Breath Flow in Yoga Practice

This is an excellent thread that contains lots of valuable technical information about breathing styles in various traditions of Yoga practice. It was initiated by a query from Mukunda Stiles, and feautres comments by myself and many other knowedgeable practitioners.
The dialogue turned into a challenging re-evaluation of some of breathing’s “sacred cows.”


Query – A basic question for the group. Some Indian yoga teachers teach how to breathe in three part motion like filling a glass from the bottom upward. In this image one is to inhale expanding the belly first then let the air raise upward into the chest. Some others teach breathing in reverse following the pattern of the diaphragm. I would like to take a survey and find out which method goes with each of the styles of Hatha yoga. I would appreciate hearing from students representing each method. I would also like to hear your personal and teacher’s comments as to what you experience as the benefits or detriments of each.

Leslie responds:

This post addresses an area in which I specialize, so I can’t resist a response.

The easy part of the answer relates to which schools teach the different approaches to breathing.

The only lineage I’m aware of that explicitly teaches the “top to bottom” breath is Krishnamacharya’s. Specifically, Viniyoga, the method taught by his son Desikachar, is the system in which this is found. The ashtanga yoga of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (another student of Krishnamacharya’s) teaches the control of the lower abdomen through mula bandha, so the “top to bottom” breath is somewhat implicit in that approach, although many of K.P.J.’s students have different opinions about breathing methodology ( a few of them are on the list, so perhaps they’d like to chime in). Prof. K.’s other famous student, Mr. Iyengar, seems to favor the bottom-to-top pattern (at least that’s what I recall from reading his book “Light on Pranayama”).

It should be pointed out that in Viniyoga, there is no “right” way to breathe; all instruction is given on an individual basis, and “bottom to top” breathing (or any number of other patterns) may be prescribed if it is useful for certain students in certain situations.

All the other schools of yoga that I’m aware of teach some variation of the “bucket breath” (bottom to top) approach that Mukunda describes; which brings me to the second part of my response.

Embedded in Mukunda’s description of these breathing patterns are a few oft-repeated inaccuracies that perpetuate much confusion about breathing (I don’t mean to imply that the well-learned Mukunda is confused — he’s just asking the questions). Let’s look at: “Some Indian yoga teachers teach how to breathe in three part motion like filling a glass from the bottom upward. In this image one is to inhale expanding the belly first then let the air raise upward into the chest.”

**Air never rises upward into the chest** Here’s why: A glass or a bucket filling from the bottom upward is a very common image and justification that’s given for this 3-part breathing pattern. The problem with it is that the lungs are not a bucket, and air is not water. Actually, what’s more fundamentally erroneous is the entire notion that the order in which you change the shape of your body cavities during inhalation has something to do with the order in which the different parts of the lungs will fill with air. This is simply not the case, and it comes from the almost universal confusion between muscular movements and air movements.

During breathing, air only goes in and out from the lungs, and it can only move through the lungs by means of the bronchial tree. The inhaled air enters from the top downward, branches left and right, then fans out from center to periphery. The path of the exhaled air, of course, follows the exact opposite pattern. This pathway remains the same no matter how you manipulate your respiratory muscles.

**A belly breath does NOT bring air into the belly NOR does it cause the lower part of the lungs to fill first.** Sorry, folks; I know how often this stuff gets repeated, and how attached to our teaching language we can become.

Mukunda’s next statement was: “Some others teach breathing in reverse following the pattern of the diaphragm.” I don’t really know what Mukunda means by “following the pattern of the diaphragm,” so perhaps he could clarify it for us. I do know that the statement would be more correct if he substituted the phrase “bronchial tree” for diaphragm.

There’s a lot more I could say about this (enough to fill the book I’m working on!), but I’d prefer to continue this dialogue by answering questions about my response, and posting other responses to Mukunda’s question.


I thank Leslie for his comments. Indeed even such a simple instruction as this has been the source of much confusion and deliberation. I am reminded of the great Lilliput controversy in Gulliver’s Travels as to whether to open the egg from the pointed side or the rounded side. Grounds for war! Or at least an inflamed pitta. Today such controversy pales in contrast with the greater concerns for peace and recovery of our connection with the universal Life Breath’s rhythm that was lost in the recent tragedy (9/11/01).

In the last post I said: “Some others teach breathing in reverse following the pattern of the diaphragm.” The diaphragm moves downward as one inhales thus setting in motion a wave from the lower thoracic region into the abdominal and pelvic cavities. While breath of course first enters the bronchial tree as Leslie points out, the principle respiratory muscle is the diaphragm temporarily able to be under our control. Some instructors, mostly those trained by Krishnamacharya, Desikachar, and Indra Devi – myself included — use this image to convey how to breathe. My curiosity is to what variations are there in the different schools of yoga.

stay well and happy,

Jai Ma, Mukunda Tom Stiles

*LK: Not to nitpick too much here, but “…the diaphragm moves downward as one inhales…” is unclear. First of all, the phrasing makes it seem like the movement of the diaphragm is something distinct from the act of inhaling.

Also, the fundamental activity of the diaphragm is not downward movement; it is contraction. It is possible to contract the diaphragm in such a way that it creates upward movement of the ribcage rather than downward movement of the central tendon (this is what occurs when you keep your abdominals engaged during an inhalation). For more on this, see my notes following the next post.

So, I would rephrase Mukunda’s statement as: “The inhale is created by the contaction of the diaphragm.” Even that is a partial statement, as it doesn’t include prior factors in the causal chain of inhalation.*

From: Valdeane W. Brown, Ph.D.

