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3D approach to Breathing Biomechanics

The Biomechanics of Breathing

The biomechanics of breathing involve the function of all the primary and secondary respiratory muscles that are involved in respiration. These can be grouped into the respiratory tract, respiratory support muscles, the abdominal muscles.

3D approach to Breathing Biomechanics

The respiratory tract

Yoga practices can affect the function of both upper and lower airways. Neti kriya, a cleansing technique, allows the bathing of the nasal passage. Ujjayi breathing can reduce dead space in the lungs and increase this way, the surface of oxygen diffusion to the bloodstream. While many asanas facilitate the delivery of air in one part of the lungs by restricting it in another, allowing this way the utilization of the entire organ. Finally, the diaphragm which seats at the bottom of the lungs can also get stronger through breathing exercises and/or asanas.

 

The supportive muscles

Muscles, fascia, and neurons all play an active role in supporting our respiratory function. While these tissues, cells and organs are not always classified as “respiratory”, failure of their function means compromised breathing.

 

Supportive muscles above the rib cage

Scalenes and sternocleidomastoid are 2 pairs of muscles sitting on either side of our neck. Their recruitment is often considered synonymous with upper chest breathing. It is my observation that when these muscles, alongside the trapezius, are tight there is zero movement possible in the upper chest and upper back, limiting this way the expansion of the lungs in this area.

 

Supportive muscles below the rib cage

Psoas and quadratus lumborum are 2 pairs of muscles on either side of the spine that attach posteriorly to the diaphragm. Having reviewed 1,000s of papers I am yet to see these 2 muscles mentioned in publications as respiratory or secondary respiratory muscles. There are 2 reasons why I think their structure and function are pivotal in breathing:

  1. As they both attach to the diaphragm, when they are tight, weak, or uneven (between the left and right side) they will restrict the way the diaphragm moves.
  2. Both muscles play an important role in our posture. A compromised posture will most likely cause restrictions in our breathing.   

 

Our posture

This is an area of the respiratory function that often does not get much attention. Think for a second of an old man bearing more weight on one foot, maybe having one shoulder higher than the other. Or a woman with pronounced scoliosis. How would these postural asymmetries affect the ideal symmetrical movement of the rib cage and diaphragm? Or someone with pronounced thoracic kyphosis. Do you see how the movement of his diaphragm will be restricted (ref)?

 

Diaphragmatic restriction due to kyphosis

Conclusion

It is my belief that yoga can improve the biomechanics of breath in most elements of this Venn diagram and it’s for that reason a lot of yoga practitioners with respiratory problems have benefited from practicing yoga without paying much attention to the volume of air they breathe which determines the biochemistry of respiration. At the same time, the benefits are amplified when someone pays equal attention to both qualities of breathing (ie. biomechanics & biochemistry).

 

Buteyko vs Yoga breathing

Buteyko vs Yoga Breathing

Both Buteyko and Yoga breathing techniques have benefited the health of many individuals and especially respiratory problems (ie. bronchitis & asthma). To the novice, the two systems may seem to contradict but I would argue there are more similarities and synergies between them.

 

While Pranayama is a component of the yoga tradition, which also consists of meditation and physical postures, Buteyko is a system solely focusing on breath training.

*ref

Pranayama vs Buteyko Breathing

So far there has been only one study from the University of Nottingham that compared the 2 systems (ref). The study was conducted among 90 individuals (69 of which completed the study) that suffered from asthma and were on corticosteroid medication. At the end of the study, which run for 6 months, the Buteyko group showed improvement in both symptoms and a reduction in bronchodilator use.

 

Buteyko vs Pranayama Corticosteroid Buteyko vs Pranayama symptoms

How do pranayama techniques compare with Buteyko breathing?

Pranayama techniques, primarily due to the lack of one reliable source, are practiced in different ways. A few practitioners use “Light on Pranayama” BKS Iyengar as a reference. Most exercises can be performed in an easier or more challenging way by modifying the duration of the volume of breath. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain how this can be achieved but to help you grasp the concept think of box breathing:

Version A:  Inhale for 2 sec, Hold for 2sec, Exhale for 2sec, Hold for 2sec. Perform x5 rounds.

