The anatomy of yogic breathing

The anatomy of yogic breathing

Breath is probably the most important part of a yoga class. Your teacher will repeat inhale and exhale for every single movement that you take, you practice pranayama and are urged to make an ocean sound with every cycle of breath. 

Why do we do all this? What is ujjayi? Is there a reason why we breathe with the nose in yoga? What is the breathing mechanics? Here’s a quick overview of breathing anatomy and physiology and how it links to our yoga practice.

Prana – life energy

The airway structure can be seen as a tree upside down; the roots underneath the ground is the entrance (nose and/ or mouth), the stem is the pharynx, larynx and last trachea, which splits into two main branches – the left and the right bronchia. The branches continue to split into smaller and smaller bronchioles until the air finally reaches the functional structures, the leaves, which in the lungs are called the alveoli. The gas exchange takes place in the alveoli. The fresh oxygenated air passes off O2 that diffuses across the thin walls in the alveoli and into our capillaries. Parallell to this, CO2 travels from the blood into the alveoli to catch the next exhale. Hence, the blood is pumped out to the body and feeds our muscles with life essential oxygen, and waste products are being “aired out”. This is the foundation of Prana – energy.

Inhales and exhales


But what causes the air to move from the outside to the inside of our lungs?

On the inhale, our diaphragm and intercostal muscles expand the chest cavity. This creates a decreased pressure within the lungs which leads to an inflow of air (Boyle’s Law), as gas will always move from a space with more pressure to a place with less pressure. The exhale is usually a passive process where the muscles rest and the chest cavity decreases, which “pushes” the air out of the lungs again. Each cycle of breath is activated by the respiratory centre in the brain. The centre tells our breathing muscles to contract through nerves. Nervus Phrenicus is the nerve leading electric signals to our diaphragm ensuring contractions. If this nerve connection is cut, we will not be able to breathe.

Why do we breathe with the nose in yoga?

The density of capillaries in the nose is very high. This is why we easily bleed from the nose when the mucosus membrane is weakened. The purpose of the blood vessels is to increases the temperature. The temperature of the air flowing in from the atmosphere is in fact increased from 21´C to 31´C in the nose. The three conchas in each nostril add to this mechanism, increasing the surface and hence the temperature.

In addition, the mucosal layer contains several glands that moistens the air. The surface is covered with small hair cells that catches and moves any “foreign” particles down into the pharynx to our mouth – for your choice to swallow or spit out. Nose breathing therefore ensures clean, moist and warm air that is brought down the airways into our lungs.

Sinus cleans

This is an old yogic cleansing ritual (neti pot) used for centuries to clean the nose. Basically you poor saltwater into one of your nostrils and it runs out of the other. The result is open, clean nostrils. I would argue that it is so much better too to poor natural, steril water into our bodies than lots of drugs and chemicals.

Is it safe, some ask. There have been incidents where people have died from sinus cleans with a neti pot (Neti Pot Safety). This is, however, due to the use of intoxicated water, not the actual neti pot. Remember to boil the water (and cool it down to body temperature) before you go ahead. – As long as the water you use is clean, it is totally safe.


This is a tough one. First – what is Ujjayi breath? I’ve heard so many definitions throughout my past 10 years of practice. Many would say it is the sound that defines the breath. Ujjayi is therefor often called the “ocean breath”; which is achieved by activating the muscles that you’d use to cause a glass to fog (only that you close the mouth). However, not all would say that the breath has to be making noise in order to be defined as ujjayi. Hence, it might be easier to understand the concept of ujjayi through aim. After all, the purpose of this yogic breath is to manage smooth, rhythmic and controlled movements that follow the lead of your breathing. Our natural exhales are usually passive – the breathing centre stops sending electric impulses to the diaphragm so that elastic forces brings the muscle back to it’s origin. When we practice ujjayi, however, this process is active. The goal is to ensure that the outflow of air is even. Therefore there is need for an active control of the diaphragmatic release. The active control of the diaphragm also generates heat. You simply use more energy to perform the same breathing. Movement and energy transforms to heat within the body. Furthermore, the yogic breath brings about a higher focus because one is so immersed with the action of controlling the breath. The sound adds to this hypnotizing effect. Make sure, however, that the control is not overriding your other sensations.

The primary goal in yoga is to observe change – both mental and physical. If the obsession of your breath creates tension in the throat or makes you forget to feel the effect of the practice, then it is time to breathe more freely. There is always a balance between control and letting go in yoga – also with the ujjyai breahing.