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Let's Talk About Breath, Baby...Part 1

Let's Talk About Breath, Baby
Part 1
by Ashley Dresen

Yoga teachers are often painting pictures to explain breathing concepts and they can sound crazy at times. “‘Pull energy into the body” or “ let your breath ground you”, even better “breathe into your hips”. While these phrases may feel a little far out there is some scientific truth behind the pictures we describe. My goal is to give you a basic foundation of anatomy to improve your visualization of breathing and to understand where we get some of our wacky verbage.

An artist can create a more accurate representation of an image if he understands the subject matter. Likewise, knowing the basic parts of our insides is essential in a yoga class. A large portion of what we are doing when we step onto our mat is dedicating time to connect with ourselves, to get to know where our parts are and how they work together so we can avoid or repair dysfunctions. Having a working understanding of anatomy ensures that we are moving in a way that is beneficial to our bodies instead of harmful.

I have great respect for the science community and all the painstaking hours it took to map our human body. So let’s use what they know and apply it to yoga. Welcome to Respiration 101.

What the F is respiration?

We usually think of it as breathing in and out but respiration is ultimately about gas exchange. It is the way all organisms get life-giving oxygen into their bodies and get rid of carbon dioxide, a waste product of various ongoing activities in the body like keeping your cells alive and working properly.

There are a few parameters that must be met for a respiratory system to function properly. First, we need a place for this gas exchange to happen. This is termed as the respiratory surface. All animals have some kind of surface but the structure can change significantly based on the organisms’ environment and needs. A fish gets her oxygen from water molecules (hydrogen and oxygen atoms) flowing through her gills. A worm gets his supply though his skin. We get ours through the lungs.

Second, this surface must be moist. Not a problem for a frog whose environment is typically humid and near water but it can be an issue for us sometimes. Think of our common use of a humidifier or diffuser when we have a dry, irritated lungs. Why does steamy air make us feel we can breath better?

The oxygen that you breathe every day is a gas, which can be dissolved through a liquid. To get this substance into our body the molecules need to be pushed onto a wet, slightly warm surface before entering the bloodstream. We need that moist surface area of our inner lungs, humidified mostly from the the sinuses, as a landing pad for oxygen molecules. When you add a little moisture into the irritated lungs using a humidifier you increase your odds of absorbing the oxygen you need.

The third important factor in respiration is having a very, very large landing pad to obtain the most oxygen possible. Our body has solved that issue by creating a large tree on the inside of the lungs with multiple branching ends covered in roughly 300 million little pods called alveoli. If we were to take the total inside surface area of the lungs and stretch it out it would be about the size of a tennis court.

Breath 1

We need a way to push oxygen molecules onto the wet surface of the lungs. To understand this let’s talk about the nature of gas. While water molecules like to stay together and network among their people, oxygen molecules love their space to move around. They love it so much they are continually trying to find open spaces where they can get away from each other and dance, dance, dance. In science they call this process of particles moving from a crowded space into a less crowded area: diffusion. For example, you spill your lavender oil. In the first hour you smell it very strongly but over time as the molecules move away into more spacious corners of the room the fragrance lessens.

What happens when we force them together? They get very grouchy about their limited space and begin banging into each other and the container walls. This creates an increase of pressure on the inside of the container. An example of this is carbon dioxide (another similar acting gas) stuffed into a soda can. The inside of the can has a lot of pressure exerted on the walls due to many gas molecules colliding in a small space. While the carbon dioxide waits patiently dissolved in the liquid, you release the lid, giving them the space to move into the wild where they can dance in peace. This is again diffusion where particles move from a small, highly pressurized area into more comfortable one with a room to move reducing pressure.   

The atmosphere around you has a continuous pressure. In fact you are being pressed from all sides, at all times, your entire life. The atmosphere is made of oxygen, increasingly more carbon dioxide and a small percentages of other gases. They are all dancing and banging around, continually looking for more space to occupy. Fifteen to twenty times a minute you inhale and your lungs become that extra space for them to move into.

Our lungs are hollow organs that are extremely elastic. Think of them as two stretchy sacks sitting pretty on either side of your heart. Your heart and lungs are essential to your survival. To protect these precious goods, a series of bony bars curve around these organs meeting in a breast plate at the center of your chest. Yes, the ribcage is protective but it also serves another purpose: maintaining the shape of the lungs.

Each lung is attached to a double lined bag known as the pleurae. The inside layer of the bag is attached to the lungs, the outside layer of the bag is attached to the ribcage and in the space between the layers is a little bit of negative pressure. In extremely simple terms, they are suctioned together with a little water in between to prevent friction. There is no air between the outside of your lungs and your ribcage and you can think of the membranes being vacuum sealed together. The ribcage, bag and lungs all move as one because of this relationship, so when the ribcage enlarges the lungs easily follow due to their elastic nature.

So inhale. You may feel a widening and filling sensation in the thoracic cage. Oxygen molecules gladly move into the space with less concentration: inside your lungs. More and more of these molecules flow in until the ratio of concentration or pressure is the same inside the lungs and outside the lungs. The oxygen molecules get their little push onto the wet respiratory surface of the alveoli where they dissolve through the membrane. There they diffuse into an area where there is not a lot of crowded space, which happens to be a capillary (thin, small vessel of the circulatory system) around the alveoli. We will discuss more of where the oxygen goes in part two of Respiration 101.

We may think that oxygen flowing in enlarges the lungs similar to blowing up a balloon but it is the change in the size of the ribcage that allows for air to move in. How does the ribcage enlarge? We use a muscular influence to change the size. Lets talk about which muscles are involved in breathing.

