How Breathing Works (And How to Breathe Therapeutically)


German mythology tells of a water nymph named Ondine who fell in love with a knight and sacrificed her immortality to marry him. On their wedding day, he vowed: “My every waking breath shall be my pledge of love and faithfulness to you.” But when Ondine gave birth to a child, she began to age and her husband took a lover. Ondine discovered his betrayal and put a curse on him: “For as long as you are awake, you shall breathe. But should you ever fall into sleep and lose awareness of your breath, you will die.”

The tale of Ondine and her lover is preserved in the name of a medical disorder: Ondine’s curse, or congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, a condition in which automatic control of breathing is lost, often during sleep. As in the case of the knight, the disease can be fatal if the breath is neglected.

Fortunately, Ondine’s curse is rare, and most of us can take it for granted that automatic breathing will persist, uninterrupted, day and night. But precisely because breathing does not normally require conscious attention, it may be hard to understand why yoga instructs us to learn to breathe with greater awareness. Why improve “normal” breathing? The answer lies in the powerful role breathing can play in reducing stress, reinvigorating energy, and strengthening concentration. When properly trained, the breath is an ideal therapeutic tool: always present, effective at every level of personality, and preventive as well as restorative. To tap into this remarkable resource, we must first understand how breathing works—and how we can consciously regulate its rhythm and shape for maximum benefit.

Why improve “normal” breathing? The answer lies in the powerful role breathing can play in reducing stress, reinvigorating energy, and strengthening concentration.

Three Influences on Breathing

Breathing normally occurs outside awareness, governed by cells that monitor blood gas levels, create a crude rhythm of respiration, and coordinate the activity of respiratory muscles to make breathing smoother and more effective. Flowing just beneath the surface of consciousness, the breath passes in and out of the lungs some 21,600 times a day. Over the course of an 80-year life, that accounts for over 600 million breaths—a staggering figure considering the rare number of breakdowns along the way.

But breathing is shaped by influences that tell an even more fascinating story. With the merest voluntary effort, you can change the way you breathe. You can hold your breath, blow out a candle, or suck through a straw. Most important, voluntary control of the breath makes it possible to speak—to create audible words, modify their volume, and invest them with powers of expression.

Although automatic breathing and voluntary breathing are the most familiar styles of breathing, a third set of influences—one that includes a wide range of life experiences—also dramatically affects the way we breathe. Collectively, these various influences on breathing are called non-volitional. They occur without conscious intent—somewhat like automatic breathing. But while automatic breathing is driven by metabolic needs and is deeply rooted in our biology, non-volitional influences are psychosomatic in nature. They influence breathing in a variety of ways.

A vivid example is pain. Grasp the handle of a scalding-hot frying pan and your breath will register the injury with sudden piercing inhalations, punctuated by fierce exhalations. It may be many minutes before the crisis passes—your breathing is affected the entire time.

Emotions also trigger enormous changes in breathing. Stumble too close to a canyon’s edge and it will cause you and those around you to gasp with fear. But step back to witness the spectacular view and your breath may be taken away in an altogether different manner.

Stress, too, has a pervasive influence on the breath. A fast-approaching deadline can lead to breathing that is tense, hurried, and overcontrolled. Stressful breathing patterns are hardwired into your nervous system—part of the fight-or-flight response—and they may linger long after a stressful event is over.

All these influences create links between mind and body. Sometimes the result is pleasant and healthy—laughter is a good example. But often non-volitional influences reduce the quality of breathing and linger as unhealthy breathing habits. Exaggerated chest movements, tense abdominal muscles that restrict breathing, and breathing through the mouth rather than the nose are just a few examples of the consequences of stress on the breath.

When these poor breathing habits persist outside awareness, they magnify perceptions of pain, distort emotions, feed cycles of stress, and impair concentration and memory. That is why yoga places so much emphasis on improving the quality of the breath. Through breath awareness, we can transform jerky, irregular, and rapid breathing; smooth the connections from one breath to another; and deepen the flow of the breath until it finds its own exquisitely paced rhythm. Put simply, by improving the quality of your breathing you can improve the quality of your life.

The Dynamics of Breathing

A number of internal systems, each regulated to some degree by the autonomic nervous system, maintain inner equilibrium. Circulation, digestion, elimination, breathing—these are among the systems that sustain our existence from moment to moment. Most of these systems use smooth muscles (or, in the case of the heart, striated muscle) to perform their essential functions. These muscles cannot be controlled directly—which is why you have no volitional control over the pace of your heartbeat or the motility of your bowels.

