Breathing and yoga

This text is taken from the book Enjoy Hatha Yoga by Khun Reinhard.

Often we breathe shallowly and in­com­plete­ly, not util­iz­ing the lung capacity. As a result the supply of oxygen is in­suf­fi­cient and the me­tab­o­lism is im­paired. Used air ac­cu­mu­lates in the lungs, result­ing in feeling tired, indo­lent maybe even a little de­pressed. Proper breath­ing relaxes and has an in­vig­or­ating effect on the body and the mind, sup­port­ing inner balance and peace of mind.

Yoga emphasizes the importance of proper breath­ing and one of the eight limbs of the yoga of physical and mental control is dedicated to the de­vel­op­ment and control of breath­ing, known as Prana­yama. Here the proper and com­plete form of yoga-breath­ing will be introduced.

A general introduction, first into the phys­i­o­log­ical basics of res­pi­ra­tion, then into yoga-breath­ing is given.

More details regarding the phys­iology of res­pi­ra­tion are pro­vid­ed in the free pdf-version.
Please find the download link at the bot­tom of this page.

The Simple exercises page of this web­site in­tro­duces ex­er­cis­es to co­or­di­nate breath­ing with bodily move­ments.

Physiology of respiration

The respiration process is responsible to take oxygen from the environment into the human body, to use it for the met­a­bolic proc­esses and to return carbon dioxide back to the sur­round­ings. The focus here is on the external respiration or on the breathing process.

Breathing process – ventilation
Breathing in is an active process caused by contraction of the res­pi­ra­tory muscles. The diaphragm should do most of the contraction work (75% at rest). Due to expansion of the thorax the pres­sure inside the lungs will fall below at­mos­pheric pressure, ambient air will flow via the air passages (nose, throat, trachea, and the more than 20 levels of bronchi and bron­chi­oles) into the alveoli where the gas exchange takes place. At the end of the inhalation the pres­sure inside the lungs is at­mos­pheric pressure.
Breathing out is a passive process for people at rest, caused by relaxing the res­pi­ra­tory muscles and the elastic recoiling of the lungs and thorax. The volume of the thoracic cavity is decreasing, the pres­sure inside the lungs exceeds the at­mos­pheric pres­sure and used air is expulsed from the lungs until the pres­sure inside the lungs equals at­mos­pheric pres­sure. The out–breath finishes at a res­pi­ra­tory resting level where all res­pi­ra­tory muscles are relaxed.

The lung volumes and capacities as depicted in Diagram 1 are valid for a male adult at rest and differ for example with body size and age of the individual as well as with bodily activities. Lung capacities are summarized lung volumes.

Lungenvolumina Diagram 1: Lung volumes and capacities
Legende zu Lungenvolumina

An increased tidal volume could not only be achieved by deeper in­ha­la­tion but by forced exhalation as well. That would put the respiratory muscles to work during in­ha­la­tion as well as during exhalation. More important: While the lung volume and the diameters of the bronchi are increasing when inhaling, forced exhalation decreases both, resulting in higher air flow resistance. Thus forced exhalation requires more effort per extra volume of air than increased in­ha­la­tion. Therfore it is advised to realize higher tidal volumes by
increasing the inha­lation, the available inspiratory reserve volume only, and to keep the ex­ha­la­tion passive (this is de­pict­ed by the green curve in Diagram 1). People unfamiliar with dia­phrag­mat­ic breath­ing should practise this form of breath­ing (see the Complete yoga-breath­ing sequence in the next chapter) first and increase the tidal volume little by little. Blowing oneself up like a balloon right from the start will cause tension and is counter­productive.

Literature gives us a ‘normal’ breathing rate of 12–16 breaths per minute = 4–5 seconds per breath, which is in line with the ob­ser­va­tion of many peoples own breath­ing pat­terns. Yet breath­ing in and out at a rate of 16 breaths/ min is quite quick, is already regarded as over- breath­ing or as hyper­ven­ti­la­tion by some. Hyper­ven­ti­la­tion has a range of negative effects on body and mind incl. stress, anxieties, even panic, con­tract­ing blood vessels and a resulting lack of blood supply to the body cells and especially to the brain – a deeper and slower breath­ing pattern would be desirable.