Part of the confusion in these various approaches to instruction come from conflating the anatomical, with the physiological with the phenomenological. Anatomically, we can divide the respiratory system into three component: viz., the diaphragmatic, thoracic and apical each correlating with a specific “region” of the physical body. In most people, most of the time, diaphragmatic breathing is sacrified and even precluded, by a forward rotation of the lowest ribs.

*LK: See note #1 below…*

This rotation drops those ribs downwards and this partially encloses the diaphragm — and this prevents it from expanding (fully).

*LK: See note #2 below…*

Because of this constriction, the majority of the respiratory activity (what Leslie refers to as “muscular”…) is carried by the thoracic region (the “rib cage” area), or even the apical region (the clavicular region). The most direct result of this is a huge increase in respiratory rate, with baselines of 16-22 bpm (breaths per min) being reported in western literature as being normative!

*LK: See note #3 below…*

In beginning to shift this pattern and, among other things, slowing down the respiratory rate, a number of observable and demonstrable changes begin to occur. The first is that the lower ribs must be rotated back up to their “natural” positiion. This is one of the direct outcomes of correct asana, esp with the standing poses, in terms of effect on respiration. Unless this rotation occurs, and the spine is naturally upright (with its intrinsic gentle curves) it will simply be impossible for the resipatory rate to decrease. This shift is frequently experienced by the student as “breathing dropping down into the abdomen” or something like that — this is the phenomenological part I spoke of above.

In any event, regardless of how it “feels” to the student, regardless of how the muscular engages, regardless of how the skeletal structure aligns to support “full breathing” — or doesn’t! — Leslie is correct that the actual respiration follows the bronchiolae and that occurs in a downward fashion. This is the physiological perspective I mentioned above.

Light on Pranayama by Iyengar describes much of the phenomenological level, and is, IMO, quite thorough and clear. Most other traditions, in my experience, emphasize one or the other perspectives and one or other of the specific pranayama practices at the expense of the others. This is, in my experience, generally due to a lack of complete understanding of all of the various practices and their applications.

I hope this helps clarify this somewhat.

Leslie’s notes: #1 – In most people, most of the time, diaphragmatic breathing is sacrified and even precluded>> Here, the term “diaphragmatic breathing” is being used synonymously with “abdominal breathing” (Val confusingly labels the abdominal component of breath movement as “diaphragmatic”). What I think he is really saying is that most people’s bellies don’t move enough when they inhale. Surely, Prof. Brown can’t mean that in most people, most of the time, the diaphragm is not functioning! An accurate example of a person who’s diaphragmatic breathing is “precluded” would be Christopher Reeve. IMO, it is inaccurate and harmful to suggest to people that their diaphragm is non-functional; it may be functioning *inefficiently* because of habitual tension in its antagonistic muscles, but all of us certainly have functioning diaphragms (except in cases of paralysis).

#2 – …and this partially encloses the diaphragm– and this prevents it from expanding (fully). Again, Val says diaphragm when he means abdomen. The diaphragm doesn’t expand. Like all muscles, it only contracts and relaxes. The question is how effectively/efficiently a muscle is able to do that. Actually, to be technically correct, it’s not even accurate to say that the abdomen expands; the abdominal cavity is non-compressible like a water balloon; it changes its shape, but not its volume. If you squeeze on one end, it will bulge somewhere else. What appears to be expansion is a forward displacement of the organs caused by the descending diaphragm; so rather than expanding during an inhale, the abdomen bulges forward. The ribcage does expand during an inhale, though; its ability to change its volume is what creates the pressure changes of breathing. So, the abdominal cavity changes its shape, but not its volume; while the thoracic cavity changes its shape AND its volume.

#3 – Because of this constriction, the majority of the respiratory activity (what Leslie refers to as “muscular”…) is carried by the thoracic region (the “rib cage” area), or even the apical region (the clavicular region). >> Here again, equating diaphragmatic with abdominal breathing creates confusion; this time promoting the common misconception that thoracic breathing is non-diaphragmatic. In fact, the diaphragm is constructed in such a way that it causes expansion in all three of the areas that Val mentions (abdominal, thoracic and clavicular).

When discussing the ways in which our chest and abdominal cavities change shape during respiration, it is less confusing to refer to the components of the breath by the spatial dimensions in which they move.

The vertical (top to bottom) dimension corresponds to the downward movement of the central tendon (insertion) of the diaphragm, which results in the forward bulging of the upper abdomen (belly breathing).

Along with the downward pressure, an upward lift is created by the diaphragm’s contraction as it acts upon its attachment (origin) at the circumference of the lower ribcage. This creates movement in the lateral (side-to-side) dimension in the lower ribs, as well as a sagittal (front-to-back) movement in the sternum.

In short, the diaphragm can create 3-dimensional expansion of the thoracic cavity; so, to equate diaphragmatic breathing only with its abdominal component is to leave out at least two thirds of the picture.

From: Collyn Rivers

Leslie, I appreciate your rational explanation of up/down breathing because many of the various theories seem at variance with basic anatomy.

The thorax surely is basically a cylinder open to the atmosphere at the top (via the bronchial tree) and closed at the bottom by the diaphragm. The diaghragm is periodically caused to contract downwards, creating more space, and thus a partial vacuum at the base of the lungs. This in turn causes air to flow into the lungs from top to bottom via the bronchial tree. As you say air cannot possibly flow from bottom to top (unless one somehow breathes through the anus via passages yet unknown!).

In the process the diaphragm presses down on the abdomen causing it to move outward. Relaxing the abdominal muscles will therefore enable the diaphragm to move more easily and/or fully – enabling more air to be drawn in.

