The Anatomy of Pranayama: Understanding Our Breath

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Full body breathing is an extraordinary symphony of both powerful and subtle movements that massage our internal organs, oscillate our joints, and alternately tone and release all the muscles in the body. It is a full participation with life.

– Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book

Breathing is a simple act we have performed since the moment we were born, but for many of us only becomes illuminated within our yoga practice. We might go all day without noticing our breath until the moment we come to the mat – and observe. Of all the functions of our body, the act of breathing is one of the most fascinating. It is completely subconscious yet we can exert conscious control. It is a muscular act, yet one also controlled by the laws of science that govern molecules of gas. It sustains our life, nourishes our organs, helps expel waste from our body, and can affect our emotional state by acting on our nervous system. Understanding exactly how our body performs this extraordinary act can bring us deeper into our pranayama (breathing) practice.

The Path of the Breath

As we breathe in through the mouth and nose, air flows into our trachea (windpipe) and divides into tree-like right and left bronchi and into the lungs into smaller branching bronchioles. These end in alveoli which are the main site of oxygen and carbon dioxide gas exchange. The lungs are actually dense, sponge like organs that extend from just above our clavicle (collarbone) to our lower ribs. Our right lung is larger than our left due to the close proximity of the heart to the left lung.

The driving force behind our breath is one of the most important muscles in the body: the diaphragm. It is a dome shaped muscle that attaches from our sternum (chest bone) at the front, wrapping around the inside of our lower ribs seven through twelve, and to our spine via finger like projections to L1-4 vertebrae. It separates the organs of our chest from our abdominal and pelvic organs. It also has openings for blood vessels to travel through as well as two muscles: the quadratus lumborum and the psoas muscle. This close relationship with two important muscles of the lower back and pelvis may partly explain why people with low back pain have altered breathing patterns.

Under Pressure

As we inhale the diaphragm lowers, and as we exhale the diaphragm relaxes and rises up. This affects the volume of the thoracic (chest) and abdominal cavities, and in turn the pressure of the oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules. Gases always fill their container. In a large space the molecules are far apart therefore the pressure is low. Much like a busy yoga class, in a small space the molecules are close together so the pressure is high. Since gases flow down a pressure gradient from high to low, when the thoracic cavity volume increases, the pressure decreases and causes air to rush in from the atmosphere. The dimensions only change a few millimeters but it increases the volume of the thoracic cavity by almost half a liter. Inspiration ends when the pressure in the lungs matches the pressure in the atmosphere. On exhalation the diaphragm and other muscles of breathing relax, the lungs recoil, thoracic volume decreases compressing the alveoli and the pressure in the lungs rises again, which forces gases to flow out of the lungs.

You can experience this action on yourself. Place one hand on your upper belly, just below your sternum. As you inhale, notice how your abdominal organs depress and your belly widens as your diaphragm drops down. As you exhale observe the diaphragm rising and your belly resuming its natural position. This natural phenomenon is what your yoga teacher may refer to as belly breathing. In our culture of tummy sucking in, this feeling of letting the stomach expand may feel foreign or require some practice to access.

It Takes a Village

Although the diaphragm is the main muscle of breath, and gas exchange encourages the diaphragm to contract, there are also accessory muscles of breathing that enable movement of the rib cage and sternum essential to the breath. The 12 pairs of ribs attach at the spine to the corresponding numbered thoracic (mid-back) vertebrae. Ribs one through seven wrap around and attach to the sternum. Ribs 8, 9, and 10 are shorter and don’t quite make it all the way around to the sternum so attach at the front to the rib above. Ribs 11 and 12 are known as floating ribs since they have no attachments to the front of the body. Between each rib are intercostal muscles which enable the sternum to move up and out on an inhale, and the ribs to expand 360 degrees in a bucket handle pattern. (Imagine the handle of a bucket resting on a pail. If you were to pick up the bucket, the handle would rise in an arc.)