Version B:  Inhale for 20 sec, Hold for 20sec, Exhale for 20sec, Hold for 20sec. Perform x10 rounds, while keeping the volume of air inhaled & exhaled low.

While most pranayama techniques are (unfortunately) instructed without much reference to the volume of air, by the time the duration of each cycle increases minute ventilation will unavoidably reduce. Reduction in minute ventilation is at the heart of the Buteyko Method which aims to prevent individuals from chronic and acute hyperventilation.

In the table below you can see a list of pranayama exercises. Those with a sign 〰️ can lead to hypercapnia, while the ones with an ❌ are likely to cause hypocapnia.

Hypercapnia is a key element of Buteyko training.

One of the hallmarks of yoga is Ujjayi breathing which often (and correctly in my option) it’s suggested to be performed at all times during asana. Given the different ways that ujjayi breath is practiced, it may appear to be diametrically opposite to Buteyko breathing or very much in-line.

Ujjayi breath is characterized by a sound during the exhalation caused by the constriction of the throat. The sound, for some unknown to me reason, is sometimes exaggerated making the breath loud. In my opinion, ujjayi should be performed as follows:

Both the inhalation and the exhalation take place through the nose with the tongue at the top of the pallet. The inhalation is soft. During the exhalation, the back of the throat gently constricts allowing the elongation of the exhalation further than normal. The exhalation to inhalation ratio is 2:1 or much higher. The breath is quiet.

When practiced like this, the ujjayi breath will lead to hypercapnia and thus cause an increase in body temperature, similar to all hypercapnic breathing exercises.

 

How to incorporate Buteyko in yoga?

To the extent that you want to support the oxygenation of your brain 🧠 and peripheral organs during your physical practice, you would benefit by breathing light from start to finish. Breathing this way is likely to cause a sense of air hunger, especially in classes where the pace is fast.

 

You can also incorporate hypoxic breathing in your practice depending on your level of experience and breathing capacity. It is always important to account for the challenges asanas cause to the breath during yoga.

 

The role of Control Pause in Yoga

Buteyko practitioners, like myself, like to use the Control Pause (CP) test as an approximation of clients’ respiratory capacity. CP can also be performed at the start of a yoga practice. Below is a list of factors that need to be considered:

• CP will tend to be lower later in the day

• CP will be affected by fluctuations in hormone levels. That is likely to be more pronounced in women.

• If the practitioner is seating on the floor (as opposed to a chair), limitations in his posture is likely to affect the CP negatively.

Normal Respiratory Rate

What is a normal respiratory rate?

Our respiratory rate (RR) depends on our age, phase of the menstrual cycle, health state, and heart rate. Having a normal respiratory rate will partially indicate healthy respiratory function but will not be sufficient to identify one’s respiratory capacity.

In this article, you can find out the benefits and limitations of controlling your RR.

Respiration Rate 1.01

How do you check respiration rate?

Respiratory rate is measured at rest. In order for the measurement to be accurate, it is useful to sit in a chair still for a few minutes. One breath will compromise one inhalation, a possible pause, and one exhalation, possibly followed by a second pause.

What is a normal respiratory rate?

Respiratory rate is the number of breaths we take per minute. It’s one of the body’s vital signs, alongside blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. Normal respiratory rate will vary with age.

While 12-20 breaths per minute (bpm) are often used as the normal reference range (ref), it is not necessarily optimal. Optimal breathing is determined by minute ventilation, ie. the total volume of air we inhale per minute. For adults, normal minute ventilation is 6-8.4 L/min. With a tidal volume of 500 to 600mL, if you take 12 bpm your minute ventilation is 6-7.2L/min (500mL x 12 bpm), which is the volume of our lungs. If instead of 12bpm you take 20bpm (at 500mL tidal volume), your minute ventilation is: 10L/min. With that in mind:

optimal respiratory rate range: 8-14bpm

What does respiratory rate indicate?

Respiratory Rate (RR) is one of the body’s vital signs, and as such changes in RR indicate improvement or deterioration in health. The other 5 vital signs are pulse rate, systolic blood pressure, level of consciousness, oxygen saturation, and body temperature.

What increases respiratory rate?

The respiratory rate will increase due to an increase in metabolic demands but also during anxiety, acidosis (referred to as Kussmaul’s respiration), asthma, COPD, dehydration, fever, heart conditions, lung conditions (including lung cancer), an overdose of aspirin or amphetamines. During pregnancy and the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, RR also increases.