Contracting the abdominal muscles will push the diaphragm upwards and thus presumably enhance exhalation.

Or is there something that I’m missing? Collyn Rivers

*LK: No, sounds pretty good to me. The only thing I would change is this: rather than saying “the diaghragm..contract(s) downwards, creating more space, and thus a partial vacuum at the base of the lungs,” I’d say “…the diaphragm’s contraction increases the volume of the thoracic cavity, thus lowering it’s pressure relative to the atmosphere” (volume and pressure are inversely related). The partial vacuum is not located specifically in the base of the lungs; there is never actually a vacuum anywhere, as the pressure is constantly maintained as long as the respiratory passageways remain open.

One can experience a partial vacuum during uddiyana bandha performed on the retention after an exhale, as the ribcage increases its volume, but no air enters to equalize the pressure. That is why the abdominal organs are pulled upward towards that vacuum.*

From: Fran

To quote Leslie: **A belly breath does NOT bring air into the belly NOR does it cause the lower part of the lungs to fill first.**

It has always been my understanding that, as is quoted above, the “belly breath” does not actually bring breath into the belly (an anatomical impossibility, I should think); but that through the expansion of the belly and rib cage area, it DOES provide additional space for the expansion of the diaphragm, which in turn provides additional space for the lungs to expand.


*LK: I hope my notes above clarify my points. Please remember my quote was referring primarily to the *sequence* of expansion during an inhale, which was what Mukunda’s original question was addressing.*

From: Larry Payne

Mukundaji, Leslie Kaminoff is a real expert on this but this is my personal feeling on the matter.

The chest to belly is primarily from Viniyoga. When I first came to Desikachar’s house in early 1980 there was an article in the French Yoga magazine that said he was the “Yogi who breathed backwards.” When I took my first teacher training from Sivananda they taught belly to chest. Both methods certainly have merit and have helped a lot of people. Desikachar quotes numerous ancient texts that talk about the prana going down to the apana.

From a mechanical standpoint if you watch closely the spine gets more continuous work when you start from the chest going down. The chest fills, then the belly – there are no gaps or breaks in the working of the spine. When you start from the belly up there is a slight pause as the diaphragm is going down it looks like an S. It is subtle but noticeable.

Also in Viniyoga, chest to belly works nicely in coordination with the raising of the arms. Finally, if you talk to a Yogi who has had a partial lung removed or something of that nature (like Marsha Accomazzo who was one of the founding board members of the International Association of Yoga Therapists) they will tell you that they feel more volume of air if they start from the top.

This is just quick off the top of my head as I am in the final stages of my book but I hope it is a helpful start.

Shanti, Larry

From: Matt Lerner

My first training back in the 70s was in the style of the Himalayan Institute. We learned to teach “from the bottom up”, but I believe this was only suggested as a teaching aid, so that a student could visualize filling completely. I don’t think it was ever suggested that the air actually moved that way. We called this particular breath the “complete Yogic breath” and we only taught it to beginners. We started with a deep exhalation, then we began : 1) expanding the belly; 2) expanding the ribs; 3) lifting the shoulders/clavicles to completely fill. We would often count “1-2-3” for each of the three segments, then reverse it for the exhalation.

I look forward to Mukunda’s response, but I believe he is referring to the movement of the “dome” of the diaphragm. As you inhale, it contracts, and the dome moves down as the diaphragm flattens.

Namaste, Matt Spiritual Life Society and Hudson Yoga Center

*LK: What is usually referred to as the “dome” is the central tendon, which is non-contractile tissue. The muscular fibres of the diaphragm are primarily oriented in the vertical, not the horizontal plane; as they shorten, they pull downward on the central tendon and upward on the base of the ribcage.*

FROM: gilli harouvi, Ashtanga Yoga- the israeli center, Tel-Aviv.

Lovely thread! and an utterly important one. YES, let us deal with the stigmas. first- a few feed backs :

leslie responded to Mukunda: It should be pointed out that in Viniyoga, there is no “right” way to breathe; all instruction is given on an individual basis, and “bottom to top” breathing (or any number of other patterns) may be prescribed if it is useful for certain students in certain situations.

I am of the Ashtanga Vinyasa school, Sri K.P.Jois’s tradition. But anyway, me, too, do not recognize anyWRONG WAY to breath. the problem is that most of us forget to breath – mostly because we are afraid to get hit on the butt by an “authority”, with or without brackets. So, if you breath- you are on the right track. then- choose it. Whenever I hear the term “correct breath” I freack out. there is no wrong way to breath, guys. please, be specific! also in Leslie’s response:

A glass or a bucket filling from the bottom upward is a very common image and justification that’s given for this 3-part breathing pattern. The problem with it is that the lungs are not a bucket, and air is not water Of course. elementary, Mr. Watson. air is no water, amazing, ha? brrrrr…..! (actually, it is adifferent element. but do not tell anyone else. this info is still a sectet)

And for my humble input:

As I mentioned, I am trained in the Ashtanga vinyasa way, beloved Sri K.P.Jois’s tradition.

