How I learned to Breathe
My first introduction to healthy, yogic breathing came from my beloved mentor Jamie. As Jamie’s counseling apprentice, I co-taught a college stress management class. Clearly I had survived into my 20s so I must have been taking the oxygen in, and releasing the carbon dioxide out! But learning how to breathe in a conscious, relaxing, yogic way was a revelation, to say the least.
Reverse Breathing Revealed
Through working individually and in class with Jamie, I realized that I was reverse breathing: on the inhale my belly would recede, and on the exhale it would puff out. It took me countless hours of practice to unlearn this stress producing habit. Unfortunately, many students in my classes had picked up the same pattern, so I could clearly empathize with their struggles.
For much of the populace, the awareness of the expansion in all directions of the abdomen on the inhale can be a revolutionary, quality-of-life changing event. Aren’t we taught to suck it up, hold it in, and flatten it out?
Pranayama is the practice of yogic breathing. Pranayama literally means “extension of the life force”. The yogis have perfected scores of techniques to consciously recruit the breath to calm us, heat us, cool us, and tone our respiratory musculature. Learning to harness the powers of our breath in all kinds of situations is truly amazing. You can access beautiful yogic complete breath instruction from Yoga Tune Up® founder Jill Miller here.
Introduction to your Intercostals
There are several muscle groups associated with our miraculous breath, the primary muscle is of course the dome like thoracic diaphragm. Located inferiorly to the lungs and heart, it attaches at the bottom of the sternum called the xiphoid process, the lower 6 ribs, and at the posterior the lumbar vertebrae. The intercostals (intercostal=between the ribs), work in tandem with the diaphragm.
The intercostal muscles form two thin layers that span each of the intercostal spaces. The external intercostals are oriented obliquely downward, the same direction as if you were putting your hands in your front jeans pockets. They assist the diaphragm with the inhale. You can feel the ribs draw up as you take in air.
The internal intercostals are situated similarly to your back jeans pockets. They run posteriorly and downward and are mostly associated with the exhale.
Rest on the floor or firm sofa and place your hands on either side of your ribs, as if you are a disgruntled parent waiting for their to teen arrive home past curfew. Very gently place your fingers between the spaces of the ribs. Now begin long, slow, and deep yogic complete breaths. Can you feel the lateral expansion and contraction of the ribs? That is the coordinated result of the diaphragm and intercostals working together!
Read how to breath away stress.
Read more about your diaphragm.
Learn about Yoga Tune Up at home.
Watch our Belly Breathing Video on YouTube.
Thank you for the clear and easy to understand description of the musckes and hiw they work durind respiration.
Great description of the breath and the information of the intercostals will be just what I need to share with a student of mine to help her unlearn the reverse breathing she does.
Je n’avais jamais vraiment pris conscience du reverse breathing…je serai plus observatrice auprès de ma clientèle afin de corriger le mouvement. Merci pour les informations pertinentes.
I love how you introduce the concept of reverse breathing. I’m quite certain that many people in our society practice this “reverse breathing” and they aren’t even aware of it. Many people also don’t use their diaphragm to breathe– instead, they use the accessory muscles of the chest and neck. Thank you for this explanation of the importance of breathing and the muscles involved!
For a long time I was only breathing from the thoracic spine. It has made a tremendous difference on how I feel on and off the mat to shift to abdominal breathing. Being able to get the deep abdominal diaphragm breath has enhanced my practice and introduced a continuious calm that stays with me throughout the day.
Thank you for introducing me to reverse breathing and how to correct this! I will now be attentive to look out for this in myself and in my students. Your exercise for feeling the external and internal intercostal muscles and their respective connection to inhalation and exhalation is also very helpful and something I will share with my students. When I started yoga, breathing was nothing something I was able to do with ease. Overtime as I learned to direct my breath into different areas of my body, I was pleasantly surprised at how much space and energy I could create in my body by expanding my breath and guiding my breath to spread my ribcage – which more specifically means spreading the intercostal muscles between the ribs!
It’s interestingg and powerful to think of the breathing muscles as just that – muscles that need to be exercised, and without it, they will lose their strength and purpose. Too bad proper breathing isn’t a part of education from a young age – or, at the least, included in small intervals throughout a class or day in schools.
Alyssa, I’m so glad you found the article helpful!
Thank you, Bonnie! I found this article really helpful. A lot of us have developed these habits like inverse breathing without even realizing it. Things like inverse breathing effect how much oxygen your blood and muscles are receiving and how much your diaphragm is able to expand and contract; which has spiraling consequences on the digestion, tone of the internal organs, and strcture of the respiratory muscles and skeleton support system.
