The Mechanics of Breathing

Do you know how air is drawn into your lungs? You know that it happens, but do you know why? This is important, because if you understand how you breathe, then you will know how to correct improper breathing habits.

The breathing process functions briefly as follows. Consider the lungs to be two very flexible and strong bags which can be inflated or deflated as air flows in or out of them during inhalation and exhalation respectively. The lungs have the ability to expand greatly and also can be contracted into a small space.

The lungs are surrounded at the top and sides by the thorax or the ribcage, and at the bottom by a very important flat muscle called the diaphragm. The diaphragm separates the abdomen from the lungs. The lungs are not fixed to the diaphragm or the ribcage but they nevertheless closely follow any change in shape of this enclosure.

If the ribs expand and the diaphragm moves downwards due to muscular action then there is a tendency for a vacuum to be created between the outside of the lungs and the enclosure. Since a vacuum is not normally tolerated in nature the lungs automatically expand to fill it. They expand in such a way as to assume the same shape as the enclosure. In this way air is drawn into the lungs and inhalation takes place. Similarly, when the ribs contract and the diaphragm moves upwards due to release of muscular contraction, then the lungs are squeezed. This pushes air out of the lungs. Exhalation takes place.

This is the operation of breathing. The more the lungs are expanded and contracted, the deeper will be the breathing. It is to this subject that we turn next.

Different methods of breathing

We can split the process of breathing into three parts: abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, intercostal or middle breathing and clavicular or upper breathing.

1. Abdominal breathing. This type of breathing is associated with the movement of the diaphragm and the outer wall of the abdomen. When relaxed this muscle arches upwards towards the chest. During inhalation it is flattened as it moves downwards, which compresses the abdominal organs and eventually pushes the front wall, the belly, of the abdomen outwards. This movement enlarges the chest cavity, downwards, allowing the lungs to expand and thereby draw in air from the surroundings. Relaxation of the muscles which pull the diaphragm downwards allows the diaphragm to move upwards again to reduce the volume in the chest cavity and thereby cause exhalation. This form of breathing draws in the greatest amount of air for the least muscular effort. It is often hampered, however, by tight belts and clothing which prevent movement of the belly outwards.

2. Middle breathing. This form of breathing is achieved by movement of the ribs. During expansion of the ribcage outwards and upwards by muscular contraction, the lungs are allowed to expand – this results in air being drawn into the lungs from the front side and inhalation taking place. When the muscles which control the movement of the ribs (the intercostals) are relaxed, then the ribs move downwards and inwards. This compresses the lungs and exhalation takes place.

3. Upper breathing. In this case the inhalation and deflation of the lungs is achieved by raising the shoulders and collarbone. This method requires much effort for little output. Very little air is inhaled and exhaled since this movement cannot change the volume of the chest cavity very much. Women often tend to restrict themselves to this type of breathing by wearing tight brassieres, corsets and belts which restrict the abdominal and middle breathing.

4. Yogic breathing. Yogic or deep breathing combines all these three modes of breathing abdominal, middle, upper – into one harmonious movement. It is this type of breathing that we are interested in developing, since only yogic breathing can give the maximum inhalation and exhalation of breath.


The purpose of this practice is to make the practitioner aware of the three different types of respiration, and incorporate them into yogic breathing. Do not wear any clothing that will impede movement of your chest and abdomen. Practise on a folded blanket, lying on a solid floor.

This exercise can be performed lying down in shavasana, or sitting in a cross-legged position, in which case you should make sure that your spine is as straight as possible without straining.

Place a cushion or folded blanket under the buttocks if necessary. All breathing should be performed through the nose and not through the mouth.

The place to practise is in a well-ventilated clean room, with no breeze that might cause you discomfort.