During practice of the Ashtanga sequences,there are 2 key elements (to start with) that the oractitioner has to observe, learn, undrrstand AND practice: one is the famous Moulla-bandha-Uddiyana-bandha concept, and the other is the Ujjayi breath, through the nose, via the partially closed Larinks (beginning of the air pipe, base of the throat) and into the lungs, filling them fully and in specific rythme. breathing slowly and strongly, same tythme in and out, creating the famous “stable fullo of co-ordinated astmatic horses” sound (all rights for the expressin reserved, be warned!). the breath and the bandhas support each other, quite cleverly I think:

1. proper mulla-uddiyana-bandha control lifts the pelvic floor and controlls the lower abdomen, creating a relatively tight bathing-suite all around the middle section of the body, protecting the lower back AND the abdomen from possible over-strain during the intense asana practice, which the Ashtanga is famous for

2. if the abdomen is held in and controlled due to the bandhas, breath cannot go into the abdomen Nor the abdomen should expand: for most people, if breath goes into the abdomen- Bandhas will release automatically. and then one is more likely to injure onself IF PRACTICING INTENSLY. and ashtanga, as I recognize it and love it passionatly, is intense. but practiced properly with those protective measures one os fully protected. guaranteed. and on: so the breath goes up to the lungs, opening up the chest and its entire anatomy (Yogic and western) , LIFTING prana and doing clever tricks with the prana-apana relationship. on the physical level we extend up and away, creating more space between the vertabraes and enhancing our ability to practice asanas correctly, strongly, and behold- the ultmate stira-sukham evolves. (as I said before, my oppinion)

Mukunda, hope this is helpful.

blessings from the troubled Holy Land, and please pray with us to stop violence. Or at least to create a little “violence-vritti-nirodha.”


*LK: Thanks, Gilli. BTW, I think your English is great for a guy who’s not used to writing vowels into his words. : ) *

From: Carl Horowitz

I have also encountered one school of practice where the breath is taught in this order.

1. Expansion of the rib-cage.

2. Expansion of the chest.

3. Expansion of the abdomen

on inhale. And:

1. Contraction of the abdomen from the bottom up.

on exhale.

I don’t know what I think about saying that this is the right way to breathe.

But it also depends on the pose you are doing what part of your body expands first.

When you are swinging your arms out, around and up, like in many popular versions of a sun salutation, the above order of expansion may naturally happen with the movement, because the arms reaching out to the side causes the rib-cage to expand out to the sides, and the arms raising then causes the chest to expand. But if you focused on beginning the same movement with external rotation of the arms before you started swinging them out around and up you would end up breathing into your chest first.

If you were doing a side lean you may expand the rib-cage on one side more than the other as you inhale. You also may focus on the expansion of the rib-cage on that side before you expanded the chest. This should just happen as a result of the shape your body has taken in the pose.

Twists change the shape of the body asymmetrically as well and if you are doing a twist and one leg is restricting movement of part of you abdomen, then you would not be able to breath as deeply into the part of the abdomen where movement is restricted. You may also breathe more into one side of the rib-cage, and you would probably use the intercostal muscles and the muscles of the abdomen that are creating the twist to help press air out on the exhale a little more than you would normally.

Some forward bends may demand that there is very little movement in the abdomen because the abdomen’s expansion is restricted by the legs. Child’s pose would be an example. Try breathing into your abdomen in child’s pose and notice how much tension this can create.

Some back bends enhance the expansion of the chest on inhale, and some back bends are so deep that they can restrict movement in the chest while you are holding the pose; so you may not be able to expand the chest any more than it already is while inhaling in a pose like urdhva dhanurasana.

So the way the body expands and contracts during the breathing process not only changes as a result of the individual and his/her needs, but also as a result of the shape the body has taken in the position it is in.


From: Owen Daly

Dear ESutra,

I do not have Leslie’s broad and deep exposure to different teachers and traditions, and I have not made the effort Mukunda is making to differentiate between the different styles of Hatha Yoga. I honor both of your approaches as good and useful. I do offer my take on the subject in hopes that it will add to the discussion.

Filling the lungs from the bottom up or from the top down are images, not biological reality as Leslie correctly points out. That does not invalidate them, but to the contrary, helps point out that images are one of the most evocative tools a yoga teacher has. As Angela Farmer has said in her workshops and on her beautiful tape ’The Feminine Unfolding’, “The body loves images.”

We call the asana ’Mountain’, not ’standing up straight’ and ’Down Dog’, not ’on hands and feet with your butt up in the air’. My thought is that we do this because of the images they evoke and the body’s response to those images.

Long before medical science looked inside the body to see the mechanics and then the chemistry of how the body functions yogiis had very useful images of the flows of energy throughout the body, of which breath was a key part. Paying attention to the breath helps you concentrate. Giving yourself or a student an image facilitates this process. Different images result in different physical results. These physical results are reasonably consistent for different individuals. To me, one of the delights of Yoga is the discovery of the physical result in my body from working with the images that have been discovered, refined and handed down over long periods of time.

I find that ’bottom up breath’ has somewhat different physical results from ’top down breath’, but both result in a slow conscious filling of the lungs to near capacity. The sensation I get is that bottom up draws more attention to the belly and is more grounding and top down draws attention to the head and is more uplifting.

I do not mean to communicate that images are the objective, but they are a useful tool, remembering that there is both embracing an image and the ability to let go of the image and be with what is, but that is another discussion.

-Owen Daly

*LK: I would say that images, like metaphors and emotions are real. They are real as *experiences*. For me, the relevant question is: “Do the images, metaphors and emotions that I experience correspond to objective reality or not?” All the images I use when teaching yoga correspond to anatomical reality.*

From: jj gormley

Hi Leslie:

I’m certainly no expert on all this, but thought I’d at least share how I teach breathing–which does not follow any particular school, but what I’ve picked up on over the years. My personal background is about 50:50 iyengar and non-iyengar.