One of our main breathing muscles is the legendary diaphragm. We talk about it all the time in class. With the praise given it is just short of its own deity but there is a larger picture happening when you breathe in and out. Let’s start by exploring this main muscle.

What the F is the diaphragm?

It is a dome shaped sheet of muscle that sits underneath the lungs in their bag and above the organs nestled in their own separate protective bag. The diaphragm has to accommodate various structures like the spine and liver and looks a little like a dented, soft sided bowl. Its attachment known as the central tendon is located at the center and directly attaches to the outer layer of lung bag. It’s muscle fibers attach all along the rim of the ribcage including the last two floating ribs and to the spine behind them.

Breath 2

To catch you up on how it operates first remember a typical muscle contracts and brings two parts closer to each other. This is a largely traditional version and we are finding isolated muscle theories open to re-evaulation but that is a topic for a future article. To keep things simple, imagine your bicep. When you contract this muscle you are bringing the wrist closer to the front of the shoulder. As you contract the triceps behind the arm you are bringing the wrist closer to the back of the shoulder A.K.A straightening the arm. A contraction of the diaphragm brings the top of the dome closer to the rim of the ribcage and the muscle morphs from a deep bowl to a flat, wide basin. Because the lungs in their bags are suctioned to the top of the diaphragm this contraction stretches the lungs downward increasing their inside space or volume. Oxygen molecules flow into this extra area.

Breath 3

It is true that the diaphragm plays a large role but there is a whole gang helping us breathe too. We have three main muscles that lift and expand the ribcage to increase the space inside the lungs. We have the external intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs closest to the skin), that when contracted raise each rib closer to the above rib which gives an overall effect of lifting the ribcage up and forward. The sternocleidomastoid muscle runs from top of the sternum (breast bone) to a round mound of bone (mastoid process) directly behind the ear on the skull. When contracted it raises the ribcage closer to the head. The scalenes are three muscles on either side of the neck attaching the lower cervical vertebrae to the top two ribs also raising the ribcage. There are a few other muscles involved and I will list these at the end for you to look up if you would like more information.

On the exhale, the inspiratory muscles relax and the elastic fibers of the lungs recoil like a rubber band (there are minor exceptions that will be covered in future musculature article). The diaphragm relaxes from its wide basin back to its deep domed structure. On a forced or controlled exhale, for instance the sit up in the Core 26 classes, we use the internal intercostal muscles (located deep to the external intercostal muscles between the ribs) to compress the lungs. This increases internal pressure, inspiring the gas molecules inside to move out into a less crowded area. The abdominal muscles (rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, transverse abdominus) contract, increasing the pressure on the organs and diaphragm. This pushes them towards the lungs which speeds the rate of the exhale. Here is where our understanding of the gas carbon dioxide comes into the picture.

Our bodies go through a process of using oxygen and glucose to fuel the workings of every cell. When we say “breathe in energy” this may sound a little coo coo but essentially it is accurate. Harken back to your days in high school and you may remember cellular respiration which is the process of converting the broken down pieces of the food you eat, like glucose, into usable energy. Krebs cycle ring a bell? When your body strips glucose apart to use its pieces for making energy (ATP or adenine triphosphate for the science lovers), hydrogen atoms are discarded and oxygen atoms readily pick them up. Together they become a water molecule and we breathe out this water. If the oxygen did not pick up the extra hydrogens we would make a mess of things very fast. Oxygen is essential to us having a steady, smooth way of making energy in the body. Ultimately we are breathing in atoms that are required to make the fuel we need.

In this process of converting glucose into energy (ATP) a good amount of waste is created in the form of carbon dioxide. This is expelled out into the atmosphere via the lungs. A beautiful relationship exists between us and the surrounding vegetation. Plants need our carbon dioxide waste and a little sunlight to make glucose that we later eat. What is their waste product? Oxygen, the very gas we need to survive! Hooray, we live in synergy!

So we got the basics of how and why we breathe. I recognize that this can be a lot of information and it may be time for a break. Let this sink in. There is more to cover in part two where we will track how breathing affects the other systems of the body like the nervous, circulatory and lymphatic system. We will also take a walk into how breath work in our yoga practice creates quantifiable change in our movement and thoughts.

Our world of yoga sometimes gets a bad rap for saying things that are weird and unconventional. I like it or I wouldn't be in it but I recognize that we may need a little grounding at times. Still I believe that by practicing yoga, we potentially have the best of both worlds. We can use science to create richer, more intricate pictures yet we are not so attached to the idea that we know everything. This is the fun of learning, for no matter what we learn there is always more to know and there is a large chance that what we know is not the whole picture. I don't know about you but if I didn't have a place where I could not think but just be, this thought would be really frustrating.

My hope is that we step outside of ourselves for a moment by learning the science behind what we experience, then step into that very experience once again with new eyes to feel more deeply.

Lets try it out.

Inhale, feel your diaphragm drawing downward, the chest, sides and neck drawing the ribcage up and forward, all of these muscles working together create a wide space for oxygen to flow in. Feel that point where your breathing muscles cannot contract anymore and you have lots of pressure in the chest. Release. The muscles relax around the neck, chest and sides and the ribs lower back down while the diaphragm relaxes up towards the heart. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat.

Breathing muscles: serratus anterior, pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, iliocostalis lumborum, quadratus lumborum, serratus posterior superior, serratus posterior inferior, levatores costarum, transversus thoracis, subclavius

Frederic Martini, Judi Nath, Edwin Bartholomew. Fundamentas of Anatomy & Physiology, Ninth Edition. (2012).
Cecil Starr, Ralph Taggart, Christin Evers, Lisa Starr. General Biology. (2012).
H. David Coulter. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga (2001)