The anatomy of free breathing

cellpicLike the simplest single-cell organisms, our bodies expand to take in nourishment from the outside world (e.g. oxygen, food, water) and contract to expel waste back out into the world. We share this basic pulsing rhythm with all living creatures, large and small.

It is essential that we are able to fully fill our lungs. It is at very tips of the lung’s smallest branches (bronchiole)…in little air sacs (alveoli)…that oxygen and carbon dioxide are transferred into and out of the blood.

The lungs need room to expand to maximum capacity. So free, deep breathing requires proper alignment and function of the structures that surround, support and contain the lungs.

These structures include: the rib cage, the shoulder girdle, the diaphragm, the psoas, the neck muscles and the quadratus lumborum. (That’s a LOT!) Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to isolate breathing. It’s connected to everything!

‘Breathing affects everything, and everything affects breathing.’ -Tom Meyers

Yoga restores optimal alignment and mobility in all of these structures.

IMG_7229The rib cage:

Ideally, the ribs are very flexible. With more than 100 joints, the ribs create a structure that is more like a woven wicker basket than a cage. The lungs and the heart fill up the rib cage completely, with the lungs almost overflowing over the first rib outlet.

In Pranayama Breathing, by sucking in the stomach and taking full-lung inhalations, we cause the rib cage to stretch front, back, top, bottom and side to side.

Good mobility in the rib cage has profound implications. The intercostal muscles (between the ribs) form a spring that supports walking and running. When the back ribs move, they massage and hydrate the discs of the spine.

On an energetic level, the neck ribs are associated with the voice and self expression. The 3rd-5th ribs support our ability to receive help and love. The 7th-9th ribs support assimilation, ‘how we bring things in’. The 10th-12th ribs support elimination, ‘how we identify what is us and what is not us.’ -T. Meyers

IMG_7235The shoulder girdle:

The shoulder bones and muscles rest on top of the ribs; they are heavy. When properly aligned the shoulder girdle rests lightly on the rib basket. But when alignment is poor, the shoulders limit breathing.

Sometimes the shoulders hang from the neck instead of resting on the ribs. Tight neck muscles and tissue restrict mobility in the shoulders, limiting breathing. All of the postures that move the arms and shoulders (Pranayama, Half Moon, Balancing Stick, Triangle, Half Tortoise, etc) free the shoulders…and the breath.

The diaphragm and psoas

The diaphragm is the primary muscle of breathing. The center of the diaphragm is made up of horizontal fascia. It’s located directly below the heart, and it only moves about a half an inch. The sides of the diaphragm are made of muscle…and these move more dramatically. If you’ve ever have the wind knocked out of you, you know what it’s like to try to breathe without your diaphragm. Difficult and frightening!

‘Here’s an image for you to work with: your torso is a vast inner ocean. Imagine that the diaphragm is a giant jelly fish that is entirely at home floating up and down on the ocean currents within your torso. As you inhale its fibers move down, flatten and spread, and as you exhale its fibers move up, bunch together, and re-form their dome-like shape.’ -David Garrigues

The psoas are the deepest muscles of the body. They are the only muscles that connect the spine to the legs. They help us run. They curl us up into the fetal position. Fascia connects the psoas muscles to the diaphragm. So any tightness or limitation in the psoas (which is very common) directly affects breathing.

The scalenes and QL

The front scalenes (neck muscles) hold the top ribs up. The QL muscles in the low back pull down on the bottom ribs. So the entire rib structure (and the lungs) are suspended between these two sets of muscles.


We take roughly 21,000 breaths each and every day. Most of the time, we don’t even notice. That’s a wondrous, remarkable achievement, and it merits attention and curiosity. In fact, there is an entire limb of yoga devoted to breath study. (Asana practice is a separate limb that must be mastered before breath study can even start.)

Come to class. Use the postures to free your body and open your breath.

Source: Anatomy Trains, Opening the Breath, both by Thomas Meyers; Vayu Siddhi by David Garrigues


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