Slower exhalation helps to empty the lungs completely, thus providing more available space for the following inhalation, which in turn will be slower and steadier as well – the breath­ing fre­quen­cy will decrease.

Research with chant­ing and medi­tating monks by Dr Paul John­son (see Diagram 2) has shown, that the breathing rate under these for both body and mind calming and relaxing cir­cum­stances slows down to around 6 breaths/min (see 2 minutes window in Diagram 2).

Heart Rate

This is a one hour long recording of the heart rate of the abbot at Little Mountain Temple in Hua Hin, Thailand. Chanting he breathes at 6 per minute (2 minutes win­dow) and his heart rate oscillated at this fre­quen­cy until he stopped chant­ing and med­i­tated for 20 min. before re­sum­ing chant­ing.

Diagram 2: Breathing fre­quen­cy and heart rate

It is especially important to slow down the out-breath. By slowing down the out-breath car­bon dioxide is kept in the blood at higher levels thus urging an increased oxygen transport from the red blood cells to the tissue, known as ‘Bohr-effect’, increasing the energy sup­ply of the body. It may sound paradox, but the longer the exhale  is  ex­tend­ed,
the more oxygenation of the body can occur.
In yoga it is suggested for ages that we should breathe slowly with the out-breath lasting longer than the in-breath (see the next chapter) and it seems western-scientific methods can now contribute to better under­stand this ancient recommendation.

Complete yoga–breathing

Whenever possible breathe in and out through the nose. During prac­tise, you can breathe out through the mouth and pro­duce a "pff" tone with the cheeks gently inflated, thus slowing the out–breath. This will support the lengthening of the out-breath towards being approx. twice as long as the in-breath.

The time ratio for breath­ing should be
 2 : 1 : 4
with the 2 being the in-breath,
the 4 being the out–breath
and the 1 being the gap between them.

The time ratio of 2 : 1 : 4 is suitable or beginners. With this ratio the breath is flowing smoothly, is not strained. One may start with inhaling for 2sec., then holding the breath for 1sec. followed by an out-breath that takes 4sec. There is no extra gap or break between the out- and in-breath. Little by little one can then increase the times, maybe to 4(6)sec. - 2(3)sec. - 8(12)sec. When prac­ticing Prana­yama the ratio will be gradually changed towards longer periods of time for holding the breath like 2 : 8 : 4. Prana­yama should be prac­tised only under super­vision of an experienced teacher.

When observing the breathing process one can notice that especially the long and slow out-breath will not stop sud­den­ly. It will fade away, almost unnotice­able, becoming gentle and soft and the body ceases to move as the breath comes to an end. One may regard the end of the long and slow out- breath, where nothing seems happening, as a gap as well.
The ideal breathing is deep, slow, easy and inaudible. The out-breath should not be intensified or forced. The air should not be retained for longer periods of time as air hunger may shorten the exhalation instead of increasing it. The yogis in India  recommend  breathing  as  if  we were sup­plied with a certain number of breaths for our whole life and when this amount is finished we have to die.

The in-breath is active, filling the lungs from the "bottom" to "top" by engaging the respiratory muscles. The out-breath is passive, simply by relaxing these muscles. At first the abdominal area, followed by the chest area, will sink back. The complete in-breath covers three parts:
  1. Abdominal or lower breath­ing (dia­phrag­mat­ic breath­ing), caused by forc­ing the di­a­phragm down­ward, thus making it flat. The belly will be vis­i­bly pushed outward. (approx. 60% share of the total lung capacity).
  2. Chest or middle breath­ing (rib cage breath­ing), caused by widening the ribs and rising the rib cage (30% share of the total lung capacity).
  3. Clavicle or upper breath­ing (lung tip breath­ing), caused by rising the upper part of the thorax or by ro­tat­ing the shoul­ders for­ward (approx. 10% share of the lung ca­paci­ty).
To practise the complete yoga– breath­ing one can either lie on one’s back or sit on a chair. Lying on the back means abdominal and back mus­cles need not to be tensed to keep the body upright. The mus­cles nec­es­sary for the breath­ing process can thus work unre­stricted.

