In yoga, we breathe primarily through the nose (both inhalation and exhalation), and we try to use our abdomen as much as we can.
If you observe babies lying on their backs, you’ll see that their stomachs expand when they inhale and relax down when they exhale. If you look at your dog, you will see that she breathes in the same way. Abdominal breath is our natural breath. As we grow up, many of us start to breathe primarily with the chest and forget how to breathe with our abdomen.
Since the lungs have a more or less triangular shape with the wider part at the bottom, when we breathe using our chest only, our breath is very shallow. Also, because there is more space at the bottom of the lungs, there are more air sacs (alveoli) there to receive oxygen from the air and bring it into our bloodstream.
There is also a higher blood concentration in the lower part of the lungs because of gravity. Therefore, abdominal breathing, in addition to massaging our inner organs and heart with the movement of the diaphragm, is a deeper and more efficient breath.
The breath is connected to our nervous system.
There is one more very important reason why we should breathe with our abdomen.
We all have two parallel nervous systems in our body. One is called the parasympathetic nervous system which operates when everything is normal and we are simply living our lives. The other is called the sympathetic nervous system which kicks into gear when we are in a ‘flight or fight’ mode, which occurs under threat or when we are stressed.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is operating, we naturally breathe using our abdomen, and when the sympathetic system works, we automatically switch to chest breathing.
Sometimes we keep breathing with our chests and get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, so we keep feeling stressed and tense even though we are safe.
So here is the most important reason why we should breathe using our abdomen: it simply switches on the parasympathetic (relaxed chilled nervous system) and helps us to relax and bring our body back to harmonious function.
Abdominal breathing should continue to be our natural breath throughout the day.
I usually don’t even mention it with children under the age of six because they usually still retain the natural abdominal breathing we are all born with. Older children are often beginning to forget how to breathe abdominally, so teaching them how to breathe correctly becomes an important part of the class.
How to Teach Yogic Breathing to Kids
The following are yogic breathing exercises for ages six and up to assist in learning abdominal breath:
1. Balloon Visualization
Sitting or lying down on your back, place you hands on your belly so that you can really feel your belly moving with your breath. When you breathe in, inflate your belly like a balloon, make it huge.
When you breathe out, deflate the balloon, pressing your abdomen to your back and squeezing all of the air out.
2. Fingertips Touching and Separating
Exhale all of the air from your lungs and place your palms on your belly with your fingertips touching. Now when you breathe in, watch how your expanding belly makes your fingertips separate. When you exhale and bring your abdomen in again, your fingertips return to touch.
3. Putting Objects on Your Belly
Lie down on your back and place a book, puppet, yoga block or any other steady object on your belly. When you breathe in, lift up the object using your belly and when you breathe out, lower the object down.
You can also try this same exercise lying on your belly and putting the prop on your back or try it in other yoga poses like Table Top or Fish pose. It is easier to be aware of your abdominal breath if you have an object weighing on your belly.
4. Putting Each Other's Head (or Hand) on Belly
In pairs or as a group, lie down with your heads on the preceding person’s belly. When you inhale, lift your friends heads up, and when you exhale, lower their heads down.
5. Belly Breathing Push-Ups
One partner stands tall and practices abdominal breathing, while the other partner stands and leans into the first partner’s belly with their arms straight, putting their palms on the first partner’s belly.
When the first partner inhales, he pushes the second partner’s whole body away using their belly, and when he exhales, the second partner’s weight sinks back into them...hence the name ‘Belly Pushups’. This extra pressure on the belly helps to understand how to move your belly in order to breathe with your diaphragm.
6. Back-to-Back Breathing
Sitting back to back in pairs, breathe deeply and try to feel each other breathe through your back. When you inhale, let your body expand and grow taller, and when you exhale, let it rest and relax (without slouching).
Also try to coordinate your breath and breathe together in the same rhythm. This exercise also helps to develop more awareness of the breath.
7. Feeling the Breath
Rest in Child’s Pose and place your hands on your back or on your sides. Breathe deeply enough so that you feel your body moving. Feel your belly expanding and contracting against your thighs, and your ribs against your palms. You can try and feel how the breath moves your body in other poses too.
8. Dragon Breath
Also called Sun Breath / Fire Breath / Kapalabhati. This is an ancient exercise that helps us clean the lungs and air passages, strengthen the abdominal muscles, and charge the body with huge amounts of oxygen and energy.
Sit up tall and inhale deeply through your nose, imagine that you have something stuck in your nose, and exhale forcefully to get it out of there. Repeat, gradually increasing the speed of your breath. Concentrate on the exhalations but remember to release your abdomen after each exhalation so that fresh air can come back in.
After about 30 repetitions, take a deep inhalation and hold your breath for a few seconds before releasing and resting. Young children can do this too, but don’t try to have them do it perfectly. And you can do it while in other poses too, for example, Fish Pose or Crab Pose.
And with all of this serious breathing, please always remember to have FUN!