7 Breathing Lessons for Meditation


Students who have learned diaphragmatic breathing in one of the reclining yoga postures naturally expect the breath to feel the same in sitting poses. It may be a surprise to discover that it feels quite different. When you are lying on your back, the abdomen rises with the inhalation and falls with the exhalation. Sometimes yoga teachers call this “abdominal” or “belly” breathing, but the movement of the abdomen is actually the result of the contraction and descent of the diaphragm.

When you are lying down, the rib cage remains virtually still, while in sitting postures there is a natural and characteristic movement of the ribs.

In sitting postures, the diaphragm contracts and descends much like it does when you are lying down, but the results both look and feel different. The main contrast in the two styles of breathing is that when you are lying down, the rib cage remains virtually still, while in sitting postures there is a natural and characteristic movement of the ribs. Once this difference is recognized, sitting postures become easier, and breathing becomes more effective.

The best way to notice the difference is to observe yourself breathing in each of the two poses. But before we make the comparison, it may help if you have a mental picture of some of the range of movements possible during breathing. We’ll start with the diaphragm.

The Diaphragm and the Rib Cage

The diaphragm lies below the lungs. It rests, somewhat dome-shaped, over the abdominal organs with attachments to the lower ribs, the spine, and the base of the breastbone. When the dome of the diaphragm descends during inhalation it presses firmly against the abdominal organs, and the space that contains them must somehow be reshaped. When you are lying down, this is accomplished by an expansion of the abdominal wall—the abdomen rises.

Next we need to look at the rib cage, because the inflation of the lungs is also affected by its movement. The rib cage has twelve ribs on each side, each joined in the back to the spine. In the front, the upper seven are attached directly to the breastbone. The next three are linked to the cartilage of the seventh rib. The bottom two ribs float free. The ends of these two bury themselves into the muscles of the abdominal wall and can be felt at your sides, just above the hipbones. As we shall see, joints near the top of the sternum, including the sternal angle, permit some movement there.

The bony structure of the rib cage gives it a certain rigidity, although it can be moved by various sets of muscles. Either this can happen directly, using the intercostal muscles and other accessory muscles of breathing, or the rib cage can be expanded from its base by the diaphragm. Unfortunately, we may have little awareness of the basic movements of the rib cage, and because they are quite small, they frequently escape attention. To understand them, we need to look again at the simplest method of breathing, which is abdominal breathing.

Moving the Abdomen

Illustrations often show how the abdomen expands when the diaphragm contracts, and this can indeed happen in an upright posture if you focus on keeping your abdomen completely relaxed and push it out when you inhale. But you are likely to feel slightly uncomfortable doing this, and it may also lead to a mild sense of air hunger if you continue. In meditation, the effort to breathe in this way can become distracting, and will use your energy inefficiently.

Moving the Ribs

In an upright posture there are two primary movements of the rib cage. When it becomes involved in a very deep breath, the sternum moves forward and rises, something like the movement of an old-fashioned pump handle (although, of course, the amount of the movement is much less). Joints near the top of the sternum make this possible.

To feel this movement, open your mouth and take a few deep, sighing breaths. You will experience your upper chest rising and falling. This is useful whenever there is a need for rapid, deep inhalations—for example, following intense exercise. But when it becomes habitual, it leads to an increase in tension and the perception that life is more stressful than it actually is.

Yoga students sometimes equate any movement of the rib cage with “stressful” breathing and artificially restrict all its movements. This is a mistake.

The other movement of the rib cage is far less extreme. During normal, moderate breathing in an upright position, the upper chest becomes quiet and movement is more noticeable in the lower ribs. This has been called the “bucket handle” action of ribs. The lower ribs do not lift forward so much as they expand to the sides.

Yoga students sometimes equate any movement of the rib cage with “stressful” breathing and artificially restrict all its movements. This is a mistake. The basic idea to remember is that natural everyday breathing expands the lower ribs, especially to the sides. You can feel this by placing your hands alongside your rib cage. Notice that the hands are turned on edge so that the webbing of the thumb and forefinger touches against the side of the rib cage just below the level of the base of the sternum. Once you have your hands correctly placed, breathe normally and you will feel the rib cage expand to the sides.

