The Anatomy of Yogic Breathing

Many of my yoga students ask me how to breath like a yogi. I often tell them it is the secret to longevity and a clear mind. The author of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Svatmarama states that “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” Long life is not the only reason a yogi practices pranayama, although the physical benefits are great. Breathing is an important part of our entire mental, physical and spiritual dynamic. By learning about breathing from an anatomical perspective, we can understand more fully why a yogi achieves long life and the balancing of these aspects of the self.

We can commence this anatomical study by looking at the main organs for breathing: the lungs. The lungs are principally responsible for transporting oxygen from the atmosphere into the bloodstream and then to release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, again through the bloodstream. In a normal breath, the average person can hold approximately six litres of air in the lungs. Those born at sea level develop slightly less lung capacity than those born in higher altitudes. Air enters the lungs through pathways called the bronchi and branchioles, and it is here that the exchange of gas begins. There is a collection of millions of specialized cells, which form tiny air sacs called alveoli. This is where the gas exchange occurs. The alveoli are connected to arteries that then bring oxygen to the blood.

A secondary, but equally important organ necessary for this gas exchange to occur in the lungs is the thoracic diaphragm. This sheet of muscle extends just below the bottom of the rib cage and divides the thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity. Its function is to help pull air into and out of the lungs but its musculature movement. As it lifts, air is pushed out of the lungs and as it lowers, the lungs are able to take air in. The lings do not perform this function on their own. With the use of the diaphragm, much greater quantities of air can be circulated through the lungs for oxygenation of the blood.

In our regular day, most of us breathe in a very shallow manner. We consume just enough oxygen for our bodies to function. When we engage in pranayama we are able to increase our lung capacity. By increasing the lung capacity we are making the system more efficient.

Lung capacity is a consideration of both tidal volume which is the amount of air taken into the lungs in a single breath. For most adults, this is about .5 litres. We actually have the capacity for much more, though. With practice, we can learn to inhale as much as ten times that amount in a single breath. When we exhale, not all of the air is released or the lungs would collapse. Our bodies’ inherent intelligence keeps some air in the lungs at all tiems. Vital capacity is the term used to describe the maximum air expelled after the maximum possible inhalation. This capacity is usually measured during heavy exercise, when the lungs are working at their optimum levels. Vital capacity is basically the air left over in the lungs after we have exhaled completely. Many types of pranayama aim at not only increasing the tidal volume, or inhale, but also the vital capacity, or exhale. We can often exhale much more than we normally do in a relaxed breath also. As we learn to exhale more, the subsequent inhale is automatically much larger, as instigated by the autonomic nervous system which works on auto-pilot maintaining homeostasis in the body. Breathing is indeed auto-matic in this way, but we can make it more conscious in order to increase the efficiency of our lungs.

The pathway of air is also important. When we take in air, it must journey through the nostrils, the nasal passages, into the pharynx, down the trachea, through the main bronchia of the lungs, and then into the smaller branchioles as mentioned previously, and then finally into the microscopic alveoli. This is quite a long journey for one gulp of air. As with any form of transport, there is an opportunity for traffic jams. The nose must be clear, first and foremost to allow the maximum amount of air to enter the respiratory freeway. Yogic practices such as jala netti which clean the nasal passages with clean, salted water, helps to rid the nasal passages of dust and congestion. Our first attempt at bettering our breathing should begin by making sure this initial pathway is as clear as possible. Sinus irrigation is not the only way to cleanse the nostrils, but is one of the least invasive and can be much better for us than over the counter drugs which aim at doing the same thing.

The pharynx can be cleansed through practices which help to clear the Vishuddi chakra which is responsible for optimum functioning of this body part. Shri Matadji suggests the following for clearing the Vishuddi chakra, “Meditate twice a day, at dawn and dusk, and allow the Mother Kundalini to heal you from within. Please always remember that you are healing your mind, body and soul to attain the eternal spirit/moksa as promised by all the holy scriptures and messengers of God Almighty/Brahman. Daily meditation is by far the most important means for nourishing your physical and spiritual well-being. No external treatments are required once you have established regular daily meditation.”

In conclusion, we can make sure that the air we are taking in is as pure as possible. Spend as much time as you can in richly oxygenated environments. If you live in the city, find any opportunity you can to be in nature, where the natural process of photosynthesis makes the air an oxygen-rich environment. In times of yore, doctors often sent patients to spend time abroad, which essentially just gave them a cleaner fresher air supply and thus changed their health miraculously.

Breathing is a simple, automatic act, but by understanding the body and taking steps to highly refine this natural process, we can add to our health, our well being and our ultimate spiritual journey. Prana is stored in every breath we take in, and we add this invaluable life-force to our bodies as we learn to breath correctly.

About the Author:
Christina Sarich runs

I noticed that you mentioned prana. The ancient yogis believed that there is a direct connection between prana and citta. While they did believe pranayama to have specifc health benefits, the primary reason for practicing pranayama was for its calming effect on the citta-vrtti (modifications of the mind). Their logic was that, since citta and prana are connected, by controlling prana one also controls citta. The funny thing is that it seems to work.

This is a very good description of the physical anatomy of breathing. In my view, Yogic breathing will require one to look at the subtler anatomy as well. Concentration on the tip of the nose and awareness of the passage of air (its warmth, volume, sensation and caress to the internal organs) makes one aware also of the subtle part of our being.

First, oxygen is inadequately translated as ‘pranavayu’ a term that describes the ‘air’ form of Prana energy. (Vyana, samana, udaan and apaana are the other four.) In pranayama, the ultimate goal is to achieve control over prana energy. We survive on prana as it forms a sheath supporting our subtle bodies and we receive its replenishment from the Cosmic energy.

Secondly, breathing and chitta have this bond through prana. Since chitta’s vritties are to be restrained in Yoga, control of prana becomes critical. But we are not ble to draw our own replenishment from the Cosmic energy as we cannot directly control it.

Thirdly, we can leave breathing autonomous or chose to bring it under conscious control. Hence, initial pranayama in Yoga are the breathing techniques the goal of which is to tag or piggy-back the prana energy along with inhalation and exhalation of air. Diaphragm breathing is particularly important here.

Fourthly, once we learn to start breathing of air and activate prana breathing we can also make prana breathing to continue and let the air breathing to slow down and even stop. (such suspension of breath is called kumbhaka). This is advanced pranayama. Once under conscious conrol, prana breathing becomes primary and air breathing secondary. It introduces prana metabolism that not only purifies the blood, but helps convert substantial food energy into spiritual energy, purifies the sense organs (both gross/ external and subtle/ internal) and activates chakras.

It is good that you have highighted an important aspect of Yoga.

Thank you for your post…really enlightening.