Pranayama Techniques

Understanding the Thoracic Diaphragm and Intercostals

When there is separation between the doer and the done (the conception of ‘I’), then the possible becomes impossible, and the practitioner is back in the realm of suffering.

When we take an inhalation, the breast bone lifts and the bottom ribs move out and up (the bucket handle action), this makes the thoracic cavity larger, thus decreasing pressure within it. Since air moves from areas of higher to areas of lower pressure, this causes the air around us to rush in.

The diaphragm (which is a thin sheet of muscle around a central tendon) is attached to the bottom of the breastbone, the costal cartilage of ribs 6 to 10, the ligaments (arcuate) that bridge the gap from this cartilage to the floating ribs, and the front of the lower spine (the first three lumbar vertebrae). Above the diaphragm lies the heart and lungs and below the diaphragm, the stomach to the left and the liver to the right. When the ribs pull out and up with the breastbone leading, the diaphragm is pulled down, which adds further to this increase in volume. The lift of the breastbone continues the action of opening the thoracic cavity, assisted by the rhomboids, which draw the shoulder blades together. The latisimus dorsi pulls the arms back and down to make room for the collar bones and the pectorlis minor, and the sternocleidomastoids pull the breast up further (this action is only made possible through a closed chain movement, in other words with the shoulder blades fixed by the rhomboids).

When exhaling, the body goes through a passive recoil where the muscles that moved the rib cage, as well as those in the diaphragm, release causing the volume to decrease again, reversing the effect and causing the air to rush out back to the air around us.

Keeping the same muscles that opened up the ribs and pulled up the breast bone during inhalation activated during exhalation will slow down the exhalation. Extra awareness of these muscular actions will deepen the inhalations and improve subtlety and responsiveness during inhalation.

The main muscles of respiration are the pectoralis, the internal and external intercostals, the serratus anterior, the rhomboids, the abdominals, the middle and lower fibres of the trapezius, the latisimus dorsi, the erector spinae and the diaphragm itself. In truth, many muscles work in sympathy with one another, in a sophisticated and impeccably timed dance to support the breath.

When the diaphragm is fully pulled down, no more air can be taken in when it is fully released; even if ‘old air’ is still present, the exhalation cannot continue. On inhalations, the internal intercostals contract and the external intercostals stretch; the opposite is true for the exhalation.

Observing the nuances and subtleties of the body’s mechanics is definitely a way through which you can deepen your practice and push yourself along the yoga path; particularly if you remember that yoga is more of an art than a science and requires intimacy, commitment, integrity and truthfulness.

Explicit Pranayama: Shoulds and Should Nots


  • Pranayama should be practiced on an empty bowel, bladder and stomach.

  • Practitioners should have short finger nails (for the practice of digital Pranayama).

  • Pranayama should be practiced somewhere clean and free from direct disturbance.

  • Pranayama should be practiced after the gross tensions of the body have been released, either through a light asana practice or through time in Savasana (warm baths can help but one needs to avoid creating drowsiness).

Should Nots

  • Pranayama should not be practised unsupervised by anyone who is in a state of chronic mental illness. Spacious inhalation and exhalation (Puraka, Rechaka), and deep relaxed inhalation with slow extended exhalation could be taken at an experienced teacher’s discretion.

  • Pranayama should not be practiced in haste.

  • Pranayama should not be practised by people suffering from illness of any kind without consulting both their GP and an experienced teacher beforehand; especially where prescription drugs are being used.

  • Bhastrika and Kapalabhati should not be practiced by anyone who is pregnant.

  • Smoking and Pranayama do not mix well, and it is best to avoid smoking altogether. It is of particular importance not to smoke one hour before and after practice, as smoking before can cause a restriction that may lead to a build up of pressure, and smoking afterwards will increase the negative effect of the smoke because of the ‘opening effect’ of the technique.

  • If practicing causes headaches or irritability see the proceeding check list.

  • Generally speaking, Pranayamas all begin with an exhalation and end with an inhalation, to avoid strain on the heart.

Suitable Postures for Practice

  • Lying down on a lift (blocks, blankets, bolsters or specific Pranayama support products).

  • Lying down Pranayama is suitable for all except third trimester pregnancy or where there are specific back problems.

  • It is important that there is sufficient height in the lift to open the chest but not so high as to cause the lumbar to strain.

  • The head should be supported so as to be comfortably inclined towards the heart. It is advisable for: beginners to carry out their whole practice like this, intermediates the first half, experienced as feels appropriate; all, half or not at all.

    Seated on lift: chair, cushion or blankets. This is not recommended for beginners unless in late second to third trimester of pregnancy, suffering from back pain exasperated through lying down, or extremely slothful.