Moving the Back

The back of the body is less flexible than either the front or sides, but when you breathe naturally, you can still sense some movement there, provided the muscles are not too tight. If they are, as when someone has back pain, breathing is restricted. But when the back is relaxed, it will seem to expand with each inhalation and contract with each exhalation, though not nearly so dramatically as the sides and front.

You can see this for yourself by making the following experiment. Lie on your belly with your arms alongside your body. Then lift your upper torso and legs slightly off the floor at the same time (keeping your knees straight). This will tighten the muscles of the lower back. Notice how the feeling of breathing shifts to the sides and abdomen, while movement in the back is severely restricted.

One of the goals of the meditator is to gradually relax the effort of concentration while increasing the length of time in meditation.

Now release the stretch and relax completely. Let the back expand with each inhalation and notice the significant change in breathing style. You will feel as if you are breathing into the back. This sensation is not so dramatic when you are sitting erect (the back muscles have to remain toned in order to maintain your posture), but even so, you will find that relaxing the back does result in a small but comfortable movement.

Lying Down to Breathe

Now we are ready to compare breathing styles by practicing reclining and upright postures.

  1. First, lie down on your back on a flat, carpeted surface. Support your head and neck with a thin cushion.

  2. Bring your awareness to your breath and feel the continuous flow of exhalations and inhalations.

  3. Soften the abdomen so that it is free to move, and let the muscles of the rib cage rest. Your abdomen will rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. There is no need to pause between breaths; just let each breath flow naturally into the next. Soon you will observe the characteristic rise and fall of the abdomen, and the almost complete stillness of the rib cage (of course, if you breathe more deeply, you can get the rib cage moving, but this takes effort and misses the point of the exercise).

  4. If you want to intensify the posture while keeping the focus on the abdomen, you can bring your arms to the carpet over your head. The angle of your ribs changes and the rib cage becomes even more immobile.

  5. Watch your breath for a few minutes, allowing your body to relax.

Many yoga students make this experiment every day. The corpse pose relaxation is one of the most familiar of yoga poses. Nonetheless, if you have not watched your breath in this way—or need a refresher—it is both relaxing and instructive.

Sitting Up to Breathe

When you sit erect, the movements of breathing will no longer feel the same. Try these simple steps:

  1. Sit erect in any seated pose (sitting on a flat-seated chair will do fine). Gently lift your spine, so that the rib cage, the abdomen, and the back are all free to move.

  2. Rest your hands on your thighs. Close your eyes and turn your attention to the flow of exhalations and inhalations.

  3. Soften the sides of the rib cage and let the muscles of the abdomen and back support your posture with modest muscle tone.

  4. Now notice how your breathing results in a quiet expansion of sides, front and back—each balancing the role played by the other. You may be surprised to find that the abdominal movement is not nearly so prominent while sitting as while lying down.

As a result of this experiment you may want to do more experiments of your own. Every change in posture has an effect on breathing, and the more you allow your breath to find its own way, the more your body will become comfortable. At the least, you can now recognize the normal signs of diaphragmatic breathing in a sitting pose. This will help you deepen your meditation practice and relax your breathing style, with less compulsion to control the breath.

A Meditation Exercise

You might like to try the following exercise, making use of the breathing skills that you have just learned. During meditation they can become the focus of your attention. The exercise is not complicated, but the results are often surprisingly helpful.

  1. Sit in a meditation pose of your choice. After bringing your attention to your body and letting it become still, shift your awareness to the flow of your breath.

  2. Sense the expansion and the contraction of each breath. The blend of movements that feels best for you is an individual matter. By staying with the movement of the breath and exploring the balance of sides, front, and back, you will gradually arrive at a breath that flows easily.

  3. Continue to observe this movement, making it the focus of your meditation. As time passes, sense the feelings of cleansing and nourishing that occur each time you breathe out and in. Let thoughts come and go.

  4. Finally, when you are thoroughly refreshed, you can come out of the meditation, or move inward to a more subtle object of attention.

One of the goals of the meditator is to gradually relax the effort of concentration while increasing the length of time in meditation. As this process continues, many inner changes take place which lead to an increasing sense of peace, vibrancy, and contentment.

About the Teacher

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Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice,... Read more