To my beginning students I teach softening the belly muscles to allow the breath to move the diaphragm downward, hence moving the organs outward. this i call belly breathing.

Next, I teach what I call complete breath which sounds like what Mukunda is talking about. I teach students to keep the belly muscles soft at first to allow movement of the belly by the initial part of the breath. But then the rest of the breath–most of the breath will begin to expand the ribs outward and upward. next (the third breath i teach to my beginners) is keeping a little bit of abdominal muscles working, while at the same time releasing the ribs so that the breath expands the ribs outward/upward/backward.

This is the beginning practice of moving toward Ujjayi which I refine a bit more in the more intermediate level classes. I might remark that I teach the breath down the back of the nasal passageway to create the “sound of ujjayi” is from a relaxation rather than a tension or constricted feeling that is usually taught in Iyengar methods.

I also of course, teach numerous other breaths in the upper level classes I teach.

Also, I teach that the way the breath or “air” enters into the lungs is always the same, but how you relax and/or tense parts of the body can create different breaths and that there are hundreds of breaths in yoga. And, that NO breath is right and NO breath is wrong. What is important is to assess what kind of breathinng we’ve been doing all our life and then, as all yoga practice is to bring balance by making changes in our habitual way of moving, thinking, and here in breathing, we change our breath habits in a short breath practice each day (roughly). Over time, our ability to do many different types of yogic breaths will improve. As this happens, our nervous system becomes stronger and able to handle stress better. That’s it in a nutshell.

in love and light,

jj gormley

sun and moon yoga studio

2105 N Pollard St

Arlington, VA 22207

703 525 9642


Isn’t it the movement of the diaphragm that brings the air into the lungs? This may be part of the confusion. On inhale the diaphragm causes the air to enter the lungs, the diaphragm goes down (contracts)which causes (or can cause) the abdomen to go out (thus the idea is created that air goes there, which it doesn’t). On exhale the diaphragm rises, stale air is released and then new air is sucked back into the lungs. At least this is what I understand.


*LK: yup.*
From: Shirley Worth

I haven’t contributed much, though I thoroughly enjoy the “conversations” on this list and very much appreciate Leslie’s efforts in keeping it going.

But Tom Stiles’ question about breath touched a chord from my early yoga days, when I took classes from a teacher who taught the “3-part yoga breath” and taught us to breathe first into the belly, then middle chest, then upper chest — a practice I felt was effective in deepening my breath. After practicing that for a while, I took pranayama classes from Iyengar teachers who introduced me to more complex patterns and empasized observing the sensations associated with the breath — a practice I felt succeeded in softening my breath. After several years, I had an opportunity to observe another class taught by my early teacher — and was a little shocked at the harshness of the breath in students who were putting such forceful effort into following her careful instructions on how to breathe. Since then it has been my fascination to find out how to both soften and deepen the breath in my own practice, and how to help students in my classes do the same. What I think I have figured out is that it’s not enough just to describe a practice to the student who will then do her best to do what I describe, working into all his weaknesses and conditioned movement habits to do so. I need to observe how the student interprets and expresses what I describe, and then adjust my description for that individual student at that particular time. Leslie, I liked your comment about “confusion between muscular movements and air movements” and explanation of both. I have a question: You said, “A belly breath does NOT bring air into the belly…” I wonder is that the same as saying a b.b. does not bring prana into the belly? I’m thinking (could be wrong of course) that expanding the belly really does nothing for deepening the breath, because lung expansion comes from the ribs doing that pump handle thing and the diaphragm going flat. (Does poofing the belly out really help the diaphragm contract??) But I remember sometimes after a vigorous session of belly breathing, I would feel like belching.

Any comments??


*LK: Many people learn to exaggerate the “bulging belly inhale” because they were taught that this is the proper way to use the diaphragm. A belly breath is actually created by simultaneously contracting the diaphragm along with the muscles that limit ribcage movement. Overdoing this pattern has the effect of tightening the ribcage and upper back and over-stretching the muscles of the upper abdomen. Other effects can include belching and acid reflux.*
From: Valdeane W. Brown, Ph.D.

Actually Leslie I was being very precise and did mean to reference diaphragmatic breathing as an emphasis of the entire respiratory process and to keep that distinct from any emphasis on the movement of the abdomen per se. My experience is that the focus on the movement of the abdomen is not that useful and is not very clear. There are many, many reasons that the abdomen may move during respiration — and many of those reasons may have little to nothing to do with facilitating respiration re se and certainly not with facilitating pranayama.

The use of the term “Diapragmatic breathing” vs “Thoracic” or “Apical” breathing is fairly standard in psychophysiological circles and indicates the relative prominence of each of these anatomically localized “regions” rather than any absolute reference to just the relevant musculature. In actual fact it is extremely difficult to register no muscular activity in any of those regions whenevery any respiratory activity occurs; however, it can and does happen. The relevant psychophysiological measure is the relative degree of muscular activity within each region (referenced to its own prior history as measured by EMG sensors) and the degree of muscular activity within each of the regions in contrast to the amounts measured in the other regions. These measurements, coupled with measurements of total volume of air, end tidal volume, shape of the response curve of the muscular activity, and the blood gas dynamics, have been used to really understand the psychophysiology of respiration in various contexts.

*LK: I’m still confused by your terminology. If “diaphragmmatic” refers to a region of movement, what is that region? The structure of the diaphragm extends from “nipple to navel” (between the 4th and 6th rib spaces and the 2nd and 3rd lumbar vertebrae). Also, how does one get a direct EMG reading of diaphragmmatic activity? Where do you stick the electrodes?*

When I reference the downward rotation of the lowest ribs as enclosing the diaphragm and precluding its “expanding” fully, it seems to me that that message is fairly clear. When they are rotated downwards, the lower ribs become, in effect, a cage enclosing the diaphragm in that and this “cage” precludes the radially outward movement range of the diaphragm. This effect can be demonstrated quite easily with EMG sensors.