What decreases respiratory rate?

The respiratory rate will decrease when we are relaxed but also from alcohol consumption, brain conditions (including strokes and head injuries), consumption of narcotics (ie. marijuana), and sleeping apnea.

 

Respiration Rate and Breathwork

When you should focus on your respiratory rate?

Performing breathing exercises based on the respiratory rate offers some benefits, especially for beginners. Respiratory rate can:

• be measured independent of the body position

• be monitored by the practitioner as well as an observer

• be easily manipulated

So if you are starting out now with breathwork or have no experience with breath control:

Try to reduce your respiratory rate; it is likely to bring a profound sense of relaxation.

A lot of pranayama exercises, cadence breathing, as well as asana practices, focus on the number of breaths per minute. An exercise I developed to improve your concentration based on the manipulation of the RR is the following:

Why focusing only on respiratory rate will limit your breathing practice?

During most physical exercises (including yoga) you would benefit by reducing the volume of your breath so that it matches your metabolic needs. This is due to the role of CO2 in breathing. In this case, the focus should be on how much you breathe and not how often.

This is also the cornerstone of Buteyko breathing, which advocates reduced breathing aiming to avoid hyperventilation and improve breathing biochemistry. If you are not yet convinced think of the following 4 breathing disorders:

• Bradypnea: breathing abnormally slow.

• Tachypnea: an elevated respiratory rate. Fast breaths that are usually shallow.

• Dyspnea: shortness of breath, that can occur with a high, normal, or low respiratory rate.

• Hyperpnea: breathing deeply and labored.

Only 2 out of 4 problems can be addressed by focusing on the respiratory rate.

Even Cadence breathing can lead to Hyperventilation (ref).

Conclusion

While reducing the number of breaths per minute can be a great starting point, once confident start reducing the volume of air you breathe in order to become a better breather.

The Breathe Right 2-week online course is developed to help you breathe better when you are not conscious of your breath.

breathing in yoga

How to breathe during yoga

The way you breathe during a yoga class is affected by many parameters including :

• our level of experience

• the style of yoga

• our familiarity with the sequence

• how tense you are on the day

• the phase of the menstrual cycle

 

If you have been practicing yoga for a while you may have noticed how your breathing changed with time. You may have also noticed that beginners and more advanced practitioners will be performing the same poses (even with the same technique/form) but following a completely different breathing pattern.

In this article, I will analyze how the level of experience, style of yoga and phase of the menstrual cycle affect how you breathe during yoga. Let’s start with those starting out.

 

Breathing based on experience

Novice

When one starts practicing yoga (especially in a group class), she/he has many challenges to face. I remember having to :

• perform poses on the limit of my flexibility, if not poses completely inaccessible to me

• hold poses for longer than my lactic acid tolerance allowed me

• learn the name of poses

• remember the alignment my teacher indicated

• breathe in and out based on my teacher’s queues

 

While the whole experience at the end can leave the novice student with a sense of relaxation, there is a lot to take in. For that reason I suggest the following 3 rules for those starting out:

✔️ Remind yourself to breathe every so often & establish a slow breathing pattern.

✔️ Observe your breath. Usually, the moment we observe our breathing it is slowed down. Refrain from trying to alter it – just observe it.

✔️ Maintain nasal breathing at all times. The best way to achieve that is to refrain from mouth breathing at all costs. This may not be accessible to you in the beginning due to chronic poor respiratory habits, but it is the foundation of any breathwork, so do not give up.

 

Intermediate

By the time you consider yourself to be an intermediate practitioner, you should be switching to ujjayi breath throughout your yoga (asana) practice.

Ujjayi breath in my opinion is: SILENT • SLOW • INTENTIONAL

This description is in line with that of Timothy McCall (author of the book “Yoga as Medicine”) :

“When you first learn Ujjayi, you will breathe with an audible noise. But as you progress, the sound may become so subtle that someone sitting next to you would not hear it.” Ref 1

 

If you maintain ujjayi breath at all times you will be able to :

✔️ stay focused

✔️ maintain good energy levels throughout the practice

✔️ oxygenate your muscles and brain adequately

 

Advanced

As an advanced practitioner, you can work towards gaining control of your breathing, independent of the asana or vinyasa performed. Breathing can support your concentration and help perform the yoga poses but it can also challenge them. Advanced practitioners can challenge their asana practice through breathing.

