For me, one of the most annoying things someone can say is “Relax! Take a deep breath.”
It’s not just because as a yoga teacher it’s embarrassing for me when people notice how stressed I am. I’m supposed to be calm all the time, right? Someone once asked me if I’d ever meditated. It was mortifying.
It’s really that it’s not particularly calming to take a deep breath – and it can actually make us more stressed.
I started thinking about the seemingly unquestionnable truth of “take a deep breath” when I was fresh out of my first teacher training in 2001.
I was asked to teach prenatal yoga and soon learned the bigger the baby grows, the less space mamas have for their lungs to expand. I wondered, why do we always do the inhale first?
I assumed it was a chicken-and-the-egg question: what comes first, the inhale or the exhale?
Yes, this is the kind of thing that will entertain me for days…
I began to cue the exhale before the inhale: “as you let the breath go, exhale away tightness, expand into the back of your body, and allow your lower body to release into the embrace of the earth.”
Exhales seemed to achieve what “take a deep breath in” did not: it made space.
And lo and behond, after a nice, long, grounding exhale, a fully, deep inhale naturally flowed in.
Why? Nature abhors a vacuum. Or loves it, depending on your pespective. Either way, it fills it.
Don’t get me wrong… I have nothing against inhaling.
The inhale is super powerful when we want to engage our muscles, move our body, reach out, or well… stay alive.
But when we’re trying to release, let go, reset our energy or settle into the moment – it’s the exhale that’s our bestie.
And when we’re trying to connect to our core – it’s the exhale that helps us connect to it and ground down into the support of the earth.
Here are some reasons why I’d rather hear “Exhale” before “Take a deep breath in” – just about anytime.
The Exhale Reduces Pressure on the Heart
Let’s pause to recall (or learn about) the five directions prana, or life force, flows in the body.
Prana moves in different ways – five, according to Ayurveda. It moves up and out when we belch or cough. It moves down and in when we inhale. It circulates around the body, and it assimilates and digests.
The one to remember is this one: prana moves down and out as we exhale.
This grounding pranic flow is called Apana Vayu – it’s easy to remember because it sounds like “up”, but it’s down.
Vayu is another word for “Vata” – wind or movement – with some different vowels, because Sanskrit does that when it sounds better (a very feminine-flow-shakti practice, changing words to make them flow better).
So why is Apana Vayu so important? It supports elimination and birthing. It resets our nervous system and settles our energy. And maybe most of all: it makes space for all the other pranas to flow.
When we’re stressed, our energy lifts. Imagine right now that someone scares you and you take in a breath suddenly. Notice how your chest moves up and out – your eyes bulge – your body lifts energetically and it’s ready to run.
Now still in this position, try to take a deep breath in. If your energy is lifted before you inhale and you take a deep breath – there’s no where for the breath to go. Energy is lifting up from the lower body, and moving in from the upper body – and this puts pressure on the heart.
According to Ayurveda, this pressure caused by a lifting up of Apana Vayu is one of the main contributors – if not the cause – of heart problems.
When we take a moment to exhale and ground our energy first, there’s no upward pressure on the heart and our inhale can go deep into the bottom of the lungs without any resistance.
The Exhale Makes Space for the Inhale
When we exhale nice and long, we make space for a naturally fuller, deeper inhalation to come in.
Try this: whisper “ha” as long as you can – like a kid misting up a window in winter.
Use your stomach muscles to help empty out fully, gently drawing your low belly in and rooting down from hips through heels.
Now, close your mouth and breathe in through your nose. Feel the power behind your inhale making it go into the back, bottom of the lungs, where breath doesn’t tend to reach when we’re breathing more shallowly.
This area above the low back is a special place in yoga – it’s said to be where we store prana, like a treasure chest of life force energy. Even when we exhale, prana stays there above the kidneys. We want to keep this area spacious so there’s plenty of room for prana.
When we exhale fully, we make space for prana to move deeper in.
The Exhale Helps Us Let Go of Stress
Inhaling stimulates the sympathetic nervous system – fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
Exhaling stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system – relax and release into support.
It slows our heart beat, lowers our blood pressure, even decreases the firings of the neurons of our brain.
It also helps us let go of CO2, thus helping the body return to a balanced pH of 7.4.
The exhale is a natural letting go, an emptying out of what we no longer need. We can use this to release our grip on negative or constricting thoughts, to release through our legs and feel the earth beneath our feet.