*LK: The diaphragm is a muscular structure, and as such, it does not expand; it contracts. So, your terminology is still confusing me. The only structures that truly expand (increase in volume) during respiration are the lungs and ribcage. It’s anatomically correct to say that the contraction of the diaphragm causes the expansion of the ribcage, yet you seem to be saying that a contraction of the ribcage prevents the expansion of the diaphragm!*

One of the major reasons to emphasize this aspect of the respiratory process is that, while much attention is frequently focussed on decreasing respiratory rate, not many instructors focus on the precise postural disturbance of the downward rotation of the lowest ribs which is what directly increases respiratory rate for physiological reasons. Without correcting this precise imbalance, the diaphragm will remain constricted in its “centrifugal expansion”, and this will place a limit of range of decrease possible in respiratory rate. Focussing on the movement of the abdoment will not alter this structural limit, the lower ribs must be rotated back upwards first or else a fairly absolute “floor” is set re: lowering respiratory rate.

*LK: The above would make sense to me if you simply said: “….. the *ribcage* will remain constricted in its ‘centrifugal expansion’…….” *

The faster respiratory rate directly affects the amount of CO2 saturated in the blood and this directly affects the degree of anxiety experienced by the student. Yes, in end stage COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) the movement of the diaphragm can become almost totally eclipsed. Again, this has been demonstrated with EMG sensors and other psychophysiological monitoring systems. It is one of the specific reasons that the “air hunger” encountered by person suffering from COPD is experienced as anxiety instead of suffocation even though it is, in fact, also suffocating. Administering anti-anxiety agents helps alleviate both symptoms in those cases, and is another factor in understanding that it is respiratory rate that is critical as the direct pharmacologic affect of anti-anxiety agents is to decrease respiratory rate.

BTW, I am a psychologist but not a professor; however, my wife was a professor of psychology/psychiatry. I am also a 35+ year yoga, meditation and chinese martial art practitioner and very long time teacher of all three. I also ran a pain management program for a number of years that was based on an intensive yoga and pranayama component, somewhat along the lines of what has been done by Kabat-Zinn and Ornish.

I hope that this forum continues to be an arena in which sharing about yoga, pranayama and practice can continue and I thank you for your efforts to establish and facilitate it.

Jai Bhagwan, val

From: tatiana from Los Angeles would like to throw her hat into the pranayama debate.

In most instances, I teach mulabandha breathing, as taught by my teacher Dona Holleman. Exceptions are when student is creating tension by using this method. BKS Iyengar in Light on Pranayama also explains this same breath, but calls it complete pranayamic breath.

As one inhales through the nostrils, the breath descends through a wide, lower throat down into the abdomen. The abdominal muscles gently contract to the sacrum, while the perineum lifts gently. The breath then should be visualized as moving up the inner spine to the top of the head, using the jalandrabandha to complete the inhalation. On the exhalation, the breath releases from the nostrils downward again toward the abdomen. Of course, the breath only moves into the bronchial tree.

*LK: You mean the *air* only moves into the bronchial tree. It is important to use the words “breath” and “air” appropriately in order to avoid confusion. “Breath” can mean any type of movement (air, pressure, muscles, blood gasses, imagery, etc.) that accompanies respiration. In her article in Yoga Journal about a year and a half ago, I specifically remember Dona Holleman saying that in “Mulabandha” breathing, the *AIR* descends into the abdomen during the inhale. Look it up…it’s right there in black and white. I was stunned that nobody corrected it prior to publication. So, you said breath when you meant air, and Dona said air when she meant breath.*

However, the movement of the abdomen toward the sacrum on the inhalation creates a wave action, which as the sit bones descend and the perineum (mulabandha) lifts, then, moves up the spine. As the abdominal organs have been moved up and back (gentle uddiyanabandha), the diaphragm cannot descend on the inhale, and thus has to move sideways, expanding the lower ribs. The wave which began in the lower body then moves up the inner spine, elongating the spine, moving into the latissimus, pectorals and brings the entire ribcage up. Finally the wave is caught by the jalandrabandha and extended to the crown of the head, much like a wave of the ocean, cresting, then crashing down, as the breath is exhaled. This breath can be used in pranayama, but more importantly, can also be used in asana to create more energy in the body.

In Dona Holleman’s book, DANCING THE BODY OF LIGHT, there is a fuller and more eloquent description.

I also use the analogy of a glass filling with water to describe the filling of the torso with breath, with energy. The idea being that prana and apana must be kept moving. That prana must be moved into the sushumna, up towards the brain. More oxygen, more quiet mind, soothed nervous system.

Expanding the abdomen on the inhalation is more a relaxing breath.


*LK: The abdominal breath can be relaxing if it’s done in a relaxed manner. It’s possible to do tense abdominal breathing, just as it’s possible to do relaxed clavicular breathing. The location of breath movement is just one among many factors that determine the quality of breathing.