 

✔️ The 2 pillars of breathwork are: hypoxia and hypercapnia and they can both be practiced during any yoga class. in the section

 

Breathing in different yoga styles

Ashtanga, Bikram, …

In sequences that are standardized such as Ashtanga and Bikram, practitioners are asked to follow a set breathing pattern. The breathing pattern usually requires:

• inhalation during spine extension (ie. upward dog)

• exhalation during spine flexion (ie. uttanasana)

• no breathing holding at the end of the inhalation or exhalation

Three things to keep in mind:

✔️ During a vigorous physical practice, CO2 levels will increase, challenging the respiratory system. If one maintains nasal soft breathing she/he can maintain good cellular oxygenation. if instead there is a shift to hyperventilation the muscle tissue will be deprived of oxygen (due to the Bohr effect) and thus promote fatigue.

✔️ Abdominal integrity may be challenged in poses (asanas) and transitions (vinyasas) that involve both spine extension & flexion. During exhalation abdominal tension is reduced as the diaphragm moves towards the stomach. Over time as abdominal strength increases, it will become easier for the breath and the movement to be synched.

✔️ In studios where yoga classes take place, the temperature is often elevated causing a shift of the Oxyhemoglobin Dissociation Curve (ODC) to the right promoting the release of oxygen to tissue. This should make breathing easier.

Iyengar inspired styles

In styles of yoga where postures are held for long the biomechanics & biochemistry differs from vinyasa style classes. The way we should breathe during poses depends on how comfortable we are with the pose. Breath becomes primarily important when we are learning a pose or when we are holding a pose for periods close to our limit.

✔️ When learning a pose that requires stability in the lower back (lumbar) we should brace our abdominals, as opposed to hollowing.

Bracing our abdominals is achieved by holding our breath aiming for an isometric co-contraction of all abdominal muscles (as if we were about to receive a punch in the stomach). Hollow belly, often cued as belly or naval in achieves the activation of the transverse abdominis (TVA). When the 2 techniques were compared: bracing was shown to achieve higher lumbar stability compared to hollowing [ref 2].

Once someone is comfortable with a pose, hollowing the abdomen and maintaining lateral breathing is good idea as this will maintain a calmer Nervous System and the ability to hold the pose longer.

Certain asanas (such as backbends & side flexions) will require specific breathing patterns to help us access the pose. The progression above is valid for the majority of introductory poses.

 

Inversions

When learning a new inversion, in most instances I suggest one tries to find balance while holding his/her breath (on the inhalation or exhalation depending on the transition/ pose). By holding your breath you will:
✔️ increase of abdominal pressure
✔️ maintaining of the chest & abdominal area unchanged
✔️ increase concentration
 
It also allows the practitioner to establish a pattern through which he approaches the pose. Too often every attempt is completely different which can slow down the learning process.
Once balance is established regular or even better ujjayi breath can be maintained.
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Breathing in different stages of the menstrual cycle

In the 2nd half of the menstrual cycle (luteal phase) the sensitivity to CO2 levels increases [ Ref 3 ] due to an increase in progesterone levels. Women during this phase are expected to breathe heavier or faster [ Ref 4 ]. However this will very much depends on their CO2 tolerance (in plain English their respiratory capacity). The better their respiratory capacity breathing can be maintained regular throughout the entire month.

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How good is your breathing?

Your ability to breathe right during a yoga class is determined not only by your experience in yoga but also by your respiratory capacity. If you want to find out what is your respiratory capacity at the moment do the following 2 tests:

Controlled Pause

Breathlessness Test

References

1. McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine: the yogic prescription for health & healing: a yoga journal book. Bantam.

2. Grenier, S. G., & McGill, S. M. (2007). Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation88(1), 54-62.

3. Dutton, K., Blanksby, B. A., & Morton, A. R. (1989). CO2 sensitivity changes during the menstrual cycle. Journal of Applied Physiology67(2), 517-522.

4. Saaresranta, T., & Polo, O. (2002). Hormones and breathing. Chest122(6), 2165-2182.