Yoga and Breath

Originally published on LiveJournal, 5.3.08

Yoga exercise is obstruction of breath. To understand why this is good for you, you need to understand how breath happens.

Breath is caused by changing the volume of the lungs, so that the Earth’s atmospheric pressure can push air in, and applying some other force (from our muscles or from gravity) to push it out.

The most energy-effective way of changing the volume of the lungs is by changing the shape of the chest via the diaphragm. The diaphragm, however, is located between the chest and abdominal cavities, and thus must change the shape of both of them at the same time in order to function. (Note that the abdomen cannot change volume: it bulges, rather than extends, as the diaphragm pushes into it.) So, we can say that breath is really the chest and abdominal cavities changing shape together.

That’s all in an ideal restful position. In reality, a great many other organs, muscles and bones crisscross the chest and abdominal cavities. The spine obviously runs through both, and spinal motion can do a lot to assist or resist the diaphragm’s movement. The neck, shoulders, pelvis and hips are connected to the spine and also can affect it. To a lesser extent, the muscles between the ribs can also affect the shape of the chest cavity.

As you can see, all the things that obstruct the breath involve changes throughout the body. Not all of these changes are muscular. For example, simply changing the position of the hips can make it much more difficult to breathe (though you do need the muscles attached to the hips to be flexible enough to allow you to get into those positions). In fact, simply standing upside down can change the whole dynamics of breath, by having your diaphragm work with opposite gravity and against the weight of the abdominal organs. Yoga includes many of these “passive” poses; passive in the sense that you are not working your muscles, but these can be very active and challenging in that you’ll be struggling to breathe properly.

It actually takes a lot of effort to obstruct the breath! This effort is, of course, good exercise. What makes yoga unique as a form of exercise is the attention to the breath feedback loop: because more effort requires more breath, and because the deeper you get into a pose the more it obstructs your breath, the challenge to get deeper into the pose increases as you deepen it. Most forms of exercise focus only one half of this loop, increasing the demand for oxygen through muscular effort. Yoga adds obstruction. This results not only in stronger muscles, but also in muscles that work more economically. Note how body builders require a great deal of food and oxygen in order to keep their huge, hungry muscles from collapsing. Compare this to advanced yogis, capable of incredible feats of strength, while living on lean vegetarian diets.

Advanced yoga takes breath obstruction a step further. The diaphragm (“uddiyana bandha”) is only one of a set of three sphincters that affect breath: below it is the interweave of muscles at the pelvic floor (“mula bandha”), an inch in front of the anal sphincter, and above it are muscles surrounding the vocal chords (“jalandhara bandha”). By locking these sphincters against each other, you can, with very little force affected deep inside the body, severely obstruct your breath even in the easiest poses. Traditionally, it’s practiced simply sitting down, in order to avoid distractions. With all three bandhas locked, the middle one, the diaphragm, is immobilized. In such a state you can no longer breathe diaphragmatically, and must rely on other, very subtle means: slight motions in the muscles surrounding the chest and abdominal cavities. This semi-mystical “inner channel” of breath is a sign of yoga mastery. Once you achieve it, it’s very hard to find ways to obstruct your breath. You’ll be able to make your muscles do extreme things, with your body in extreme positions, relying on a steady flow of oxygen. Getting there requires years of training in breath obstruction.