Yoga Anatomy

The Myth and Magic of Pranayama

We trust our breath to keep us alive, to help us through panic or pain, and support our meditation and yoga practices. But that’s not all it can do. Here's how your body moves with your breath.

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Breathing is a unique autonomic function. The process always continues, day and night, even when you’re not paying attention to it. On the other hand, you can also control your breath when you choose to: You can hold it when you concentrate or go underwater or try to stop your hiccups. You can direct it to practice pranayama. The breath is a communication pathway between the mind and body that we can trust to keep us alive.

See also: A Beginner’s Guide to Pranayama

Why breath matters

Many students of yoga seem to believe that the “goal” of pranayama is to breathe deeper and deeper and to actively hold the breath longer and longer. But in traditional yoga teachings, the opposite is taught. The core of pranayama practice is to slow and quiet the breath, not to increase its volume. This has a profound effect on the body. After many years of practicing pranayama, I have found that after slowing and quieting the breath, it almost seems to disappear, leaving a residue of profound stillness in my body and in my mind.

You can use your breath to connect with yourself, to calm down, to help subdue a panic attack, to help you give birth, to meditate, to practice yoga asana, and sometimes to lessen your experience of pain. Pranayama practice can slow down your breathing rate gradually over time—something which research suggests can benefit your overall health.

The breath in the body

The diaphragm is the central muscle involved in respiration. It divides the thorax, or chest, and the abdomen into two distinct cavities. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and descends. After a full inhalation, it naturally recoils, causing you to exhale. Like the heart, the diaphragm does its job virtually nonstop 24 hours a day without fatiguing. It only rests very briefly after each exhalation.

Your posture can affect how well your diaphragm functions. If you slump, your dropped chest impedes the muscle’s ability to move up and down. Tucking and distorting the curves of your thoracic and lumbar spine can also interfere with breathing.

Your abdominal muscles are also involved in breathing. They are active when you forcefully exhale—and also when you cough.

Human respiratory system
The diaphragm is the main respiratory muscle. When it contracts, you inhale. Air passes through the bronchioles to the alveolar sacs, where a gas exchange happens. Then you exhale. (Illustration: Wren Polansky)

Anatomy in action

It is a common myth among yoga practitioners that inhaling more deeply puts more oxygen into your bloodstream. What’s really happening is that your lungs are getting a fuller oxygen exchange—incoming oxygen is traded for outgoing carbon dioxide.

Another misconception is that pushing out your abdomen during breathing practice is “diaphragmatic breathing.” (My joke is always to ask, “Isn’t all breathing diaphragmatic? Can you actually breathe without using your diaphragm?”)

When you are lying down and breathing in a relaxed and quiet manner in pranayama, your abdomen should not push outward. It should softly and slightly move up and down. When I see a yoga student aggressively push out their abdomen when they inhale, I also tend to see minimal movement in their rib cage. But look at the drawing above: Your lungs are near the ribs, not your abdomen!

Stretching the intercostal muscles—the ones between your ribs—during asana practice can allow your rib cage to expand more easily with each inhalation. Bulging out the abdomen does not expand your ribs; in fact, it can actually weaken the abdominal wall.

Some of your lung tissue is in your back body. That’s why I instruct my students to open their side and back ribs to allow their lungs to expand fully. To try it for yourself, do the breathing practice below with awareness, ease, and an open mind. Focus a little more on your rib cage instead of bulging out your abdomen. Soon, this will feel more natural—and also more pleasant.

See also: How Transformational Breath Helped Me Learn to Let Go

A practice for bringing awareness to your breath

Place a bolster lengthwise on your mat and lie face-down on it, with your belly resting fully on the prop. Place your arms out to your sides in a way that is comfortable. Rest your feet on a rolled-up towel, blanket, or small bolster. Many students like to hang their head downward off the end of the bolster, but you can use a folded blanket as a pillow if you want.

Watch your breath. Then, actively invite the breath to move into your back body as much as possible on each inhalation. Take long, slow, steady, easy breaths. Notice how your back body and your back side waist move with your breath. Pay attention to how much breathing is happening in the back of the rib cage.

After a few breaths, stop and be still. Then try a few more rounds of breathing. When you are done, carefully roll or slide off your bolster and lie on your back. Take five slow breaths while keeping your awareness on breathing into your back body. Practice Savasana for 20 minutes.

Try It: Attentive Practice

It is easy to overlook the power that comes from a few minutes of conscious breathing. The next time you are waiting in the car for someone, or before turning on the computer in the morning, watch how your breath moves. This practice is especially useful when you are feeling disgruntled and agitated. If you can watch your breath during these rough times, you will be amazed how quickly you move out of that stuck place.

See also: This Doctor Pioneered a Breathing Technique for COVID-19 Patients


Adapted from Yoga Myths: What You Need to Learn and Unlearn for a Safe and Healthy Yoga Practice by Judith Hanson Lasater. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, Colorado.