To experience this phenomenon on yourself, place your hands on the sides of your lower ribs. As you inhale, notice the rib movement not only up but also outwards in all directions. Next wrap your arms around yourself in a hug to feel your upper ribs near your scapula (shoulder blades). Inhale and feel the back of your body expand as your ribs move. We often only think of breath flowing in the front of our body but our back body also moves as the breath moves.

Now Breathe

The act of breathing is not only essential to life; it can be a transformative part of our yoga practice. It can allow us to go deeper into a pose or go deeper into relaxation. It can enable us to let go of distracting thoughts or emotions and make space for positive or calming ones. Understanding the anatomy of our pranayama practice can bring the practice to life, allowing us to picture the miracle that is occurring inside our bodies as we flow to our own individual rhythm of breath.



Pranayama Benefits and Techniques

Practitioners of traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda) tell us that the human body is made up of five separate elements (earth, water, fire, wind and space), three separate humors (called dosas) and our consciousness.

The earth element, according to the yoga scholar Françoise Wang-Toutain et al., forms the solid components of our body, and space forms the internal cavities through which all of the other elements flow. Fire and water are propelled by wind. Wind, in this instance, refers not only to our gross breath, but also to the basal energetic forces that govern all of our bodily functions.

The traditional name for these energetic winds is “vayu”. Said to be ten in total, these vayus are sub-units of a “master” wind (pranavayu) that joins our mind together with elements from our mother and father at the moment of our conception.

As we continue to develop in the womb, the pranavayu sub-divides itself into five primary and five subsidiary winds. These winds then provide the energy for essential bodily functions such as circulation, elimination, assimilation, respiration and locomotion.

When the vayus function efficiently, the body enjoys good physical health and mental clarity. When the winds become imbalanced or the channels through which they flow become damaged and sickness, disease and ill health arise.

Wang-Toutain et al. states that control of the breathing process (pranayama) provides one of the most direct methods to expand the life force and balance the vayus. Because of this, traditional Hatha Yoga practices rely heavily on pranayama practices for greater health and vitality.

Benefits of Pranayama

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a seminal text on pranayama practices, mentions a number of benefits that can arise as the energy winds are drawn into balance. These benefits include a “glowing countenance”, weight reduction, improved digestive capabilities, and a reduction in symptoms from a number of diseases.

Modern researchers have found that the benefits of yoga and pranayama practices include improvements in mood, increased energy, stress and anxiety reduction, better neurological functioning, and improved physical health.

A caveat: It’s important to note that the pranayama practices included in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are typically done as part of a holistic regimen that also includes a number of additional purification techniques, dietary shifts and herbal remedies. If you wish to include pranayama practices as part of a healing regimen, it’s always best to practice these exercises under the guidance of a trained Ayurvedic specialist.

Pranayama Techniques for Home Practice

If you wish to practice pranayama techniques for yourself, it’s always important to begin slowly. Many traditional pranayama exercises utilize breath retention exercises in order circulate energy through the body. When overdone, these exercises can strain the lungs and create further imbalances in the energy system, so it’s always important to do them slowly, gently and according to your capacity.

*Please note that breath retention practices are contraindicated for expectant mothers.

How Should I Sit When Practicing?

Swami Svatmarama recommends the full lotus pose for pranayama practitioners. While the lotus provides one of the best supportive bases for those who can do it, the posture is notoriously challenging if your hip muscles are tight or you are simply not used to sitting on the floor for extended periods of time.

Because of this, you should feel free to sit in any seated posture that will allow you to keep your spine straight. If you are most comfortable sitting in a chair, feel free to use one.

Pranayama Exercises

The first exercise in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is an alternate nostril breath with a breath retention at the end of every inhale. If you’ve never done pranayama before, this can be pretty challenging.

Because of this, I’ve included two simple exercises that can be used to prepare for the breath retention practice included in the Pradipika. If you’ve never done pranayama before, practice the following two exercises daily for at least two weeks each before going on to the third.