Also, watch your “p’s” and “P’s” when writing about Prana. When you speak of the prana/apana relationship, it’s a lowercase “p.” When you speak of Prana as the sum total of our life-energy, it’s the Uppercase “P.” In Viniyoga breathing methodology, it’s the “Big P.” that you want in your shushumna — which is where it will naturally go once you’ve removed the obstruction called kundalini.*

FROM – Mukunda Stiles

I just returned from 2 weeks away teaching in Boston and was delighted to see such a wonderful dialog on breathing. I am still getting some personal questions about this process of how we breath. I am especially appreciative of all of you who engaged so fully in inquiry about the benefits to physiology, energy and questions that were raised about how the respiratory muscles are involved when we go into controlled yogic breathing. Clearly we all have a lot to learn and share from each other. I am grateful at reading Leslie’s insightful comments on the motions of the diaphragm. This is the kind of dialog I used to enjoy in Institute for Yoga Teacher Education (now Iyengar Yoga Institute) during my trainings with yoga physiology teacher (now psychiatrist Paul Copeland) and Judith Lasater.

I am surprised that I did not notice several groups represented in the discussions and I would love to hear from Anusara Yoga, Bikram Yoga, and Swarupa Yoga teachers about whether you are taught to breathe from top down or bottom up and your findings of its benefits and detriments. I don’t know of other groups that might not have input into the dialog but I would love to hear from all methods.

stay well and happy,

Jai Ma

Mukunda Tom Stiles

1660 Egret Way

Superior, CO. 80027


From: Leslie Kaminoff

I just found the passage I previously referred to in Iyengar’s “Light on Pranayama.”

On page 23 of the hardcover edition, Chapter 4, Sec. 18 refers to a “total or pranayamic inspiration” as progressing from the action of lowering the dome of the diaphragm to “the next action of the sequence, the elevation and expansion of the lower ribcage in ascending upwards.” Basically, bottom-to-top.

This appears to be different from what Judith Lasater has said she was taught personally by Mr. Iyengar, i.e.: expanding the inhale three-dimensionally.
From: Carl Horowitz

*LK…All the images I use when teaching yoga correspond to anatomical reality.*>>

What if an image that does not correspond to anatomical reality causes a particular student to understand what they are doing with their body and/or their breath more effectively than an image that corresponds to anatomical reality? Wouldn’t this be a way of matching the practice to the needs of the student? Of course it might be a good idea for the teacher to understand what is going on anatomically first, before coming up with visual images that do not correspond to what is really going on anatomically.


Leslie responds:

I agree. I didn’t mean to imply that I had a problem with non-anatomical images used in yoga teaching; as long as the teacher knows what they are doing. I have a personal preference for anatomy-based images because I teach anatomically based classes and workshops that focus on the structure of the breathing mechanism.

Even so, there is a distinction between on the one hand, anatomy-based and reality-based imagery, and on the other hand, faulty anatomy-based and fantasy-based imagery. The former brings you closer to clarity, while the latter brings you further from clarity.

Not all reality-based imagery is anatomically grounded, but it does correspond to the sensory, emotional and practical realities of what’s going on with a particular student; I believe that’s what you’re referring to above.

An example of faulty anatomy based-imagery would be: asking a student to inhale the *air* into the base of the lungs first, then make it rise upwards to the top of the lungs. As we’ve discussed, this doesn’t happen because of the structure of the bronchial tree, and reinforcing that image takes one further from clarity.

An example of fantasy-based imagery would be: asking a student to breathe in white light, surround themselves in it, breathe it back out into the world, so it can expand all the way to the Middle East, where it will enter into the hearts of all the terrorists who want to kill us, and suddenly make them realise that they should stop hating us because they are contributing to the wounding of our collective soul. Reinforcing an image like that takes one really far from clarity.

In short, my view is that the use of imagery in the teaching of yoga should for the purpose of bringing the student closer to a state of clarity about the interrelatedness of their mind, body and breath.

From: Tatiana

I am greatly enjoying the breath dialogue. Thank you for creating this forum where we can understand better our own training by juxtapositioning it with other training.

In your response to me re: ’mulabandha breathing’ as taught by Dona Holleman, you pointed out quite correctly that breath, air and prana (little p, or big P, makes a difference), are to be treated carefully. Recalling that Dona was trained originally by Mr. Iyengar over 40 years ago, and that as you pointed out in Light on Pranayama, Mr. Iyengar calls it a full pranayamic breath, I believe this ’mulabandha breath’ and pranayamic breath are the same.

*LK: I don’t get that at all, but it’s hard to tell from written accounts.

It’s difficult enough to be clear when teaching this stuff one-on-one to a student. One absolutely should not try to learn pranayama from a book or an article.*

I am pleased to read Mukunda’s call to teachers from the various schools to explain their training in the breathing flow, and look forward to more dialogue.

…..wanted to add that the Iyengar system does teach a three part breath called Viloma, inhaling from the pubic bone to the navel, pausing, continuing the inhale from the navel to the nipple area, pausing, then completing the inhalation from the nipple to the clavicle, pausing, then one long gentle exhale. (This also has variations Viloma I, II, and III).

This, of course, includes visualization, as you correctly pointed out before, the inhalation only goes into the bronchial tree. So what is being felt is a movement of energy.

Thanks again. tatiana
Hi from NYC

Re: Sivananda yoga = 3-part breath, starting from the abdomen, then ribcage (and all around the back for more advanced) and all the way up to under the clavicles (all around to the shoulder blades for more advanced) = Bottom to top

The exhale is also bottom-to-top.

