Some Facts about the Breath

By Linda Oshins

Yoga students in asana classes are taught several forms of the “yoga breath.” In Ashtanga classes, the entire practice, excluding Savasana, is done while using a breathing technique called ujjayi. Ujjayi, which translates as victorious breath, slows, smooths and regulates the breath by slightly narrowing the throat, thereby providing a little more resistance to the passage of the breath in and out of the lungs. In Hatha classes, students are taught the 3-part breath which has them fill the lungs from the bottom up, making sure that they breath low in the body rather than high in the chest. Before doing some of the other pranayama practices (yoga breathing practices) students must have trained themselves to breathe in a healthy fashion. So what is a healthy breath?

Here are some facts about the breath that define “healthy.”

The diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle by far, ideally responsible for 75% of inhalation force. The secondary breathing muscles are the intercostals between the ribs and the abdominal muscles that girdle the front of the belly. The tertiary breathing muscles are in the neck and upper chest[1].  [2] A healthy breath uses the diaphragm as the primary breath muscle and allows it to determine the rhythm of the breath and to drive the coordination of the other muscles. Hyperventilation is the main dysfunctional breathing pattern in the population today, and it transfers too much of the work from the diaphragm to the chest and neck muscles. It is rapid, shallow and high in the body. The 3-part breath teaches diaphragmatic breathing and the correct coordination of breath muscles.

A normal breath rate is 10 to 14 breaths per minute (BPM) with 20 or more indicating a panic attack. Optimal oxygen/carbon dioxide interchange occurs at 6 or fewer breaths per minute. A relaxed pause at the end of the exhalation releases the diaphragm briefly from the negative and positive pressures exerted across it during breathing.  The 3-part breath is usually taught to students while they are lying down, relaxing, and after practicing it they find that they are breathing much more slowly than before. In fact, in many yoga classes we have determined our breath rates after practicing the 3-part breath and found that we are breathing at 6 breaths per minute exactly. Some of us are breathing even more slowly.

Breathing through the nose is healthy and mouth breathing is not. Breathing through the nose provides at least 50% more resistance to airflow than breathing through the mouth, which maintains normal elasticity of the lungs and good heart function. It also warms and filters the air as it enters our bodies. Mouth breathing negatively affects our posture, our ability to get a good night’s sleep and various systems in the body including the immune system, the cardio-vascular system, and the secretion of some hormones. In terms of the respiratory system it results in reduced oxygenation of cells.

According to Carl Stough, who rehabilitated end-stage emphysema patients and helped Olympic athletes to achieve personal bests by teaching them to correctly coordinate their breathing patterns, a healthy breath is relaxed, never forced, and involves “back breathing.” By back breathing he means that the whole circumference of the ribcage expands on the inhalation, giving one a sensation of breath in the back body, not just the front body.[3]

Visit a pranayama class to learn the 3-part breath or ask your asana teacher to lead a 3-part breath exercise before Savasana. Practice ujjayi in an Ashtanga class to learn to regulate your breath during vigorous movement. Take the time to explore the relationship between a sense of pervasive well-being and a full relaxed breath.

[1] The tertiary breathing muscles are the scalenes and sternocleidomastoids in the neck and the pecrtoralis major in the chest.

[2] There are systems that classify the breathing muscles differently, but I think the 3-part system best describes the relationship among the muscles.

[3] Dr. Breath: The Story of Breathing Coordination, by Carl Stough and Reece Stough