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The Basic Mechanisms of Yogic Breathing

4 April 2013

There are two main ways in which most people breathe: Chest (or thoracic) breathing and abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing. Thoracic breathing is very common in modern people. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that more than 50% of adults are predominantly chest breathers and more than 90% of sick people are upper chest breathers.

Chest (thoracic) breathing negatively affects health in three fundamental ways that promote chronic illness…

  • 1. Reduces blood oxygenation.
  • 2. Indicates hyperventilation and low oxygen delivery at the cellular level.
  • 3. Causes lymphatic stagnation.

Chest breathers virtually always have deep breathing (large breaths) at rest or sleep and suffer from hyperventilation (breathing more than normal). Contrary to popular belief, when we breathe more air, we get less oxygen in body cells. In fact, the slower your automatic breathing pattern at rest (as low as 3 breaths/min), the larger the amount of oxygen delivered to cells.

We need to be reminded that healthy, normal breathing is abdominal (diaphragmatic).

The diaphragm is the main muscle of inspiration (inhalation) in the respiration (breathing) mechanism. During inspiration, the diaphragm contracts and descends, along with other muscles, thus expanding the thorax, allowing the lungs to fill with air. Expiration (exhalation) requires the reverse of this process. In Pranayama (yogic breathing) the accessory muscles of expiration also contract to help force air out of the lungs more efficiently.

These accessory muscles come into use for whenever extra effort is required, but ordinarily they are only used in emergency breathing or any situation that is perceived as physically stressful or demanding by the individual, including heavy exercise. In this way, deliberate diaphragmatic breathing, focusing on long deep inhalation and exhalation, pranayama becomes a means of assuring all the accessory muscles of breathing are well exercised so that one has a “well oiled” breathing apparatus for an increasingly productive pranayama practice.

It is not be surprising for these muscles to be hypertonic (a pathology indicating extreme muscular tension) in new students of pranayama, especially if they have lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle. A good yoga instructor will work with these individuals to increase their range of movements in these restricted areas. This can even be achieved by direct work on the muscles, such as cross-fiber soft tissue massage which will not only decrease the tension in the accessory muscles, allowing more freedom and less restriction of the diaphragm, but can also work to improve postural alignment during asana practice. Additionally this can have a considerable effect on the student’s general sense of well-being, particularly on a psychological level.

Soft abdominal breathing requires minimal diaphragmatic movement. Deliberate soft abdominal breathing as in the “Relaxation Pose” (Shavasana – aka: Corpse Pose) has a “grounding” effect and can be very relaxing for the mind and the body. Soft abdominal breathing is gentle and can only occur when the diaphragm is supple and the mind and body are relaxed so it’s a great way to end your yoga session. In order to experience this, lie still in the Shavasana and continue to relax the entire body. Whenever mind tends to wander, bring it back to the body and scan the body for any tension. Continue deepening the relaxation of all the muscles in the body. Now bring passive and gentle focus on your breath. Breath should be getting softer, smoother and more subtle at this point. Let it continue to become even more subtle. It is good to watch for the pause between exhalation and your next inhalation to become longer and longer. The diaphragm has to do very little work at this point which deepens the relaxation further. This whole process takes time and for a person with average relaxation skills, it may take 10 to 15 minutes in Shavasana to be able to reach the state when soft abdominal breathing is occurring naturally. It is good to let the diaphragm have the opportunity to “rest” since it has been working hard. Soft abdominal breathing has tremendous benefits for both the mind and the body.

In closing: There are many different approaches to pranayama and some schools of yoga immediately introduce quite forceful and/or complex pranayama techniques, like the “breath of fire.” Other schools incorporate pranayama techniques into asana practice from the very beginning. But according to Iyengar Yoga, pranayama is taught very slowly and carefully, and at first, as a separate practice from asana.

Certified yoga teachers will be able to implement various modifications and adaptations to better serve the specific needs of each individual, tailoring both their pranayama and their asana practice.

Of related interest: An Anatomical Analysis of Yogic Breathing

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