Breathing exercises in a sitting posture:
  • Use a chair or stool with a hard and flat seat. Don’t lean against the back­rest; sit close to the front end.
  • The knees should be below the pelvis. If nec­es­sary use a pillow or blanket to raise the pelvis.
  • The feet should rest parallel and shoul­der width apart on the floor.
  • The hands should rest relaxed on the thighs.
  • Keep the joints relaxed.
  • Sitting straight
    • Sit with your buttocks on your palms, shift and balance the weight by moving the upper body slightly back­wards, for­wards and side wards. Sense by the pres­sure on your hands when you are upright.
    • Remove the hands gently one by one, adjust the balance.
    • Straighten up from the pelvis to the head.

Complete yoga–breath­ing sequence:

Loose and comfortable clothing, fresh air and a relaxed pos­ture are es­sen­tial.

Try to visualize the way the breath trav­els during the breath­ing ex­er­cise.
People with low blood pressure may ex­pe­ri­ence diz­zi­ness in the begin­ning. No need to worry. Lie down and rest the legs higher than the head. The diz­zi­ness will dis­appear. The body will adjust after a couple of days.
  1. Abdominal (dia­phrag­matic) breath­ing
    • During practice only: Breathe out completely by pull­ing the ab­do­men in and hold the breath for a few seconds.
    • Relax the abdominal mus­cles and breathe in slowly and inau­dibly. The ab­do­men should expand slightly out­wards, the chest should not move.
    • Place one hand on the ab­dom­en and the other on the ribs to control the move­ment of the ab­do­men or the non– move­ment of the chest re­spec­tively.
    • The practice of "Tiger breath­ing" (see Simple ex­er­cis­es) is very help­ful if the ab­do­men will not move in the be­gin­ning. You can tighten a belt around your chest to prevent chest breath­ing.
  2. Chest (rib cage) breath­ing
    • During practice only: Breathe out completely by pulling the ab­do­men in and keeping the abdominal mus­cles tensed.
    • Place the thumbs under the armpits on the sides of the rib cage so the finger­tips are touching on top of the ster­num.
    • Keep the abdominal mus­cles tensed and breathe in. The thorax widens and the finger­tips separate (approx. 3cm if possible).
  3. Clavicle (lung tip) breath­ing
    • During practice only: Breathe out completely by pull­ing the ab­do­men in and keeping the ab­do­minal mus­cles tensed.
    • Place the right hand under the left collar­bone or left hand under the right collar­bone and breathe con­scious­ly against the weight or slight pressure of the hand.
    • Try to pull the collar­bones up with­out lifting the shoul­ders (rotate the shoul­ders for­ward).
  1. Complete breath­ing
    • During practice only: Breathe out completely by pulling the abdomen in.
    • Place one hand on the abdomen and the other on the ribs to control the movement of abdomen and chest.
    • Let the three kinds of breath­ing follow each other smoothly in the order given above.
    • Make sure that after the ab­dom­inal breath­ing is finished and the chest breath­ing begins, the ab­do­men does not sink back again, thus fill­ing the chest part of the lungs with air from the lower lungs instead of drawing in fresh air.
    • Once you are familiar with the complete breathing sequence it is no longer necessary to control the move­ments of abdomen and chest with your hands. No more forced exhalation by tensing abdominal mus­cles.


The complete text (nine A4 pages) can be down­loaded as a pdf-file at:
Breath­ing and yoga.pdf (456 kB)

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