Breathing and Breath Control

Learning to control breathing is very important to both yoga and meditation. It is commonly known as Diaphragmatic Breathing.

When the diaphragm muscle contracts, it pulls the bottom of the lungs downward, causing them to fill, while the ribs flare outward to the sides. The chest and abdominal muscles are not used in diaphragmatic breathing. Conscious diaphragmatic breathing is extremely relaxing to the autonomic nervous system and is essential preparation for deep meditation.

Diaphragmatic Breathing is extremely relaxing to the autonomic nervous system and is essential preparation for deep meditation. It is one of the most important foundation techniques for all types of meditation.

On inhalation, the diaphragm muscle contracts, and pulls downward, such that the ribs flare out slightly, and pulls the bottom of the lungs downward to bring in air. On exhalation, this releases and the air goes out. With the Yoga practice of deep diaphragmatic breathing, the space just below the breast bone, at the upper abdomen pushes in slightly so as to exhale more completely.

When the diaphragm is used for breathing, there is no motion in the lower abdomen, and the upper chest remains still. However, many of us lead stress-filled lives, and learn bad breathing habits, using the abdomen and the chest. This creates further tension that leaves us in a vicious cycle of mental chatter driving bad breathing and physical tightness, and the bad breathing, in turn, causing trouble to the mind. While there is no motion of the upper chest and lower abdomen in proper diaphragmatic breathing, it may take some time and practice to attain this motionlessness, and to have the motion occur only in the diaphragm area itself.

It is important to note that modern medicine has finally acknowledged what the yogis have known for thousands of years, that the breath is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind. Even some hospitals and medical establishments are now willing to train people in breath regulation and diaphragmatic breathing.

We need to consciously practice diaphragmatic breathing. This involves a retraining program, and while another person can teach us how to do it, it is actually a self-training program. Nobody can do the actual awareness and training for us.

The two keys to proper diaphragmatic breathing are:
1) to receive proper training, and
2) to then practice every day.

To set aside a few minutes in the early morning and a few minutes in the evening to sit quietly and consciously breathe diaphragmatically is a very useful thing to do. To practice diaphragmatic breathing a few more times during the day is even more beneficial.

*   Breathe with the diaphragm, allowing the ribs to slightly flare out to the sides, while the shoulders, upper chest and abdomen remain motionless.

*   Breathe smoothly, allowing no jerkiness or irregularities to disturb the steady flow.

*   Breathe slowly, but within your comfortable capacity, not straining or getting insufficient air.

*   Breathe at a comfortable depth; deeply, not shallow, but also not exaggerating the depth.

*   Allow breath to flow continuously, with no pause allowed between the breaths, either between inhalation and exhalation, or between exhalation and inhalation.

*   Breathe evenly, so that exhalation and inhalation are of the same duration. Once that is comfortable, allow the exhalation to be twice as long as the inhalation during the practice time.

First, be aware of the motion of the diaphragm, allowing the upper chest and the abdomen to be still. Then, after a few minutes, bring your attention to the feel of the air moving in the nostrils (still doing diaphragmatic breathing). It is the cognitive sense of touch. Continue to breath smoothly and slowly, with no jerkiness or pauses. Continue this for several more minutes. This practice can be done as a complete breathing practice itself, or as a part of a complete meditation practice, where the subtler meditation follows the diaphragmatic breathing practice.

While it should be self-evident, it needs to be pointed out that the human body is designed to use the nose for breathing, not the mouth. When we breath through the nose the air is filtered, cleaned and humidified. Breathing through the mouth will make your mouth and throat dry, and cause you to lose moisture. A dry throat is more suseptible to infections.

Proper diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation training in preparation for the balancing and vigorous breathing practices. The benefits of learning and practicing diaphragmatic breathing are immense. Without it, it is unlikely that one will progress in meditation as a spiritual pursuit.

Diaphragmatic Breathing: Four Aspects of Breath

The biggest single problem in learning proper diaphragmatic breathing is in knowing where the diaphragm is located. The following picture should help you find the diaphragm.

Figure 1: Locating the Diaphragm:

The horizontal purple area in the picture is the location of the diaphragm. In the left-hand picture, it is the horizontal red area.

On inhalation the diaphragm contracts and moves down, as the rib cage (lower thoracic cage) expands slightly outward to the sides (laterally). As the diaphragm moves down with inhalation, the lower thoracic cage (chest) also moves forward, but only very slightly.

With diaphragmatic breathing the upper thoracic cage (chest) does NOT move either upward or outward. With proper diaphragmatic breathing, the upper thoracic cage (chest) remains motionless. Some will say that the upper chest muscles move slightly, but this is not true; such motion is an indication of insufficient training and practice.

With diaphragmatic breathing the lower abdomen also does NOT move outward. Many people teach that the abdomen moves outward, but that comes from abdominal breathing, NOT from proper diaphragmatic breathing.

On exhalation the diaphragm releases, and the lower thoracic cage (chest) naturally comes inward from the sides and front. Once again, there is no motion whatsoever in the upper thoracic cage (chest) or the abdomen when one is properly doing diaphragmatic breathing. With conscious, practiced diaphragmatic breathing, both the upper chest and the abdomen are still.

Along with practicing steady, smooth breathing, without any pause between breaths, there comes a natural quieting of the mind and the nervous system.


This section is based on the direct knowledge of teachers and Yogis.
We have tried to summarize the information which might omit some minor details.