A long exhale first can help us settle into the present moment, and let go of our anxiety about the past or the future.
We can ask ourselves, “is it happening now?” and if it isn’t, exhale out all that isn’t actually real.
Our exhale also helps us let go of the myth that we are in charge. When we inhale we connect to our strength, determination and the part of us that takes action.
When we exhale, we allow, give over to something bigger, and remember that we are just part of the universe – not in control of it.
Can You Feel It?
Exhale away everything but this moment, and than allow your inhale to connect you to all the good that is right here.
The Exhale Releases Our Groins
On a muscular level, our first responders to stress are the groin muscles.
These deep hip flexors tighten to pull up our thigh bones so we can start running from the bear.
Problem is, long after we realize there’s no bear, our groins tend to remain contracted.
When they’re tight, they pull our butt under, tucking our tailbone and flattening our low back.
We can end up in a pattern of being “tight-assed”: squeezing our butt cheeks, all from a stressor that is no longer there, or maybe never was (otherwise known as anxiety).
But guess what? When we exhale, our groins release.
This makes space in the back of the pelvis, allowing the diaphragm to move down more fully on the inhale. There’s no longer anything blocking Apana Vayu from grounding down – or the inhale from flowing in.
Exhale and wiggle your hips a little, remembering that life is a dance.
The Exhale Helps Us Make Space for Baby
When we’re pregnant, exhaling first is essential to make space for baby to move into optimal position.
In fact, releasing the groins, grounding Apana Vayu and exhaling space into the back body are the three most important actions we can take to make space for baby.
And there’s an added bonus: when we release the tension in our groins and pelvis by exhaling fully, we let go of the tuck of our tailbone and we can lengthen it down toward our heels – which relieves the all-too-common pregnancy back pain.
Try this: come down to hands and knees, and then lower to your forearms. Interlace your fingers and focus on the exhale.
Notice what happens – your thighs and groins rest back, your low back feels good, your butt and hips sway and you remember there is no bear. You can consciously use your exhales to gently cradle baby in the back or your body. Both you and baby are spacious and supported.
Exhale and expand your back ribs back. Make space for whatever’s gestating within you.
The Exhale Helps Us Engage the Core
We often think of our stomach as our core. And it is part of it – the rectus abdominus is our “six pack” and it’s what we see on very toned people.
But beneath our surface layer of abs – and all around us like a corset – is the transversus abdominus. It goes around to the back and when we expand the back ribs back, we engage it.
The deepest abdominal muscle layer, your transversus abdominis, co-contracts with your pelvic floor muscles. When contracted together, these muscles are stronger than when contracted individually, improving support to the low back and pelvis, and optimizing pelvic floor muscle function.
So how do we engage our core?
You guessed it, on the exhale.
Instead of just allowing a passive settling to happen, we can use our core to actively move our energy from low belly downward.
This is called Grounding Your Power, and it’s the fourth alignment step in the Ma Yoga “Five Sacred Steps.”
What is the result when we use our power to ground down?
There’s an equal and opposite reaction – a Newtonian bouncing upward – as our heart center lifts and expands.
The more rooted we are, the lighter we feel in our upper body, and the more lifted our neck and shoulders are.
The shoulder blades naturally relax down and the trapezius – the muscle group that goes from shoulders to jaw – can stop lifting the shoulders to force the inhale, and relax.
There’s a lift from inside.
In other words, we feel uplifted.
On your “ha breath”, do a little kegel as you expand the back of the body and then use all this power to root down from hips to heels.
Root into support. Now inhale lightness and lift from inside.
Exhale Your Breath Out… Then, Take a Deep Breath
For so many reasons, exhaling before the inhale makes sense. The exhale helps us:
- take in a natural, less stressful inhale
- let go of both physical stress in the groins and releases Apana Vayu downward
- let go of mental stress in the form of worries about the past or future
- make space in the pelvis and the back body – for baby and breath
- connect to our core – the back body and pelvic floor – so we can root down into support
- remember that we’re not in charge, and release into support
Prana is not something we can control. This force of universal wisdom, power, and nurturing energy is like a loving guest that we can invite in, we can dance with, but we’re not in charge of.
She’ll keep coming over as long as she chooses. All we can do is keep making space for her.
Exhale first to open the door to the beautiful, all-too-temporary gift of life: inspiration.