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  • Jennifer Briere

The Mechanics of Breathing

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

The mechanics of breathing are not taught in yoga classes, and arguably barely taught in formal education. Yet it is the primary physical process (both an unconscious and conscious process) which every person on earth engages. Our world has been so far separated from natural living that most people now no longer breathe properly. This can be exacerbated with adages such as "breath deep." Yoga classes often teach pranayam, but without remedying the foundations of how we breathes, we are more prone to injury or discomfort.

Image by Kahhl Showing the Size of the Lungs

What are the mechanics of breathing?

The diaphragm is a muscle and, just like all other parts of our body, we need to intentionally repair and improve its functioning.

The diaphragm sits below the lungs, and above the stomach and liver. During the exhale, it is curved upwards, with the outer edges touching the bottom ribs; the middle section reaches up towards the heart, with fibers interlocking into the spine. On the inhale, the middle section is pushed downward by the lungs, straightening the diaphragm into a horizontal orientation; the fibers interlocking the spinal column are lengthened downward; the abdominal organs are pressed outward. There is not an intentional effort to press the belly out - a relaxed belly is pressed out as a function of the diaphragm muscle lowering.

For the first two-thirds of the breath, we experience this downward lengthening of the thoracic cavity. For the last third, the intercostal muscles of the ribs expand, allowing the downward expanded lungs to then also expand outward. The shoulders don't rise much. It is only during short, adrenalized breathing in emergencies that we find our shoulders rising naturally. If our shoulders are rising regularly during our daily breathing, we could actually be stimulating this adrenalized, sympathetic state.

Pranayam techniques use proper breathing as the foundation to then challenge, balance, or overall improve our physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational well-being. Public yoga classes are often very oriented towards teaching the practice of yoga as a whole. While beneficial overall, they are limited in specifically addressing an individual's specific respiratory needs.


Don't just breathe forward into the chest but also horizontally, expanding the intercostal muscles of the ribcage.

Image: Henry Gray; modified by user:gautehuus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Notes on the affect of breathing in daily life:

  1. Breathing correctly can help you maintain spinal alignment

  2. Breathing correctly can reduce reactivity and improve conscious response to life

  3. Fixing foundational breathing mechanics helps unlock the benefits of further pranayama practices

  4. Breathing correctly benefits sleep, digestion, mental clarity and immunity; and reduces overall stress including gastro-intestinal distress.

  5. The vagus nerve runs through an opening in the diaphragm. Intentionally slow, relaxed breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.

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