FYI – Sivananda also relaxes “bottom to top” *LK: I think you mean the progressive relaxation in Savasana at the end of class…*

Om shanti, Vani Devi

Comments (5)

I was happy to see this website topic on breathing stiles and found most comments very interesting. Would like to add my personal experience too. I first started practicing Ashtanga yoga and as mentioned brfore it applies the bottom top breathing technique engaging the muhla banda at the pelvic floor and the uhdijanabanda below the bellybutton. In this way when inhaling, the lowest belly does not extend outwards although the diaphragm move downwards . The breath then moves upwards opening the middle ribcage sideways and finishing the inhale with the upper chest expanding and opening the heart area. It feels like a very natural breath although the bandas have to be consciously engaged and we often tend to over-engage and create tension, which does not allow the diaphragm to move all the way it should downwards. The exhale is from bottom to top. But the energy movement in the bottom -top breath is pana moving downwards on the inhale and apaña uppwards on the exhale, both meeting at Samana in the navel area. What to me is very important in breathing is the connection between inhale and exhale.
On the other hand the krishnamacharya vinification yoga practice applies the top-bottom breathing. I can understand why it might be called ‘backward breathing’ it feels in the beginning much more unnatural than the bottom -top breath. But if one sticks to this breathtaking pattern for some time the breathing will become more natural and specially the breath-bandas connection will be noticed. In top-bottom breathing the upper chest at the shoulder level and heart will expand first and when full capacity is reached, the air will move naturally down the spine and all the way to the pelvic floor. To me the major benefit of this top-bottom breath is that when inhaling and expand ding the chest, the muhla and uhdijanabanda will engage almost automatically. It’s comparable to holding a rubber band from both ends and when pulling the upper end of the band the lower end will fill the pulling and engage by itself. This does not happen when breathing bottom -top. On the exhale the breath moves bottom -top, squeezIng the lower and then the navel part of the belly inwards towards the spine and an the end of the exhale the chest also contracts. But due to the top-bottom movement of breath on the Inhale, when exhaling the chest-heart area stays open until the very end of the exhale (which to me is whan one wants to achieve) also in a very natural way and without having to do much. So in my personal experience although the top-bottom my seam strange and unnatural at first inight yoga practice it has a very natural link to bandas ans prana-apaña energy movement. Also in pranayama in my experience the longer kumbaka breath retentions are much more relaxed and easy to hold. The beath-movement relation is to me also more sportive of each others in the top-bottom breathing, specially in back bendings and twists. When starting the breath at the top the breath supports the opening of the chest from the very beginning of the asana. In twists the chests has space to expand (as o posed to the belly in bottom-top breath) and the top-bottom movement of the breath lengthens the spine from the top and supports it in a way that when twisting the body keeps long….hard to explain in words.
To me a question is if krishnamacharya when younger ,applied the bottom -top breathing and taught it to his disciples Iyengar and pattabhi jois, which they in turned Incorporated to their practice and teachings. And when older, Krishnamacharya explored the top-bottom breathing and incorporates it to his Vini yoga method? Maybe some one has an answer to this question…..


Wow, I just found this page and this is so interesting, thanks!
I haven’t got much to add, but still..

I use most of the time the “Desikachar-breathing technique” (inhale from top to bottom). For example one of benefits is that when you’re in a standing position the back (and the posture) goes in to the right position naturally while inhaling, that’s because of the extension of the lower back.
I breath as freely as possible. Because if I try to do anything else than relax all the muscles surrounding the lungs it restricts breathing. For example even a small amount of uddiyana-bandha during inhaling lowers the breathing capacity. That’s why I wonder why they teach in astanga vinyasa yoga (at least here in Finland) that you need to do uddiyana-bandha during the whole asana practise.

Occasionally I use “natural breathing” (from bottom to top), I call it that because (what I understand) that’s how a baby breaths.
The main benefit is that it calms the mind. If I’m in a hurry or have stress, breathing from top to bottom doesn’t have the same effect, at least to me.

Best regards, Lasse Aitokari, yoga teacher since -98

Wow, what a great thread I have stumbled upon. I’m doing my usual mad research to prepare a workshop on “Moving from Breath” next Sunday.

I’m writing to contest/clarify one vital detail concerning the action of the diaphragm during inhale. Leslie Kaminoff states “the fundamental activity of the diaphragm is not downward movement; it is contraction.” Of course, the fundamental activity of any muscle is contraction, and thereby shortening the distance between origin and insertion points.

What distinguishes the diaphragm from every other muscle I know of is that it expands its diameter (and thereby the circumference of the lower ribs) by contracting! Whoever came up with this design solution was a genius (whether monk or monkey, who knows)! This magic trick is what initiates the bucket-handle lifting of the lower ribs. These two actions–flattening of the dome plus expansion and lift of the lower ribs–are, to my understanding, the ideal way to begin an inhale.

Thus, to allow the belly to expand excessively is not how we should be breathing. It is also not how we should teach proper breathing. Belly breathing does help to get the diaphragm moving more freely, with greater travel up and down. This is why I always lead students in belly breathing first. But! The focus has to shift upwards to expanding the lower ribs. I avoid much talk of contracting or firming the belly. It works better to shift focus to the action desired (“wrap your hands around your side ribs and expand here as you inhale “) rather than against the action we do not desire.

Anyway, my two cents worth. I would love to receive a response to this.
Thanks for the discussion!
Joseph Roberson

Hi Joseph.

Thanks for your contribution. I will insert my replies into your comments below:

Thus, to allow the belly to expand excessively is not how we should be breathing.

The belly does not expand in breathing because it does not undergo volume change. It bulges. Also, to imply that there is a way we should be breathing reinforces the erroneous view that there is a single right way to breathe – which there is not.

It is also not how we should teach proper breathing.

Again…there is no such thing as “proper breathing.” There is a correct way to do techniques, but that is a different matter.

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