Sama Vrtti Pranayam (the Breath of Equal Duration)

Regular practice of this pranayama technique will help you to develop the ability to control the duration of your breath without force or strain. Benefits of this pranayama include stress reduction, increased energy, a deeper lung capacity and heightened ability to concentrate.

  • Find your way to a comfortable seated position.
  • Direct all of your awareness to your inhale and exhale.
  • Make your inhale and exhale equal by inhaling to a count of five, four, three, two one, and exhale to the same count.
  • With practice, increase the duration of each inhale and exhale until you can breath in and out to a slow count of ten.
  • Practice a minimum of seven repetitions or as many as you are comfortable with.

Nadi Shodanam Version 1 (Energy Channel Cleansing Breath)

  • Take attention to your right hand. Place the tip of the index and middle finger on the space between your eyebrows.
  • Use your thumb to block your right nostril, and inhale fully through the left.
  • Block your left nostril with your thumb, and exhale fully out the right.
  • Reverse the process. Breathe in through the right side, and out through the left.

This cycle completes one full round.

Note: As you breath in and out, attempt to make your inhales and your exhales approximately equal in length, just as you did in Sama Vrtti Pranayama. Mentally count the length of the breath, and expand the count as the breath becomes easier.

Begin with seven full rounds of this breathing pattern. As it becomes easier, work up to more in accordance to your capacity.

Nadi Shodanam Version 2 (the Alternate Nostril Breath)

After a few weeks of practice, you may find that you’re ready to begin Nadi Shodanam. This powerful practice is the first breathing exercise mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

The breathing pattern in this form of Nadi Shodonam is identical to what you’ve already learned with one notable exception: in this practice, the breath is retained at the top of every inhale.

Holding your breath draws prana (life force) into your body and allows the energy to circulate more fully through your system. With time, this process can help to balance your energy winds and repair damage to the energy channels through which your prana flows.

Swami Svatmarama writes that this pranayama has the potential to fully purify the body’s energy channels when practiced four times per day for three months.

To practice:

  • Bring your attention to your right hand. Place the tip of your index and middle finger on the space between your eyebrows.
  • Use your thumb to block your right nostril, and inhale fully through the left.
  • Hold your breath at the top of your inhale for as long as is comfortable
  • Block your left nostril with your thumb, and exhale fully out the right.
  • Reverse the process. Breathe in through the right side, hold your breath at the top and breathe out through the left.

Once you’ve grown accustomed to the breath, practice making your inhale, retention, and exhale equal in length.

Kapalabhatti Pranayam

Kapalabhatti Pranayam (the skull-shining breath) is one of six additional cleansing practices mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Benefits of this exercises include increased energy and heightened mental clarity.

In this practice, exhales are short and active and inhales are passive. Inhales occur as a result of forcing the breath out in short, quick bursts through the nostrils (sort of like the breath that you use to blow out a birthday candle, only through the nose instead).

To begin:

  1. Find a comfortable seated position.
  2. To begin the first round of kapalabhatti, inhale deeply through your nose, and then exhale half of your air.
  3. Once your lungs have emptied approximately halfway, squeeze the muscles of your belly down and in to press air out through your nose in a quick burst. Relax your belly and let the lungs effortlessly fill to halfway again.
  4. Repeat according to capacity, building up to three rounds of fifty repetitions.

Note: Becoming comfortable with Kapalabhatti pranayama can take some practice, so go slowly at first. The slower tempo will allow you better feel the active nature of the exhale and the passive nature of the inhale. Pay attention to any feelings of dizziness or breathlessness and stop the exercise for the day if they arise.

One Fluid Practice

At first, it’s best to practice each of these exercises one at a time. For example, you might consider practicing Sama Vrtti Pranayama for a few weeks before beginning Nadi Shodanam version 1. Once you’ve got it down, practice both exercises in one session.

When you’re ready to progress, add the next practice in the cycle until you are able to do all of the breathing exercises together as one full sequence. As you practice, rest as much as necessary and avoid force or strain.

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