30
HUMAN ANATOMY
You take a breath 12–20 times per minute. The
purpose of your breath is to get oxygen to your
cells and to get rid of waste like carbon dioxide.
The respiratory system includes the nasal
cavities, air passageway tubes, and lungs.
SYSTEM OVERVIEW
You dont have to think to breathe; respiration
is a part of your autonomic nervous function.
However, yogis claim that by controlling your
breath, you can control all aspects of being.
Science reveals that your breath is an access
point to regulating your nervous system.
RESPIRATORY
SYSTEM
Neti pots
The neti pot is a part of traditional yogic hygiene
practices. It involves pouring clean (ltered or boiled),
warm salt water in one nostril to ll the sinuses and
drain out the other nostril. Neti pots (or a similar
sinus rinse) are recommended by many modern
physicians to help allergies and respiratory illness.
Frontal sinus
Maxillary sinus
Nasal
passageway
Diaphragm
Primary muscle
of respiration
Lungs
Branching
airways end here;
oxygen enters
blood and carbon
dioxide is removed
Larynx
Top part of trachea,
contains vocal cords
Trachea
Also called the
windpipe, carries
air to lungs
Mouth
Air can enter here,
though less ecient
Nostril
Openings in the nose
Epiglottis
Flap that closes o
trachea to keep food
from entering airways
Nasal cavity
Air entering through
nose is humidified,
warmed, and filtered
SINUSES
Your sinuses are a system of connected,
air-filled cavities in your skull. They make
your skull lighter, help your voice to resonate,
and aect your breath.
Sphenoid and
ethmoid sinuses
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31
HOW WE BREATHE
When you inhale, the breath enters your nose, throat,
and then your lungs. Your lungs and ribcage expand three-
dimensionally in all directions; your diaphragm engages
to flatten. When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes
to ascend, your lungs and ribcage compress, and the air
releases out of your throat and then nose.
Belly breathing
“Belly breathing” doesn’t mean
you are actually breathing in
your belly, but rather that you
are allowing your belly to move
freely with your breath. When
your diaphragm engages with
the inhale, it presses against
your abdominal organs—
pushing down and out, which
is why this is also called
diaphragmatic breathing.
Ribcage expands,
creating space
in chest
Air drawn in
through nose
or mouth
Air expelled
through nose
or mouth
Ribcage
releases
down
and in
Diaphragm
Lumbar
vertebrae
attach to
diaphragm
Ribs attach
to diaphragm
Ribcage
Bones surrounding
lungs
INHALE EXHALE
INFERIOR VIEW
Lungs
enlarge,
filling
with air
Lungs
decrease
in size,
pushing
out air
Diaphragm
contracts,
allowing lungs
to descend
Diaphragm
relaxes and
expands
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32
PRANAYAMA
Yogis use pranayama or breathwork to
control their prana and anchor to the
present moment. The word prana in
Sanskrit means vital energy or life-
force energy that permeates through
us and everything. Interestingly,
prana simultaneously means breath.
Yogis believe that you can change the
flow and qualities of your energetics
by breath control.
INHALE AND EXHALE
When you inhale, blood is shunted
to your heart and lungs to help them
function. Baroreceptors (see p.134)
sense this increased pressure and
respond by signaling to let o the
brake pedal, momentarily increasing
sympathetic activity. During each
exhale, your heart is slightly more
relaxed with increased parasympathetic
activity. This explains why elongating
your exhales in pranayama is relaxing.
Brain stem
Automatically
monitors breathing
Vagus nerve
Increases parasympathetic
nervous system (PSNS)
activity with exhales
Baroreceptor
Pressure receptors
located here
INHALE EXHALE
Sympathetic nerve
Increases sympathetic
nervous system (SNS)
activity with inhales
Heart
Relaxes slightly
with exhale
BREATHWORK
PRACTICES
Modern yogis use breathwork for health
benefits, including overcoming inecient
breathing patterns from a culture of poor
posture and stress. Through altering your
breath, you change your state of mind.
For example, you may practice left nostril
breathing and bee breath to calm down
or right nostril breathing and kapalabhati
for alertness.
Active exhale
Quick, forceful
exhale pushes
air out
Passive inhale
Pressure passively
allows air in
Abdominals
move gently
outward
Chest
expands
Abdominals
drawn in
Ribs drop in
BREATH OF FIRE (KAPALABHATI)
This is a fast breath that mimics
hyperventilation, increasing your
heart rate and blood pressure. It
also tones your abdominals. Avoid
this technique if you are pregnant or
have anxiety, certain eye conditions,
or high blood pressure. Similar
eects and precautions apply for
holding your breath (kumbhaka).
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33
HUMAN ANATOMY
Respiratory System
Vagus nerve
Increases parasympathetic
nervous system (PSNS)
activity with exhales
Left brain, right brain
Each half of your body is controlled by the opposite
hemisphere of your brain—meaning that your left arm is
controlled by the right half of your brain. The same is true of
your nostrils. This may have many implications, including a
slight overall increase in SNS activity when right nostril
breathing and PSNS when left, although evidence is mixed.
BRAIN HEMISPHERES
OPEN
PARTIALLY
CLOSED
Right nostril
breathing, alert
and energetic
Left brain,
increased
SNS activity
Right brain,
increased
PSNS activity
NASAL CYCLE
For many, each nostril takes turns dominating air
flow (in .5- to 4-hour shifts). This is called the nasal
cycle. You probably notice this more when you are
congested. Openness indicates local vasoconstriction
and the swollenness indicates vasodilation. Observe
this cycle naturally or try purposefully covering one
nostril for a desired eect (see panel right).
NASAL TISSUE
This image shows the right nasal passage
swollen while the left is open. In this case
the swelling is exacerbated by congestion.
VICTORIOUS BREATH (UJJAYI)
Victorious breath involves partially
constricting your vocal cords. The
feeling is similar to when you whisper
softly. It creates an ocean sound to
give your mind a focal point.
BEE BREATH (BRAHMARI)
This involves covering your eyes and
ears and humming on a long exhale.
Yogis used this to improve sleep.
Research shows it can lower heart
rate, blood pressure, and anxiety.
Finger
blocks one
nostril
Fingers and thumbs
cover ears and eyes
ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING
This technique may calm the mind
and body. It involves focus and
activation of both sides of the brain.
To practice it, just remember: exhale,
inhale, and switch nostrils.
Vocal cords
during
normal
breathing
Vocal cords
during ujjayi
Left nostril breathing,
calm and relaxed
Thumb
switches to
block other
nostril
Open nasal
passage
Engorged nasal
tissue
Maxillary sinus
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