An Anatomical Analysis of Yogic Breathing

3 April 2013

Most yoga students wonder how a true yogi breathes. Traditional yogic literature claims yogic breathing is the secret to both longevity and a clear mind. The author of Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Swami Svatmarama) states that “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” But long life is not the only reason a yogi or student of yoga practices pranayama (yogic breathing), albeit the physical benefits are great. Breathing is not only an important part of our entire mental, physical and emotional wellbeing; it is also recognized as a way to accelerate spiritual progress. By learning more about breathing by looking at it from an anatomical perspective, we can understand more fully how and why a yogi can achieve long life and at the same time balance all of these aspects of the self.

We can begin this analysis or anatomical study by examining the main organs involved in breathing. Starting with the lungs; the lungs’ principal responsibility is transporting oxygen from the atmosphere into our bloodstream and then to release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, again through our bloodstream. In a normal breath, the average person can introduce approximately six liters of air in their lungs. It is interesting to note that those born and raised at sea level develop slightly less lung capacity than those born in higher altitudes where the air is thin. Air enters our lungs through passages called the bronchi and branchioles, and it is there that the exchange of gases begins. These exchanges in the lungs take place across the membranes of small balloon-like structures called alveoli (a collection of millions of specialized cells, which form tiny air sacs). The alveoli are connected to arteries that then bring oxygen into the bloodstream.

The secondary, but an equally important organ necessary for this gas exchange to occur in the lungs is the thoracic diaphragm. This dome-shaped sheet of muscle extends from just below the bottom of the rib cage and separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. Its primary function is to help pull air into and out of the lungs by its musculature movement; it is also involved in other functions such as excretion of mucous and vomiting. When breathing, as it lifts, air is pushed out of the lungs and as it lowers, the lungs are able to take air in. The lungs do not perform this function on their own. With proper use of the diaphragm, much greater quantities of air can be circulated through the lungs for optimal oxygenation of the blood.

During a normal day, most of us breathe in a relatively shallow manner. We may only consume enough oxygen for our bodies to continue to function. But when we engage in pranayama we are able to increase our lung capacity. By increasing the lung capacity we are making the system more efficient.

Lung capacity can be measured as “tidal volume” or “vital capacity.” Tidal volume is the amount of air that is inhaled or exhaled with each breath under resting conditions; for most adults, this is about ½ liter. But we actually have the capacity for much more; with practice (and proper instruction), we can learn to inhale as much as ten times that amount in a single breath. When we exhale, not all of the air is completely released or the lungs would collapse. For this reason our bodies’ inherent intelligence keeps some air in the lungs at all times. Vital capacity is the term used to describe the maximum amount of air that can be forcibly expelled from the lungs after breathing in as deeply as possible. This capacity is usually measured during heavy exercise, when the lungs are working at their peak levels. Tidal capacity minus vital capacity is basically the amount of air left over in the lungs after we have exhaled completely.

Many types of pranayama aim at not only exponentially increasing the tidal volume (inhalation), but also the vital capacity (exhalation). We can exhale much more than we normally do in a relaxed breath also. As we learn to exhale more, the subsequent inhale is automatically much larger, because the autonomic nervous system works on “auto-pilot” maintaining homeostasis (the tendency of the body to maintain internal stability). Thus, breathing may be completely automatic in this way; but with pranayama we can make it more conscious in order to greatly increase the efficiency of our lungs.

The pathway air follows is also important. When we take in air, it must first journey through the nostrils and the nose must be clear to allow the maximum amount of air to enter the respiratory freeway. Yogic practices such as jala neti flush the nasal passages with clean, salted water, helping to rid the nasal passages of dust and congestion. So the importance of making sure this initial pathway is as clear as possible is obvious. Nasal/sinus irrigation is not the only way to cleanse the nostrils, but it is much less invasive then other methods and much better for us than prescription or over the counter drugs which claim to be accomplishing the same thing.

In summary: It is always important to make sure that the air we are taking in is as pure as possible and practical. By spending as much time as you can outdoors in richly oxygenated environments the natural process of plant photosynthesis makes the air oxygen-rich. In earlier times, doctors often instructed their patients to spend time more time outdoors, which essentially just gave them a cleaner, fresher air supply, oftentimes resulting in a seemingly miraculous improvement in their health.

Breathing normally is a simple, automatic act, but when we better understand the body and take steps to highly refine this natural process, we can improve our health, our sense of wellbeing and give a boost to our ultimate spiritual journey. Prana is stored in every breath we take in, and when we add more of this invaluable life-force to our bodies through pranayama, we learn to breathe in a manner which attunes us to the dynamic energies continually unfolding as our hidden potential.

Of related interest, click on: Basic Mechanisms of Yogic Breathing

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