Breathing in Asana: The Anatomical Breath

Some yoga teachers describe breathing as filling a bucket of water, asking students to breathe from the bottom up, as if they were breathing into their bellies.  This would make sense if air were a liquid; it’s not. 

Air is a gas, and the lungs act more like balloons than buckets, inflating from the top down and creating specific effects on the spine. In Viniyoga, we breathe in a way that magnifies those effects. This breath is called anatomical breathing. How you breathe in asana may seem insignificant, but the results are powerful. Anatomical breathing provides the core stability required to do asana safely and effectively.

The Natural Breath

The natural inhale is a process of muscle contraction. 

  • The intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs) contract, causing the ribs to lift and the rib cage to widen.
  • The diaphragm (a dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage) contracts and flattens, pressing the internal organs into the belly. This causes the belly to expand.
  • The collar bones and rib cage elevate, the spine extends, and the thoracic curve flattens.
  • Space inside the chest increases, creating a vacuum.  Air flows into the lungs.

The natural exhale, on the other hand, is a process of relaxation.

  • The intercostal muscles relax, allowing the chest to lower and narrow.
  • The diaphragm relaxes to its original dome-shaped position.
  • The lower back curve naturally flattens.
  • Space inside the chest decreases. Pressure inside the chest becomes higher than the pressure outside it. Air is pushed out of the lungs. 

So what does this have to do with asana?  

In asana, we utilize the natural breath and magnify its effects on the spine. Our goal on inhale is to increase the spaces between the vertebrae. On exhale we contract the abdominal muscles, thereby flattening the lumbar curve and stabilizing the low back and pelvis.

Using Anatomical Breathing in Asana:

On inhale: 

  • Imagine a downward flow of breath starting at your collar bones and moving down to your belly.
  • Consciously extend your entire spine as you feel your rib cage expand.
  • In the last 1/3 of your breath, allow your belly to soften.

On exhale: 

  • Maintain length in the spine.
  • Progressively contract the abdominal muscles, first from the pubic bone to the navel, then from the navel to the bottom ribs.
  • Keep the belly pulled in during the first half of the following inhale.

By breathing this way, we magnify the benefits of breath while minimizing the risks of movement.  Over time, our spines get longer; our bellies grow stronger; our backs and pelvises become more stable. 

Give it a shot. You might be surprised how sore your belly is the next day.  And the next time your yoga teacher tells you to pull in your belly as you exhale, you’ll know why!


Tracy Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

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