as well as exhalations, using all the muscles of respiration, intercostals as well as abdominals. I’ve seen Bhastrika described as a combination of kalabhati and ujayii breathing, but I think this leaves out an important distinction. While both kinds of pranayam call for forceful exhalation, in bhastrika the inhalation is just as energetic and so the inhale and exhale are equal in length. Contrast this to kalabhati – or skull shining breath – during which the inhale is passive and so much shorter between rapid, energetic bursts of exhalation through the nose.

While kalabhati is generated primarily from the transverse abdominus – the low belly, between the pelvic crests – relaxing and contracting, thus changing abdominal pressure and so diaphragm position, Bhastrika is generated from expanding and contracting the entire torso, directly recruiting the muscles of the rib cage, as well as the upper abdominals.

Use care always and consider beginning any pranayam with a qualified teacher. Do not undertake these breathing practices if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure or glaucoma.

Bhastrika is warming and awakening, fantastic for first thing in the morning, or if you’re feeling extra drowsy for meditation or that meeting they always schedule after lunch. Because of the exertional nature, you’ll be working your core in 360 degrees. For this same reason, go slow. Start with a breath every 2 seconds, 10 breaths, increasing speed and duration as it becomes old hat. Bhastrika is controlled hyperventilation, so stay attuned to your experience and take a break if you’re feeling dizzy or anxious. hyperventilation is only deleterious when you don’t expel enough carbon dioxide on the exhale – as when people spontaneously hyperventilate from anxiety and their hands, feet and mouth tingle because of trapped CO2. However, since you’re attending to your exhalation, cultivating length and smoothness, you won’t face this phenomenon. If you feel anxious from the increased oxygen or workload, take a break. If you feel the tingling, slow down and make your inhalation and exhalation the same length.

Bhastrika helps to clear phlegm, works against inflammation, stokes your digestive fire, and keeps the body lubricated, making it an ideal Pranayam for your Fall yoga practice. Let me know how it works for you!

Finding Core: Body, Mind & Soul

Where is your “core”? You’ve heard the commonplace that “it’s not your abs,” which is true, but doesn’t tell us where to look. The name itself, though, is instructive, and with breath and attention we can find our “core” experientially. While practicing 3 part yogic breath (dirgha), move between the poles of abundance on the in breath, and stillness on the out breath. After becoming established in this rhythm, notice and accentuate all your muscles hugging toward center as you gently press your breath out. Feel the pattern and rhythm, and pay direct attention from the floor, all the way up to the roof of your mouth, 360 degrees. As your body expands and contracts, you’ll begin to feel the center around which your body is moving.

Did you know, that your core is closer to your back than your belly button? That’s why one of the instructions in moving from the core is often to bring your navel back towards the spine.

Did you know, that your core traverses the upper and lower bodies? One of the most used stabilizing muscle sets, the illiopsoas, connects the upper and lower body, attaching about a third of the way down the inner thigh, zigging and zagging up from there to the inside of the pelvic bowl, and back to its midline origin, fanning out along the low spine on either side.

Did you know, that your core can be drawn away from midline by injury and habitual holding patterns? In yoga, we call these “samskara” and they are precisely what we are unearthing in yoga asana by moving in ways unusual to everyday life, with attention and breath. When you practice the breathing above and find your core feels off-center, you already have the tools to use your muscular awareness to bring it back to center. This weakens the grooves of habits and realigns you to increase your focus, energy and awareness in everything you do!

The “abdominals” – rectus (middle front), transverse (lower belly, the one we use in kapalabhati), and obliques (sides) – are part of the core, and when given awareness through breathing, a great way into your true, literal center!

6 Second Alignment

Human female pelvis, viewed from front.

Image via Wikipedia


  • Increase energy
  • Increase alertness
  • Generate Focus
  • Cultivate Concentration
  • Feel Taller!

Place your thumbs on your lower side ribs and your fingers on the bony prominences at the top of your pelvis. Using the muscles in between, gently and evenly lift your ribcage up from your pelvis, centering the oval of your ribcage over the oval of your pelvis, and taking care not to lift more in the front, back or either side. Allow your arms to fall gracefully at your sides.  Cultivate Dirgha, or Three part Yogic Complete Breath, and feel your whole body return center on the outbreath.

Do this any time – at your desk, standing in line, even mowing the lawn – you want to become more present, cultivate your energy or just change your perspective!