Using the Breath in Yoga Therapy

Getting Started

In SCHYS training programs we learn to progress the breath for a client by counting the breath (in seconds).  However, in order to avoid being too cerebral with our client, and to allow the client to relax more, it is generally easier to help them choose something else to monitor the breath when they start.  For example, we could have the client use a phrase such as “I am inhaling” (said silently on the inhale) and “now I’m exhaling” (said voiced or silently on the exhale).  This is done in order to help the yoga therapist (and the client) keep the measure the breath.  To increase the breath, we would add a word or words to lengthen the measure.  For example, the client would say, “now I’m exhaling longer” and then to expand the breath further we could then add another word(s) so that the phrase grows to something such as “now I’m exhaling even longer still”. 


Energetic Effect of the Breath

In yoga therapy, we can use the breath to bring the client to a different state of energy.  We can think of energy as being more “up” or active (brahmana), more “down” or calm (langhana) or “even-keel” or balanced (samana).  To help a client change their state of energy, we would give pranayama ratio and/or pranayama techniques.  Pranayama ratio means the measure or length of the inhale compared to the exhale and/or the holds after the inhale and exhale.  These four components can be regulated to change the energy of a client by regulating the ratio of the inhale components (the inhale and/or the inhale hold) to the exhale components (the exhale and/or the exhale hold).  To help a client boost their energy, we would give brahmana pranayama ratio and/or brahmana pranayama techniques.  To help a client calm their energy, we would give langhana pranayama ratio and/or langhana pranayama techniques.  And to bring balance, we would give samana ratio and/or samana techniques.  To list pranayama techniques that might affect energy would be too numerous for this post, but students in SCHYS training programs learn specifics.

To give an example, say the client has been depressed with very low energy, or perhaps someone with fatigue, even chronic fatigue syndrome.  For them we would recommend some brahmana pranayama ratio such as increasing their breath, expanding the breath.  Expanding the breath could help uplift their energy.  We could suggest they start with saying something like, “now I’m inhaling, now I’m exhaling” with the breath for a couple of breaths.  Then, we could expand the breath and have them say, “now I’m inhaling longer, now I’m exhaling longer” and do this for a couple breaths.  If comfortable, we could take another step of expanding the breath by adding yet another word. 

If we lengthened the exhale only, again step-by-step, then that could help calm someone who may have difficulty falling asleep at night because they are too brahmana and need more langhana energy.  Or perhaps the client is too heated, indicative of brahmana energy, to help cool them, we could give the pranayama technique of sitali. A pranayama where one inhales through the mouth, through a curled tongue as the head moves up.  And perhaps exhaling through alternate nostrils to further enhance the langhana effect. 

For a client who has sways in emotion, such as someone moving through grief, then we would keep their pranayama practice with a samana ratio.  A good pranayama technique would be ujjayi pranayama, known for bringing balance.  Ujjayi is done by bringing a slight constriction to the throat which slows the rate of breath.

We could also start the client with movement linked with the breath.  This not only helps the client to be present in the breath but also allows for some measurement function as well and helps to bring more mindfulness to the practice.

JJ Gormley, MS, C-IAYT, is a yoga educator, yoga therapist, and nutritionist.  She is the Executive Director of Surya Chandra Healing Yoga School   She resides in Madison, VA.