When I started yoga, breathing was definitely something that wasn’t that easy and graceful for me. I would often hold my breath in difficult poses and was so protracted in my shoulders and closed in my chest that my breathing would easily become strained and shallow. I found focusing on the three abodes of the breath; the abdominal, thoracic, and clavicular to be so helfpul. Once I understood where my breath could go in my body it became easier for me to figure out how to open and expand in strenuous poses to better enhance my breath. The benefits of Pranayama also have changed the mental clarity I get from my practice ! Your steps to discovering full breath and correcting inverse breath are so easy to follow; I will definitely share this article. This should be a 101 lesson for all students 🙂
Very interesting, Ariana!
When I was young I learned to create a breathing pattern in through my nose and out through my mouth to avoid cramping when playing sports. Although helpful, I didn’t learn until recently that there are helpful breathing techniques for day to day use as well. I still struggle with Abdominal breathing as I too thought that sucking in your stomach all the time was the only way. It takes me a few breaths to actually relax my stomach muscles enough to get a good breath and when I have a rhythm it is truly wonderful. Abdominal Thoracic breathing comes a little more natural for me as I’m more used to breathing with my chest (probably all those years of avoiding the abs while breathing). I am always learning how to better myself.
This article made me think of a student of mine. After five years of taking class she came running up to me elated saying, “I finally understand what you mean about the breath!” She was breathing in reverse and thought she could not reverse it. I advised her to gently try. She was sure it couldn’t be done. After years of practicing she had her AHA moment. She believed because she was close to sixty that her habit body would not be able to change. She stuck to the practice and the result was life changing. She was able to carry her new/old way of breathing in to her everyday life.
Bonnie’s explaination of yogic breathing is clear and amazing. I was drawn to the article by the introduction: Now Playing: Your Breath in 3-D… I think I expected a video link rather than an over the internet experiential. Her experience of finding that she was breathing in reverse really pulled me in. I just had to try for myself receding my belly on the inhale, and puffing it out on the exhale. Very stressful indeed! It is also amazing to think that learning or being reminded how to breath naurally can be a revolutionary, quality-of-life changing event. wow.
Before I learned proper breathing from studying yoga, my belly also deflated on the inhale and rose on the exhale. I had difficulty reversing my breathing to rise on the inhales and fall on the exhale. I am so happy that IYoga helped me to properly breathe.
It’s amazing all the work that goes into breathing: something we take for granted. thanks for your detailed outline of how we should be breathing and how to find the important muscles to focus on them.
If you ever want to demonstrate how the lungs work, cut the bottom off of a 2 L bottle. Put a plastic glove over the bottom (diaphragm). Put a balloon into the nozzle of the bottle and secure it so it hangs inside the bottle. When you push and pull on the glove, the balloon inflates and deflates, like the lung. This is really cool since most people think the lung does the work, not realizing it is the result of pressure difference created by the diaphragm.
Thank you to all for reading, and your wonderful comments!
Great article. I have tried this with my personal training clients who have a habit of holding their breath alot and just sitting for afew minutes before and after the workout with the focus on the breath and feeling it in the body has certainly helped!
Learning what is going on and moving around inside of me, makes me feel more in control of my life. The fact that my breath is under my control and I can change it is a real eye opener for me, and powerful.I can relax myself with abdominal breathing or heat up my body with clavicular breathing. Thank you, Yoga.
Thanks for reminding us to fill the abdomen in all directions. The exercise at the end of the article – touching the intercostals as you inhale is a terrific help when visualizing the expansion later without making contact with the hands. It also helps with awareness of the internal intercostals during the exhale.
I enjoy reading this article. Thanks for pointing out the reverse breathing. I believed many yogis have made the same mistake at some point during their practices including myself. It’s confusing to know when to inhale and exhale eventhough breathing should be our human nature.
I could totally relate to reverse breathing and how the proper breathing muscles can make a difference in your over all well being. It was not until my father was terminal and passed way that I discovered yoga and Pranayama breath. After a couple of doctors office visits and hospital visits due to panic attacks AKA Clavicular breathing sending my nervous system emergency signals, is that I decided to visit a yoga studio to relax my self. It has all come to the breath now after 4 1/2 years of practice, extensive reading and the loving guidance of my yoga teachers and peers I now recognize the patterns of breathing throughout my every day life. My yoga teacher said a mantra “this I am”; I know hold this mantra close to my heart.
Thank you Adan!
i like the way this is laid out so clearly, good graphics, plus text that includes analogies and mental-as-is’s, like,
“as if you are a disgruntled parent waiting for their to teen arrive home past curfew” 😉
good info, thanks!