How breathing works
Updated: Oct 19
Breathing, similar to water, is another way we take in what we need and expel waste. Most of the time, we don't pay attention to how we breathe, and it's good that we don't have to. If you're someone who has never intentionally done any breath work, you may have only noticed your breathing if you were having difficulty or short of breath. Otherwise, you may have never thought about noticing your breathing at all.
This is going to be a brief science lesson before we get into some breathing exercises.
First, what is the definition of breathing? My Yoga anatomy instructors define breathing as: the shape change of the body's cavities.
When we talk about the function of breathing, we're talking about two cavities in our body. The thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity. Right now, place your hands on your lower ribs. Your thoracic cavity is everything above your ribs, it contains your heart and lungs. Your abdominal cavity is everything below your ribs. It contains your stomach, liver, gall bladder, spleen, pancreas, small and large intestines, kidneys, and bladder.
When we breathe, the thoracic cavity changes in both shape and volume. We can think of it like an accordion. When you squeeze an accordion, it reduces the volume of the bellows and air is forced out. When you pull it open, the volume of the accordion is increased as it pulls air in. This is how our thoracic cavity works.
Our abdominal cavity, on the other hand, only changes shape when we breathe, not volume. We can think of it like a water balloon. When you squeeze a water balloon, the water simply shifts around inside the balloon, but it doesn't reduce its volume. The volume of our abdominal cavity does change when we drink a lot of liquid, eat a big meal, have a bowel movement, or when pregnant. You may have noticed before that you have a harder time breathing deeply in one of those scenarios, and this is why.
We can think of these together as an accordion stacked on top of a water balloon. The change of one will affect change in the other.
So then how does breathing happen? Our brain, our diaphragm, and the universe.
I will spare you a lengthy brain lecture (for today), but just know that our brain is what takes care of making sure our body keeps breathing without us having to consciously think about it.
Our diaphragm is the muscle of breathing. It's shaped like a jellyfish sitting on top of our abdominal cavity (the water balloon) and under the thoracic cavity (the accordion). Again, place your fingers on your lower ribs, and feel the bottom of your ribs all the way from where they meet up at a point in the middle of your sternum, to all the way around your back. This is where your diaphragm is attached, and the top of the jellyfish extends upwards inside your rib cage.
This is important to know, because just as your diaphragm is a three-dimensional muscle taking up three-dimensional space in your three-dimensional body, breathing is a three-dimensional action.
When you're learning about breathing, it's hard not to become aware of how you're breathing right now. If this is the first time you've paid attention to how you breathe, you may have noticed, your breathing doesn't seem to be involving your abdomen or even be three-dimensional. It may be shallow with most of the movement happening up in your chest area. I could be wrong (and if I am, congrats to you!) but I've never met anyone yet who was fully breathing before they started doing breath work.
Finally, the universe. Volume and pressure are inversely related: when volume increases, pressure decreases, and when volume decreases, pressure increases. Again think of a water balloon (a real one, not your abdominal cavity). If you were to leave it as is, but poke a hole it it, some water might dribble out. But if you squeezed the water balloon, reducing the volume, the pressure would increase, pushing the water out in a jet stream.
Air, a gas, always flows towards areas of lower pressure. When we increase the volume inside our thoracic cavity, this decreases the pressure and causes air to flow into our lungs. This is an inhalation.
So, when we inhale, we are not actually pulling air into our bodies. Rather, the atmospheric pressure is pushing air into us. This means that the actual force that gets air into the lungs is outside of the body. In other words, you create space in your lungs and the universe fills it.
Exhalation can either happen passively (like when we sleep) or actively (like when we blow out a candle). Passively, our thoracic cavity (the accordion) which had been pulled open to let air in, springs back to its normal volume, pushing air out. Actively, we use our muscles to actually push our cavities either up or down to cause a more forceful release of air.
Now you know how breathing works.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: Three dimensional breath Lie on your back In Savasana, gently close the eyes and begin to follow your breath - in through the nostrils, down the windpipe, into the lungs. Focus on your belly, and the surrounding muscles of the abdomen. lmagine taking your inhalation down into the belly, allowing it to rise and fall with each in and out breath. Once the belly is rising and falling with each breath, take that expansion now out to the sides, expanding the ribs with each inhalation. Let your exhalation leave the body gently and naturally. Continue breathing in this manner, now allowing the breath to rise up into the chest, all the way up to the collarbones, feeling the entire torso filled with air. You can also do this exercise in Child's Pose and see how that feels differently in your body.
Breathing Practice Each condition responds best to its own special breath.
For Sadness & Depression: It's most effective to equalize the lengths of your inhalations and exhalations.
For Dullness & Fatigue: Lengthen your inhalations.
To calm anxiety: Make your exhalations longer than your inhalations. We do this naturally when blowing bubbles or singing
Feurstein, Georg. Yoga Philosophy and History: An Essential Manual for Yoga Teacher Trainings 200-500 Hours. Traditional Yoga Studies, 2016.
Oppermann, Mary. “Pranayama and Breathwork.” Yoga West Teacher Training and Integrated Yoga Studies. 2016. https://www.sankalpa.space/mary-oppermann