Teaching Pranayama – Avoid this Common Mistake!

1During a recent training, I asked one of the students, an experienced yoga teacher and yoga therapist in training to lead a centering exercise. Her voice was soothing, her choice of techniques right on, her instructions were accurate and her sequence was superb.  But she made one mistake that invariably could have her students getting it all wrong – maybe even creating tension for them. What did she do?

When she instructed her students to take a deep breath, she naturally instructed them to inhale verbally and inhaled herself to demonstrate at the same time. And it was right there that this very common mistake happened.

Her shoulders lifted. They did come right back down with her exhalation. However, that moment of shoulder elevation created the wrong cues for her potential students. Here’s what’s wrong.

The muscles which elevate the shoulder are not muscles of respiration. In other words we don’t need to move our shoulders in order to take a breath of any depth or length. Students and clients will mimic you. They will associate inhaling with elevating their shoulders, which will in turn create a bad habit.

When people are stressed they tend to tense and elevate their shoulders, and their breath shortens and becomes more rapid, or they hold it – the opposite effect we want in a yoga practice.  Especially with those new to yoga lifting and tensing the shoulders can lead to breathing that can bring on the stress response. Lifting the shoulders occasionally when taking a deep breath, as long as we immediately lower our shoulders upon exhalation, is not an issue.

It becomes an issue when we unconsciously make it a habit to lift our shoulders when we inhale deeply because we inadvertently teach the same habit to our students. Newer students especially can have a hard time learning to comfortably breathe deeply. Without proper instruction they can actually tense, and turn what was supposed to be a deep relaxing breath into an inhale and hold, a shallow breath or an irregular breath. This can actually trigger the  stress response instead of the relaxation response!

It can take time and patience for you as well as your student or client to learn relaxed breathing. The first step is for you to look in the mirror and check your own technique. And remember, we might have it down correctly in our own practice, but when we teach we sometimes tend to exaggerate certain movements to illustrate a point. Here an exaggeration illustrates the wrong technique!

Sometimes students or clients are elevating and tensing their shoulders subtly and you might miss it. This might prevent them from getting full benefit from their practice or why they think they really can’t breathe effectively. If they are too frustrated they may not come back to class or sign-up for another session! Be observant of your own shoulders as well as your students for best results.



YOGA TEACHERS – Have someone observe you and let you know if you are lifting your shoulders when you take a deep inhalation – try to not lift them at all with even your deepest breath. Watch for this tendency in your students.

YOGA THERAPISTS – correcting this subtle point for yourself and for your clients can make a big difference in clients who have anxiety and other emotional issues. Also clients with shoulder and neck injuries will find it helpful to not engage shoulders muscles during inhalations.  Pranayama for pain relief is more effective when the shoulder muscles stay relaxed.

YOGA PROFESSIONAL TRAINERS – When you are observing your trainees teaching, watch for this common habit.  Correct them explaining the benefits for getting it right and remind them that they are modeling for their clients and students. If you see that a fair number of your trainees have this habit, have them work in pairs to observe, give feedback and help each other to make a positive change in the way they breath and demonstrate breathing techniques.

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