Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Breath of Life: Part 2 of 2

According to Patanjali, the founder of yoga, the benefit of the yogic breathing practices is to destroy the veil that hides us from our inner light. Not everyone includes the pursuit of enlightenment on the checklist of his or her personal aspirations, but the possibility of self-development is present each time he or she inhales.

In Dr. Fulford’s Touch of Life published in 1997 by Dr. Fulford, a ninety-one-year-old osteopath, cites a study by Henry Truby, PhD, that confirms the unique role of breath in the human experience.

“Dr. Truby completed a study of 1500 spectographic analyses, recording the moment of the child’s first cry, and followed up with studies of those children through their first seven years of maturation. In doing so, he was able to obtain the pattern of the growth and development of each child’s personality. After assimilating his results, Dr. Truby declared that he could determine, from the baby’s first breath or cry, that particular baby’s personality, its weaknesses and the degree of its health and wellbeing.”

If Truby is right, our first breath is like a fingerprint determining the swirls and patterns of our emotional life that we can then observe and transform through the remainder of our respiratory experience.

Breath is poetic—our source of inspiration—but it is also functional. Breathing is the combination of ventilation, drawing air in, and circulation, moving the molecules of nourishment and waste to and from our cells. The process of respiration is an automatic one—we don’t have to remember to breathe—but the quality and efficiency of our inhalations and exhalations can be improved through attention and practice.

From a Western medical point of view (see Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain), we can assist respiration function in the following ways:

· Reduce fear (lessening shallow breathing associated with anxiety)

· Improve relaxation (decreases O2 consumption and relaxes overused accessory muscles)

· Improve posture (creates balanced musculature in chest)

· Improve strength and endurance of respiratory muscles (increases O2 use in muscles, improves endurance and abdominal fitness, and creates greater strength for expiration)

· Improve coordination (coordinated movements use less oxygen to improve routine tasks)

· Improve overall fitness (cardiovascular exercise strengthens ventilatory capacity and efficiency)

· Reduce weight (obesity requires three times more oxygen cost for regular activity)

From an Eastern/yogic point of view, breathing practice or pranayama is an opportunity to still the mind in preparation for meditation. Prana, the first part of pranayama is usually translated as life force, which in humans roughly corresponds with the breath. When our life force is steady, direct, and uninterrupted our mind is calm and able to engage in deeper states of consciousness. Breath and meditation practices lead toward greater feelings of connection, which in turn, lead to freedom from fear and anxiety. One becomes confident, intuitive, and energized in all aspects of life.

Breathing wasn’t always the wonder that inspired the ancients to enlightenment, at least if you believe in evolution. When we made the move from the ocean to the earth, we needed to adapt from the fish bowl to the air conditioning. Gills would no longer suffice: we would need to run 150 miles an hour all the time to properly oxygenate (Eric Franklin, Strength Conditioning for Dance). Instead we needed an indoor solution and found one with the advent of the lungs and diaphragm. Unfortunately, they were not without their engineering problems. The lungs needed space to expand without organs encroaching on their real estate. The diaphragm became the holy divider motoring the respiration process and confining the organs. Also, the abdominal muscles took over for the low-lying ribs to create a flexible cavity for the organs to rise and descend.

In addition, the body can recruit any of the muscles attached to the ribs as aides des camp to the diaphragm and lungs to influence the mechanics of breathing. The table below is a primer of muscles available to assist in inhalation and exhalation. Of the more than 20 primary and accessory muscles listed in Muscles: Testing and Function, almost all have a postural component. These muscles must be able to help support the skeletal structures of the ventilatory pump and to generate pressures that ensure continued adequate gas exchange of the alveoli.

Muscles of Respiration:

Inspiratory Muscles



Levator costarum

External intercostals

Internal intercostals





Serratus Anterior

Serratus Posterior Superior

Pectoralis major

Pectoralis minor

Latissimus Dorsi

Erector Spinae thoracic


Expiratory Muscles


Internal Obliques

External Obliques

Rectus abdominis

Transversus Abdominis


Latissimus Dorsi

Serratus posterior inferior

Quadratus Lumborum

Illiocostalis Lumborum

That said, the big guns of respiration, the diaphragm, intercostals, and abdominal muscles deserve their due. The following descriptions were adapted from Trail Guide to the Body, which has wonderful illustrations for body workers of any kind. I highly recommend using visual aids while reading the information below. Note: I’ve also added some exercises (EX!) to bring the words to life. The more you can image and experience the structures and processes going on inside of you, the more possible it is to increase the efficiency of those processes and to perceive them in others.


Domed sheet of combined muscle and tendon with vertical fibers separating the thorax from the abdomen. The diaphragm creates inhalation when its muscle fibers contract and pull the central tendon down. Because the central tendon is attached to the connective tissue that surrounds the lungs, a vacuum is created in the upper thoracic cavity pulling the air into the lungs. On exhalation, the muscle fibers of the diaphragm relax, releasing the central tendon and allowing the lungs to deflate.

Shaped like: An umbrella, jellyfish, dome, liver condom

Action: Draw down the central tendon of the diaphragm, Increase the volume of the thoracic cavity during inhalation

Origin: Costal attachment: Inner surface of lower six ribs, Lumbar attachment: Upper two or three lumbar vertebrae, Sternal attachment: inner part of the xiphoid process

Insertion: Central tendon


· Motor supply: phrenic nerves (C3-C5)

· Sensory supply: centrally by phrenic nerves (C3-5), peripherally by intercostals nerves (T5-T11), and subcostal nerves (T12)

EX! Feeling the costal cartilage:

Palpate the inner border inside the front of the ribs. Let your exhalations relax the tissue so that you can get your fingers up and under the costal cartilage. For some, this might induce nausea, so be gentle! See if you can sense the vertical direction of the diaphragm fibers. After feeling your way around the front portion of your diaphragm, observe the quality of your breath for any change.

