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.

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!