You are on page 1of 9

Yoga > Pranayama

Diaphragmatic Breathing in 3 Key Yoga Poses

If youd like to deepen your practice of asana, pranayama, and
meditation, learning diaphragmatic breathing is the key to success.
BY Rolf Sovik

ON June 3, 2013

Breath training is an integral part of yoga as well as a means of creating a

more balanced, healthy lifestyle. Practicing relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing
is refreshing and restful, and creates a sense of well-being. It calms the
nervous system, helps prevent psychosomatic disturbances, including panic
episodes, and centers attention. Because we are always breathing, breath
awareness is a self-management tool that is useful even during the busiest
times of the day.

For students of yoga, breath training is an indispensable preparation for the

proper performance of asana and pranayama and for deepening meditation.
It involves learning to recognize the sensations that accompany
diaphragmatic breathing and gradually becoming accustomed to breathing
deeply and smoothly.

Anatomy of the Breath

It surprises many people to learn that the lungs are not muscles. Without
help, they cannot move air in and out of the body. This fact lies at the heart
of breath instruction: Questions about how to breathe are really questions
about which muscles to use in order to expand the lungs and draw air into
We have choices regarding the muscles we use for breathing. The muscles of
the neck and upper torso, by themselves, have a relatively minor eect on
breathing. Breathing with these muscles alone results in bringing in air in
small amounts. The isolated use of these muscles for breathing, called
clavicular breathing, is most commonly seen in people who have lung
illnesses, such as emphysema, that limit their ability to draw a deep breath.
The bands of muscle (the intercostal muscles) that lie between the ribs
account for about 20% of normal breathing. Because these muscles surround
the lungs, it might seem natural to breathe with them. In fact, after strenuous
exercise nothing is more satisfying than to breathe deeply with the mouth
open and the chest heaving. But in normal circumstances, chest or thoracic
breathing is considerably less dramaticthe ribs simply rise and fall with the
inhalation and the exhalation.

Although there is a certain logic to breathing with the chest

musclesthat is where the lungs are, after allit is not
helpful to use these muscles as the primary tool for
everyday breathing. Breathing primarily with the chest
muscles makes breathing too labored. The eect is to arouse
the sympathetic nervous system and to maintain levels of
tension that sap energy and dramatically increase your susceptibility to
emotional disturbances. Overusing the chest muscles for breathing is a
subtle but major cause of physical and emotional distress.
Elements of both clavicular and thoracic breathing are found in normal
breathing, but the muscle naturally intended for expanding the lungs is the
diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that lies horizontally
inside the torso, dividing it into two separate chambersthe chest (thoracic)
cavity and the abdominal/pelvic cavity. The chest contains the lungs and
heart; the lower chamber of the torso contains the organs of digestion,
assimilation, elimination, and reproduction.
When the muscle fibers of the diaphragm contract they pull the top of the
diaphragm down. This has two noticeable results. The lungs expand as they
fill with air and, at the same time, the abdominal organs are compressed
downward, pressing out against the abdomen.
Exhalation is caused by a dierent mechanism. When the muscle fibers of
the diaphragm relax, the natural elasticity of the lungs and rib cage causes
the lungs to shrink, and air flows out of the lungs. Muscle contraction is only
minimally involved in this motion. This is why you exhale as you sink into
your favorite chair. Exhalation is relaxing.

The actual look and feel of diaphragmatic breathing varies, depending upon
ones body posture. Nonetheless, the basic principles of breathing remain
constant. Contracting the diaphragm causes the lungs to expand and air to
flow in. Relaxing the diaphragm allows the rib cage and lungs to contract and
air to flow out.
The aim of breath training is not to become obsessed with these mechanics,
but to use them as a framework for feeling the nurturing qualities of good
breathing. With just a small investment of time, you can lay the groundwork
for good health and an advancing yoga practice.

A Simple Breath Training Practice

Breathing in Crocodile Pose
The best posture for sensing the flow of
the breath is the crocodile pose. When
you are lying prone on your stomach,
with arms folded at about a 45 degree
angle above your shoulders, your body
will naturally begin to breathe diaphragmatically. Use the crocodile pose to
counteract the normal abdominal tension that arises whenever you are
nervous. It will automatically get you started toward a more natural
breathing style. Even advanced students find tension in the abdomen by the
end of the day. The crocodile pose oers a chance to unblock the breath and
release pent-up tension.
There are several versions of the crocodile pose, each helpful and each
designed to accommodate dierent body types and dierent levels of
flexibility. You may turn your feet in, with legs resting relatively close
together, or turn them out, separating the legs until the inner thighs rest

