Yogic Breathing: Chest to Belly or Belly to Chest?
There is an ongoing discussion in the yoga community about the directionality of the breath. There are many yoga breathing exercises and techniques, and students often ask: Do you begin your inhalation in the chest and then fill the belly or do your fill up the belly first and then expand the chest? This seemingly innocent question can have yoga teachers argue till they are blue in the face. Is there a right answer? Yep, but before we get to it, let’s start at the beginning.
First of all, let’s get our facts straight: We cannot breathe into our bellies (if the air does go into your belly, you are in deep trouble). You certainly do and should expand your belly as you breathe in, but not because the air goes there.
Yogic Breathing: Some Basic Facts
To understand the intricate process of respiration in yoga, we need to know two important facts.
FACT 1: Air will flow from an area of higher pressure to the area of lower pressure
FACT 2: Lungs do not have muscular tissue, which means that you cannot move your lungs at will. Instead the outer surface of the lungs sticks to the inner surface of the ribcage and to the top of the diaphragm; as a result, lungs get pulled following the movement of those structures. So you cannot move your lungs directly, but you could intentionally expand the ribcage and, to some degree, affect the movement of the diaphragm (because it is a muscle), which would move your lungs indirectly.
Technically here is what happens when we breathe:
When the air rushes into the lungs, they get filled all at once. You cannot fill the bottom of the lungs first and then the top. Oxygen is not liquid; it’s gas. Therefore you cannot fill a container (lungs) from the bottom up, like you would with liquid.
The degree of movement of the diaphragm and the ribcage in breathing can vary.
During diaphragmatic or deep breathing we rely mostly on the movement of the diaphragm; it usually occurs at minimal levels of activity.
During costal, or shallow breathing we rely mostly on the rib cage changing its shape. This is more common during higher activity levels or when the contents of the abdominal cavity restrict the movement of the diaphragm (for example, when there is a baby there).
As you can see from this image, your abdominal cavity is packed with stuff—vital organs, digestive tract, etc. When the diaphragm moves down on the inhalation, it pushes down on your abdominal content and it has no other place to go but forward, so your belly pushes forward.
So far we have described the natural pattern of breath: when you breathe in, your chest and your belly both expand at the same time; when you breathe out, both of them return back to the original shape.
Now, we can use muscular control to change that pattern, consciously or unconsciously. One of the examples of unconscious muscular interference is an unfortunate pattern of “reverse breathing,” when we pull the belly in on the inhale, instead of pushing it out.
So if you are keeping your abdomen taut on the inhalation, you are preventing your abdominal contents from moving forward, which means that it will stay where it is and restrict the movement of the diaphragm. So you will end up relying on your rib cage instead. If you do this consistently over time your diaphragm might lose some of its elasticity, causing shorter and shallower breathing (and who wants that?!)
In yoga, we often introduce practices to change the natural pattern consciously. We might, for example, choose to expand the belly first and then expand the chest. Or, we might choose to expand the chest first and then expand the belly. Both are voluntary actions done for a number of reasons:
Inhale – Expand the belly first then the chest
To emphasize the movement of the diaphragm
To try to overcome “reverse breathing” pattern
To produce a grounding effect on the system
Inhale – Expand the chest first then the belly
To lengthen the spine and improve posture
To gradually deepen the breath
To have a more uplifting effect on the system
Your exhalation can either be passive or active. With passive exhalation, the muscles that have been contracting on the inhalation relax and return to their original position.
With active exhalation you use your abdominal muscles to compress the abdomen and force the diaphragm upward. If you do your abdominal contraction in a gradual fashion as you exhale, it will help stabilize and support your lower back.
Yogic Breathing and Prana
Most importantly, yogis were very interested in the energetic effects of the breath. Breath is a vehicle for Prana, the vital force that runs in different currents throughout the body. According to Bhagavad Gita, every breath cycle is an opportunity to link Prana vayu and Apana vayu, two primary currents of the life force.
Apana vayu, which is aligned with the force of gravity, moves downward resulting in elimination of wastes, as well as disease, aging, death and the diminution of consciousness. Prana vayu, which is aligned with the air and space elements, is meant to move downward and is responsible for everything we take into the body—food, water, experiences and information.
But Apana vayu can disperse upward through the mind and senses, especially in this age of sensory and information overload. This leads to devitalization and loss of mind-body coordination.
Uniting Prana Vayu and Apana Vayu
Uniting the two primary vayus results in strengthening our energy along with awakening our higher faculties. Yogic practices work to raise Apana vayu up to unite with Prana vayu and draw Prana vayu down to unite with Apana vayu, which occurs in the region of the navel, the pranic center in the body.
To unite Prana and Apana, we would focus on the symbolic downward movement of the breath on the inhalation (nose – throat – chest – belly), facilitated by intentional muscular contraction, and symbolic upward movement of the breath on the exhalation (using progressive abdominal contraction from the pubic bone toward the navel and then compressing the rib cage).
So to go back to our original question. What is the proper yogic breathing technique—chest to belly or belly to chest? The answer is: It depends! It depends on what you are trying to accomplish in your yoga practice.
Study with Olga Kabel: Avoiding Yoga Injuries-Common Alignment Mistakes in Forward Bends and Twists.
Study with YogaUOnline and Robin Rothenberg -The Healing Power of Breath: Essential Techniques for Healthy Living.
This article originally published on Sequence Wiz. Reprinted with permission.
Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs, but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006 becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz- a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability and medical history specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.