< Back to Articles

Diaphragmatic Breathing: Foundation for Pranayama

The Science of Breath: Portal to Higher Awareness

The most important aspect of breath control is diaphragmatic breathing. The average person uses his chest muscles rather than his diaphragm when he breathes, and such breathing is usually shallow, rapid, and irregular.

Chest Breathing Versus Diaphragmatic Breathing

As a consequence of chest breathing, the lower lobes of the lungs, which receive an abundant supply of blood, are not adequately ventilated, so the gas exchange that takes place between the air in the lungs and the blood is inadequate. Respiratory physiologists refer to this as a ventilation-perfusion abnormality. With diaphragmatic breathing, such inequalities between ventilation and perfusion are minimized. There is also evidence to suggest that diaphragmatic breathing is beneficial because it increases the suction pressure created in the thoracic cavity and improves the venous return of blood, thereby reducing the load on the heart and enhancing circulatory function.

Chest breathing is a part of the fight-or-flight syndrome.

Though chest breathing has now become natural and involuntary for most of us, it is really a part of the fight-or-flight syndrome, aroused when the organism is challenged by some external stress or danger. Because of the reciprocity between the breath and mind, chest breathing, in turn, gives rise to the tension and anxiety associated with the fight-or-flight syndrome. With chest breathing, the breath is shallow, jerky, and unsteady, resulting in similar unsteadiness of the mind. All techniques aimed at providing relaxation of the body, nerves, and mind will be ineffective unless chest breathing is replaced by deep, even, and steady diaphragmatic breathing.

Cultivating the Habit of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Although diaphragmatic breathing is simple, easy, and beneficial, the habit of doing it has to be consciously cultivated before it can become automatic. A simple practice to achieve this is to lie on your back on a mat or rug, with one palm placed on the center of the chest and the other on the lower edge of the rib cage, where the abdomen begins. As you inhale, the lower edge of the rib cage should expand and the abdomen should rise; as you exhale, the opposite should occur. There should be relatively little movement of the upper chest. By practicing this exercise you will find in due time that diaphragmatic breathing becomes habitual and automatic.

Next you should cultivate the habit of harmonious, rhythmic breathing along with diaphragmatic breathing. Observing the rate of breathing is highly therapeutic. Breathing between 16 and 20 breaths per minute is considered average, but slower diaphragmatic breathing is calming and improves oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in the lungs: It brings more air and oxygen into the alveoli of the lungs and into the bloodstream, and it increases the return of venous (oxygen-depleted) blood to the lungs and sends an increased blood supply to the capillaries surrounding the alveoli.

Diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced in a firm standing position, a steady sitting position, or by lying on your back with the hands along the sides of the body, palms upward, and legs slightly apart (this latter position is called shavasana, or the corpse posture). Exhalation should be through the nostrils, and there should be no sound in the breath. Having exhaled completely, inhalation begins; minimizing the pause, again breathe through the nostrils, making no sound.

Makarasana (Crocodile Pose)

If you do not understand or for some reason cannot start practicing diaphragmatic breathing in a sitting position, then start in the crocodile posture. Lie on the stomach, placing the legs a comfortable distance apart and pointing the toes outward. Fold the arms in front of the body, resting the hands on the biceps. Position the arms so that the chest does not touch the floor, and rest the forehead on the arms.

This posture is an excellent teaching device because it allows you to experience how it feels to breathe diaphragmatically, for when you inhale you feel the abdomen pressing against the floor, and when you exhale you feel the abdominal muscles relaxing. So it is easy to note the movement of the diaphragm in this posture.

It will help to regulate the motions of the lungs.
Sandbag Breathing

This practice will strengthen the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm. It will also help to regulate the motion of the lungs in cooperation with the movement of the diaphragm. Lie on your back in shavasana, seal your lips gently, and relax your body from head to toe. Calm your breath. Now gently place a five-pound sandbag on your abdomen. If you have heart problems, lung problems, or blood pressure abnormalities, place the sandbag on the muscles below the navel, but make sure that no part of the sandbag is supported by the pelvic girdle.

Close your eyes and breathe. Feel how the sandbag rises as you inhale and drops as you exhale. You must make an effort to inhale, but the exhalation should be effortless. After 3–5 minutes, remove the sandbag and relax on your back for a few more minutes.

If you practice regularly, you may want to increase the weight of the sandbag every two weeks. But do this gradually, staying within your comfortable capacity, and do not exceed 15 pounds.

Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing decreases the breath rate considerably. It is the basic exercise that the student practices to accomplish the higher practices and derive benefits from the science of breath.

The heart receives a gentle massage.

Breathing into the deep recesses of the lungs is healthy in all respects. Since the pericardium is attached to the diaphragm, as the diaphragm moves up and down during deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing, the heart receives a gentle massage. Movement of the diaphragm also massages the liver and pancreas and helps improve the functions of the spleen, stomach, and small intestine.

If the practice of rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing is done 10 times a day for at least two months, with gradual and equal prolongation of the inhalation and exhalation, the body will experience a sense of deep relaxation and rest—more restful even than the deepest sleep. One will remain free from the stress and strain that is the source of many physical and psychosomatic illnesses. The nerves will be calm, and the voice and face will manifest this serenity. The voice will grow sweeter, and the harsh lines of the face will be replaced by a soft glow.

Editor’s note: In the next post in this series, Swami Rama explores how to equalize the flow of breath in the two nostrils, leading to a profoundly tranquil state in which the energy channel called sushumna nadi is opened.

Source: Science of Breath by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, and Alan Hymes, MD

Further Reading

Science of Breath

Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD,
Alan Hymes, MD

This book presents knowledge and practices regarding the breath in a way that can be applied to personal growth. It is a masterful guide to systematically identifying bad breathing habits, replacing those habits with healthy breathing patterns, and developing control over pranic flow. Learn how to develop and master the link between your body and mind through the understanding of the breath.

About the Teacher

Swami Rama

One of the greatest adepts, teachers, writers, and humanitarians of the 20th century, Swami Rama (1925–1996) is the founder of the Himalayan Institute. Born in northern India, he was raised from early childhood by the Himalayan sage, Bengali Baba. Under the guidance of his master, he traveled from monastery to monastery and studied with a variety of Himalayan saints and sages, including his grandmaster, who was living in a remote region of Tibet. In addition to this intense spiritual training, Swami Rama received higher education in both India and Europe. From 1949 to 1952, he held the prestigious position of Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham in South India. Thereafter, he returned to his master to receive further training at his cave monastery, and finally, in 1969, came to the United States, where he founded the Himalayan Institute. His best-known work, Living with the Himalayan Masters, reveals the many facets of this singular adept and demonstrates his embodiment of the living tradition of the East.

See Teacher's Content, Programs, and Courses