comfortably on the floor. Rest your forehead on your folded forearms,

elevating the upper chest slightly o of the floor. If your shoulders or arms
are uncomfortable, you may prop your upper body with a cushion or a
blanket (drape your chin over the cushion). You may also widen the elbows
and partially open the forearms allowing the hands to separate. In all cases,
the abdomen rests on the floor.
As you rest in the pose, relax your breathing and begin to observe the
movements of your body. There are three main observation points: the
abdomen, sides of the rib cage, and the lower back. Practice the following
exercise to bring each of them to awareness.
First, feel the ceaseless movement of your breath as it flows out and in.
The breath will find its own pace, and even if you believe the speed to be
too fast or too slow, you dont need to control it, simply let your body
Now bring your awareness to your abdomen and feel how it presses
against the floor as you inhale and recedes (although remaining in contact
with the floor) as you exhale. Relax the muscles in your belly, and let these
movements of the abdomen become deep and soothing.
Now shift your attention to the sides of the rib cage. Youll find that the
low ribs expand laterally with the inhalation and contract with the
exhalation. The ribcage expands as the diaphragm contracts, and the ribs
return inward as the diaphragm relaxes.
Finally, shift your attention to your lower back. Notice that as you inhale,
the back rises, and as you exhale, the back falls. Soften your back muscles
and allow the breath to flow without resistance. This is a particularly
relaxing sensation, and you may find that it helps relieve lower back
tension that is otherwise dicult to release.
To deepen the breath even further, you might wish to try the following
experiment. At the end of the exhalation, breathe out a little more than

usual by continuing to press the abdomen toward the spine. Then, as you
slowly inhale, soften the muscles of the lower back and abdomen, and let
the back rise and expand. You may feel as if the lower back is being
stretched by the deep inhalation. Repeat the extra exhalation and the
expanded inhalation for three to five breaths, until you become
accustomed to the feeling of the deep inhalation. Then return to your
normal exhalationbut continue to let the lower back expand as you
inhale. Your breath will feel slower and deeper.
Remain resting in crocodile pose for a total of seven to ten minutes. Feel
the breath around the entire periphery of your midsectionfront, sides,
and back. Your breathing will become extremely relaxed. When you are
refreshed, come out of the posture slowly, creating a smooth transition
back to normal breathing.
Breathing in Relaxation Pose
A simple version of diaphragmatic
breathing is accomplished in shavasana
(relaxation pose). In this posture, the
navel region rises with each inhalation
and falls with each exhalation. To
experience this, try the following exercise:
Lie on your back on a flat carpeted surface. Support your head and neck
with a thin cushion.
Bring your awareness to your breath and feel the continuous flow of
exhalations and inhalations.
Soften the rib cage and it will become almost completely motionless (of
course, if you breathe more deeply, you can make the ribcage move, but
this takes more eort and misses the point of the exercise).
Next, explore the respiratory movements further by raising your arms to
the carpet over your head. This will accentuate the rise and fall of the

Finally, return your arms to your sides and observe your breathing for a
number of minutes, allowing your body to relax.
Sitting Up to Breathe
When you sit erect, the movements of breathing will no
longer feel the same as when you were lying on your back.
Breathing is still diaphragmatic, but the vertical axis of the
body changes the eect of the diaphragms action on the
lower torso. You can easily feel this.
Sit erect in any seated pose (sitting on a flat seated chair will
do fine).
Rest your hands in your lap. Close your eyes and turn your attention to
the flow of exhalations and inhalations.
Soften the abdomen and sides of the rib cage. Let the muscles of the back
support your posture with only modest muscle tone.
Now notice how, if you let it, your breathing results in a quiet expansion
of the sides of the rib cage. The front wall of the abdomen also expands,
but the movement is much less than it was in shavasana.
Continue observing the breath until its pace and depth feel absolutely
comfortable and relaxed (your breathing will be a little faster and will feel
higher in the torso than it does lying down). As you observe each
inhalation and exhalation, let your mind relax.

The Rewards of Diaphragmatic Breathing

The rewards of this training are quite remarkable. You will find that you have
a tool to maintain your equilibrium in situations where you used to become
tense and uncomfortable. Your everyday level of internal tension will lessen,
allowing you to move your body and concentrate your mind with greater
ease. As you continue on the path of yoga, diaphragmatic breathing will
serve as a foundation for many other practices. And when fears seem
overwhelming in the course of daily living, you will have an internal friend
to comfort your mind. All in all, as you improve the quality of your
breathing, you will improve the quality of your life.
ABOUT Rolf Sovik ( President and
Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in
private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and
Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical
psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he
began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the
Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of
the award-winning
( Read more>>
#breath training

Suggested Next
The Virtues of Diaphragmatic Breathing
By Swami Rama

READ MORE (/article/view/the-virtues-of-diaphragmatic-breathing)

Related Event

The Healing Art of Yoga

Related Content

How to Strengthen Your

Inner Resolve with Yoga

5 Simple Yoga Practices

to Bring You Lasting
Peace of Mind

By Kelly McGonigal

By Rolf Sovik

All Content Copyright Yoga International 2012-Present. All Rights Reserved.

Finding Happiness and

Inner Peace
By Swami Rama

Heal Yourself, Heal the

World: The Maha
Mrityunjaya Mantra
By Rolf Sovik