Visual Learner? Here’s a Picture of Breathing

When I first heard yoga teachers and vocal coaches talk about the diaphragm, I managed to piece together the following: the diaphragm moves up and down, it’s paramount for breathing the “correct” way, and it’s located somewhere above the hips. I imagined a small disc floating around in the throat.

Now, I count myself among those who praise the benefits of diaphragmatic-awareness. Unfortunately, a typical 60-minute yoga class does not grant enough time to really dig into the subject, and that’s probably why many teachers skip the details and leave the students to their own imagination (which is a great strategy, sometimes). When it comes to the diaphragm, however, I believe a solid grasp on the anatomy of breathing can vastly enhance the yoga practice. So, let’s dive right in.

Here are some images of a (rather isolated) diaphragm.

While not actually orange, the diaphragm is a muscle that divides the torso in two parts with the lungs and heart above and the abdominal organs below. The dome-like shape as it is shown in the pictures is created in part by these organs pressing into it. If the diaphragm were removed from the body, it would lie flat like, I don’t know, a pancake.

Here’s a better analogy–think of the diaphragm like a parachute.

On inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and flattens somewhat, because this gives the lungs the space necessary to expand. In doing so, the diaphragm presses down into the contents of the abdomen, which causes the belly bulge. On exhalation, the diaphragm lifts back up into the lungs to empty them–returning to its dome-like shape–and the belly ceases to bulge.

Ever wonder why it’s hard to breathe after eating a large meal? A full stomach takes up more space in the abdomen so the diaphragm can’t lower as much as it usually does, meaning there isn’t as much room above for the lungs to expand. Fascinating!

Putting it all together: on inhalation the diaphragm lowers, the lungs expand, and the belly bulges. On exhalation the diaphragm lifts, the lungs empty, and the belly returns to its resting shape.

With this image of breathing anatomy in mind, try cycling through cat and cow. Maybe now it makes a bit more sense why we usually exhale in cat pose: the belly pulls into the body so it assists in the lifting of the diaphragm and the emptying of the lungs. In cow pose, the front of the body is stretched so the belly is unimpeded and the diaphragm can lower, which allows the lungs to expand. In other words, we can utilize the breath to assist in the stretch of the pose.

There are many other ways to apply this newfound, anatomical understanding of breathing to the yoga poses. Take, for example, a backbend pose, such as bridge. While breathing in the pose, focus on the action of the exhalation: the belly contracts and the diaphragm lifts to empty the lungs. In doing so, the lower back will most likely lengthen, which is a happier, safer place for the lower spine (when compared to arching it a lot).

Put your body into some different poses, and observe how your breath takes shape. What does the inhalation feel like in a twist? An exhalation in a forward fold? Get curious about the limitless world of your own breathing body!


This article was provided by Julie Price. Want to learn more about breath and how it relates to asana? Sign up for Julie’s pranayama workshop series, Tuesdays in July!

Join Julie for practice on Saturdays at 9am for basics 101 and  4:15pm open levels.

About Julie:
Julie brings a refreshing enthusiasm to her classes as she is excited to share some of the nuanced ways she has come to understand safe and effective alignment. Along with these straightforward cues, her teaching is characterized by lots of questions that ask students to explore the subtle realms of sensations throughout their own bodies. Through this practice, she wants students to leave feeling more centered, balanced and mindful. She is both grateful and thrilled to participate in this community and join her students and fellow teachers on this never-ending journey of understanding. Currently a student of acupuncture, she combines what she knows of Indian philosophy with what she’s learning in Chinese medicine to inform her teaching.