EX! Feeling the crura:

Bear down as though you are defecating. You will feel the crura pull along your lumbar vertebrae. These are the finger-like tendons that anchor your diaphragm as you inhale.

Intercostal Muscles

· External Intercostal Muscles run in the same direction as the external obliques, function to lift the ribs during inhalation, or contract isometrically to keep the ribs from collapsing in on themselves when diaphragm draws air into lungs

· Internal Intercostal muscles, run in a right angle to the external intercostals and pull the ribs together and down for exhalation. Putting on the brakes in expiration is very important in singing.

EX! Feeling the intercostals:

Lie on back with legs in constructive rest position—knees bent and resting against one another with feet flat on the floor. Breath out on a SSSSS sound, hissing like a snake. The intercostals contract as you hiss and then relax. You might feel heat inside your ribs and a profound sense of ease.

Abdominal Muscles

  • Internal Obliques
  • External Obliques
  • Rectus Abdominis
  • Transversus Abdominis (TA)

Primary function is in forced exhalation. The Transversus Abdominis is interwoven with diaphragm and has a reciprocal relationship. As the diaphragm contracts on the inhalation, the TA relaxes. As the diaphragm relaxes on the exhalation, the TA contracts. This is why many exercise disciplines encourage exertion on the exhalation, because the breath has already stabilized the organs.

EX! Feeling abdominals muscles:

Cough as though you are in a theatre. Feel the deep abdominal muscles rapidly contract. Breathe as though you were fogging a mirror, Feel how the TA accompanies all of respiration. Ujjai pranayama (ocean breath) also makes us aware of the TA.

EX! Telling the story of respiration:

Read the following descriptions of inhalation and exhalation. Attempt to feel as much of the process as you can.

When we inhale, the diaphragm and intercostals help to increase the thoracic area, creating a vacuum. The negative pressure between the pleural membranes forces the lungs to expand. Air gushes inside the lungs filling the alvioli. Oxygen, carried by that air, diffuses into the blood vessels through the alviolar walls and carbon-dioxide returns from the blood vessels into the alvioli. All this happens within the time period between inhalation and exhalation.

When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its normal structure decreasing the thoracic volume. The internal intercostal muscles contract, releasing the ribs to their smallest state. As the thoracic volume decreases, the lungs are forced to contract. The air in alvioli is pushed outside through the bronchioles, bronchus and finally out by nasal cavity.

EX! Feeling the lungs:

The lungs are mostly composed of air 50% before inhalation 80% after inhalation. If you slap the chest the sound is hollow and higher pitched versus the abdomen where the sound is lower pitched and flat. Hold the nose, puff out the cheeks and swallow gulps of air. Do this for as long as you can, then let the glottis go. You will feel your lungs deflate.

While it is important to understand the basic structures and functions of breathing, there are many other factors that influence the quality and efficiency of our breath, such as:

· Disease: Breathing is different with chronic conditions like asthma, COPD, and exposure to pollution

· Location: altitude profoundly affects breath

· Emotion: breathing is different when sobbing, laughing, or experiencing depression

· Activity: breathing is different when meditating or running a marathon

· Autonomic vs. Somatic control of breathing: breathing is different when we’re paying attention to it versus when it’s just happening

To address these various influences, the body recruits the breathing apparatus in three basic patterns:

· Abdomino-diaphragmatic breathing (relaxed or belly breath)—pure movement of the diaphragm with little expansion in the thoracic cavity. Easy to experience supine. Can facilitate release of thoracic accessory muscles that impede thoraco-diaphragmatic breath

· Thoraco-Diaphragmatic breath—abdominal cavity fixed, expansion happens at rib cage.

o Empowered—active breathing during movement, especially when CV system is stimulated

o Constricted—chest breathing using auxiliary respiratory muscles, exhausting and stimulates sympathetic nervous system, breath this way when you’re full, strains heart because you are preparing to run

· Paradoxical—reverse breathing, feels like diving into an icy pool, very stressful gasping breath, anxiety is usually an issue for paradoxical breathers

Ideally, during movement, we would engage in thoraco-diaphragmatic breathing with particular awareness of the back body expanding upon inhalation and the rib cage releasing on exhalation. But as you can imagine there are a tangle of physical, emotional, and physiologic influences. The following exercises help to increase awareness and support for the breathing process.

EX! Lung exercise:

Upper lung—place fingers on upper border of scapula and heel of hand on collarbone. Breath into upper lobe of lung.

Middle lung—place fingers on side of scapula and heel of hand on ribs, breath into the side body

Posterior lung—bring hand behind the body and breath into the back lung

Observe which aspect of the lung you favor and see if you can bring three dimensionality to the breath.

EX! Crura conditioning: Place a rolled up towel under the crura. Start in a sit up position, visualize the abdominals lengthening as you slowly roll back. Return to the starting position and feel the abdominals shortening. Extend back and visualize the crura lengthening. Inhale rise and visualize the crura supporting the movement. Repeat four times and then rest.

EX! In any yoga posture, as, “Where am I holding? Where am I expanding?” Follow the body. When there is a disconnect, the mind/body connection has been broken.

If you’ve read and completed the various awareness exercises, you may find that your breathing has shifted. You may be more aware of your breath and you may be able to follow the breathing into the deepest recesses of yourself. The more you allow breath work into your movement practice, the more freedom and fluidity you will feel in all aspects of your life. Knowing more about the structures and functions involved in breathing will help you to visualize and embody the breathing process more fully.