Relax your whole body. Place one hand on the front of the abdomen on the navel. This is to indicate to you that your abdomen does indeed move up and down. Breathe out slowly and completely, and remember that it is this movement of your diaphragm that is responsible for your abdominal breathing. As you breathe out feel your abdomen contract; the navel will move toward the spine. At the end of exhalation the diaphragm will be totally relaxed and will be bowing upwards into the chest cavity. Hold your breath for a second or so. Then breathe in. Try not to expand the chest or move the shoulders. Feel your abdomen expand, the navel moving upwards. Try to breathe in slowly and deeply. At the end of inhalation your diaphragm will be bowing in the direction of the abdomen; your navel will be at its highest point. Hold your breath for a second or two. Then exhale again, slowly and completely. Again try to feel your navel moving towards the spine. At the end of exhalation your abdomen will be contracted, the navel will be at its nearest point to the back. Hold the breath for a short time, inhale and then repeat the whole process. This is abdominal breathing.

Continue this practice for 10 to 20 respirations, or more if time permits.


Assume a lying or sitting position as already described. Ensure that you are as relaxed as possible. In this practice the idea is to breathe by utilizing the movement of the ribcage. Throughout the practice try not to move the abdomen; this is done by slightly contracting the abdominal muscles. If you wish you can place your hands on the side of the chest to feel the expansion and contraction of the ribs. Breathe in slowly by expanding the ribcage outwards and upwards. You will find it impossible to breathe deeply because of the limitation on the maximum expansion of the chest. Remember, try not to utilize the abdomen for inhalation. At the end of inhalation, hold your breath for a second or two. Then slowly exhale by contracting the chest downwards and inwards. Keep the abdomen slightly contracted, but without straining. At the end of exhalation hold your breath for a short time. Again breathe in slowly. Repeat this process 10 to 20 times or more if time permits.


In this type of breathing you should try not to expand and contract either your abdomen or chest. This is not so easy but try. Keep your hands on your chest so that you can determine whether your chest is moving or not. Slightly contract the muscles of the abdomen. Now try to inhale by drawing your collarbone and shoulders toward your chin. This might be a little difficult at first. A good method is to inhale and exhale with a sniffing action; this automatically induces upper breathing. Exhale by letting the shoulders and collarbone move away from the chin. There is no need to perform this type of breathing for very long; just enough to appreciate its operation, and the fact that it requires much effort and does not induce or expel very much air from the lungs. We have practised and experienced the three different types of breathing. Now we have to integrate them into one harmonious whole to achieve yogic breathing.


This combination of the three types of breathing induces optimum volume of air into the lungs and expels the maximum amount of waste air during exhalation.


Inhale slowly by allowing your abdomen to expand. Try to breathe so slowly that little or no sound of breath can be heard. At the end of abdominal expansion, start to expand your chest outwards and upwards. At the end of this movement draw your collarbone and shoulders toward your head. This completes 1 inhalation. The whole process should be one continuous movement, each phase of breathing merging into the next, without there being any obvious transition point. There should be no jerks or unnecessary strain. Your breathing should be like the swell of the sea. The rest of the body should be relaxed. Now start to exhale. First relax your collarbone and shoulders. Then allow your chest to move, first downwards towards the feet and then inwards. After this allow the abdomen to contract. Don’t strain but try to empty the lungs as much as possible by drawing or pulling the abdominal wall as near as possible to the spine. Again the whole movement should be a harmonious whole. This completes 1 round of yogic breathing. Hold your breath for a second or two at the end of each inhalation and exhalation. Inhale and do another round. Do up to 5 rounds on your first day of practice. Don’t strain. Every day increase your practice by 2 rounds, or as time permits. Ten minutes yogic breathing is a reasonable length of time to eventually aim at. With enough practice you will find that the whole movement will occur naturally. No effort will be required.


A few minutes of yogic breathing daily can work wonders. It will make you much less susceptible to illness, and you will acquire more power, vitality and calmness in your daily activities. Your thinking and clarity of thought will improve.

The deep systematic yogic breathing will tend to retrain breathing nerve reflexes that may have ceased to be active by lack of use. In other words, at present you might be breathing only from the chest, hardly using the abdomen at all. Yogic breathing will start to make you breathe abdominally, intercostally and clavicularly during the day, and therefore allow you to inhale the full amount of air that your body requires for nourishment and good health.

To develop the yogic breathing as an automatic and normal function of the body, try to develop the habit of consciously breathing yogically for a few seconds or minutes. If you feel tired or angry, sit down, or if possible lie down, and practise yogic breathing. If you can breathe slowly then your mind will become calm and revitalized.

Continue to The Art and Science of Relaxation

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