But breathing is different. Because the lungs are not muscles, they do not pump air by themselves. They must be assisted by muscles of respiration whose primary job is to stretch the spongy tissue of the lungs. These respiratory muscles are skeletal muscles, muscles that can be controlled voluntarily. If you choose to, you can shape the movements of your breath. This makes breathing the only internal system that operates automatically yet permits conscious control.

The primary muscle of breathing is the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that lies just beneath the lungs and divides the torso into two separate compartments: the thorax (chest) and the abdomen. The diaphragm is controlled by a single nerve on each side of the body, the phrenic nerve. Stimulated by an impulse traveling down this nerve, the diaphragm contracts, drawing the base of the lungs down and expanding them, while simultaneously pressing on the abdominal contents below. As the lungs expand, air pressure within them falls, causing air to flow in. When the diaphragm relaxes, the elasticity of lung tissue makes it recoil passively, shrinking the lungs and gently forcing air back out. If a more powerful exhalation is required, abdominal muscles along with muscles in the chest wall can be recruited to rapidly squeeze and empty the lungs.

Breathing and the Nervous System

Automatic rhythms of breathing originate in the brain stem, where they are shaped by the metabolic needs of the moment. Nerve impulses providing voluntary control of breathing descend from the cerebral cortex. Non-volitional influences come from still another section of the brain, primarily the limbic area, which is identified with emotional processing. Thus, nerve impulses that descend along the phrenic nerve arise from three distinct areas of the brain.

With training, you can maintain deep, smooth breathing even while struggling with powerful emotional reactions.

The behind-the-scenes prioritizing that determines which of these areas will hold sway is a constantly shifting process. But within limits, the option of consciously altering how we breathe always remains open. With awareness, you can modify your breathing by overriding other respiratory inputs.

Suppose you have fallen and injured your wrist. As you sit in the medical reception area waiting for x-rays, your imagination fills with thoughts of missing work, memories of Uncle Joe, whose bones never set quite right, and the likelihood of permanent disability. With each new thought, you become increasingly anxious and the butterflies in your stomach grow. It’s the perfect moment to close your eyes, soften your abdomen, and relax your breathing. Rather than allowing your thoughts to disrupt your breathing, you can restore a steady respiratory rhythm that cushions the blows your imagination has in store for you.

Training Your Breath

Awareness of every inhalation and exhalation is not the goal of yogic breath training. The goal is to shape automatic breathing so that it flows optimally—in a deep, smooth, and effortless rhythm. Training also helps bring the various influences on breathing to conscious awareness. And it makes breathing strong enough to resist the disruption of harmful influences: stress, pain, and negative emotions.

With training, you can maintain deep, smooth breathing even while struggling with powerful emotional reactions. Robust breathing—breathing that is relaxed and diaphragmatic—will help you manage the anxiety of performing in public, process anger rather than mindlessly venting it, and transform pain into a messenger rather than an enemy. Daily practice is the key. It will give you the ability to recognize breathing problems as they arise and to work with your breathing when you are upset. Your anxiety or anger will not disappear, but you will be able to function despite its presence, and it will not spiral out of control.

Relieving Inner Burdens

Unconsciously, the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in breathing caused by daily tensions are recognized by the mind for what they are: burdens on inner life. Yet without conscious transformation, they persist. By bringing awareness to the breath, we learn to reverse stressful breathing patterns and relax tense nerves.

How can this be done? Start with the exercise below. With two practice sessions of 10 minutes each day, you can learn this simple form of relaxed breathing in two weeks or less. Next, find a well-qualified yoga teacher and learn to deepen your breathing further. Over the course of six months new breathing habits will become securely anchored. Relaxed breathing will give you the capacity to break, or at least weaken, cycles of stress. And once acquired, your skills will last a lifetime. 

Practicing Breath Awareness 

This exercise will make you aware of how good breathing feels.

  • Lie comfortably on your back, using a thin cushion to support your neck and head. Place your arms alongside you, with your feet about 12 to 18 inches apart. Close your eyes and let your body rest.

  • Gradually bring your breathing into your awareness. Feel the exhalation emptying you, carrying away fatigue. Let the inhalation fill you as you draw in fresh energy.

  • Relax the muscles of the abdomen and let the abdomen rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation. As you continue, soften the muscles of the rib cage and let it become still.

  • Let your breaths flow smoothly from one into the next, without hurrying or pressing between breaths. Over time, let the breath begin to flow at the speed that is completely natural and comfortable for you.

  • Now, use your awareness to maintain this quiet breathing. Practice for 6 to 10 minutes. As you feel each breath, let your mental effort relax. This will bring a deep feeling of refreshment.


About the Teacher

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