Seated Postures

Padmasana-Lotus posture: This is an ideal position, as it releases the spine upwards by releasing the compression against the front of the pelvis from the thighs and extending the psoas muscle (that connects the tops of the inner thighs, the inner pelvis, and the lower back vertebrae), freeing the waist. It has a broadening effect on the sacrum, and creates a widening of the chest via the upward rebound of the torso.

Sukhasana/Swastikasana: This is best taken for Pranayama with a high lift under the sitting bones (support may be needed under the knees to stop them over-stretching in some cases, particularly during a longer period of sitting). This posture facilitates some of the same effects as those of Padmasana in terms of the release that can be triggered in the torso through the downward release of the legs. It also shares with other similar poses a ‘quietening’ influence on the nerves, since the limbs of action are immobilised.

Virasana: As there are many people who find external rotation difficult, Virasana provides a useful alternative sitting pose, whilst still creating the calming effect of immobilising the ‘limbs of action’, specifically the legs. It is easiest to sit on a lift of at least one yoga block high to avoid knee compression and to help keep the spine lifted.

Sidasana: This pose, either in its ‘easy’ version (both feet on the floor) or in the version where one leg rests on the calf of the other, has the same calming effect that the others share and some will find the external rotation easier than that of Swastikasana and Padmasana. The rolling action of the calf and thigh positioning the thigh bone more deeply in the socket, there is less resistance from the hips, as in many cases the legs will be able to take complete support from the floor. The pose also creates a pyramid shape which encourages energy from the root chakra (Mula dhara) to rise towards the crown chakra (Sahasara) bringing about a union of the energy principles of Shiva and Shakti, what Friedrich Nietzsche refers to as the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the principles of reasoning and instinct, the comprehension and accommodation of the unconscious in the conscious.

Sitting in a chair: yoga chairs are fairly inexpensive and by far the best for this as they have a wide flat seat and are very stable. One can sit on the chair conventionally or with the legs through the wide open back that they have, which will allow the practitioner to use the ‘back rest’ to pull themselves to an easy upright position.

Ujjayi Breath

After simple inhalation-exhalation (puraka-rechaka), the majority of pranayama techniques use ujjayi* breath to some extent. There are some notable exceptions including bhastrika and the oral Pranayama techniques of sitakari and sitali. Ujjayi breath is carried out with the sibilant ‘sssssssss’ sound for inhalations and the aspirate ‘hhhhhhhh’ for exhalations. It is a narrowing of the trachea that causes the sound, which, if exaggerated to a gross level, would create the sound of snoring. It is this narrowing that allows the practitioner a more refined sensibility around the breathing, which leaves one able to adjust each breath creatively, and according to the sensations of pressure within the sinus’s, which must not be allowed to rise, and in most cases, where pressure has built through stressful living, (ultimately the result of an addiction to the thinking process) need to be encouraged to drop. With the exceptions of sitakari and sitali, most Pranayamas are taken through the nose as this warms, filters and humidifies the air before it reaches the lungs, thereby making it easier to absorb.

*literally – to win, to conquer, to be victorious

The behaviour of the abdomen during pranayama

To inflate or not to inflate: In early stages of practise it might be necessary to allow the abdomen to act as an ‘overflow’ so that any difficulty in lifting the chest, due to comprehension and physical tensions, do not lead to force and strain. Any such limitation acts as a block and can cause a build up of prana in the form of pressure, which can cause tension headaches and irritability. The belly can act as a temporary overflow so that such pressures do not build. The plan though, is to exchange belly breathing for thoracic breathing as the physical and psychological blockages diminish. This overflow becomes less necessary through the increased openness of the body and ability to internally release through ishvara pranidhana (inner guidance), which are brought about through regular asana practise.

What are the downsides to belly inflation during Pranayama?

Belly inflation is not harmful as such, and may be a necessary stepping stone on the way to freer thoracic breathing; it does however have some draw backs.

  • Generally speaking the practice of abdominal breathing is grosser than the more elevated, refined, thoracic breathing which has a more delicate flavour to it.

  • Belly breathing can pull the energy down as it contracts the spinal vertebrae into each other. This makes the head dull and insensitive. It can give rise to tension in the neck and shoulders which can lead to unpleasant throbbing sensations in the brain.

  • In terms of the chakras (energy centres, literally ‘wheels’), it effectively blocks the upper four and so the more refined states of consciousness. This can leave one feeling dull, blunt, dim, pedantic, and two dimensional. This can have a subtle effect on our practice giving us more of a tendency to be insensitive and uncreative.

Why do some teachers emphasize abdominal breath?

There are many possible reasons why some people emphasize belly breath. Firstly, and in a way most obviously, there is the ’chinese whisper’ scenario in which where abdominal overflow was advocated as a stepping stone to a more open thoracic breath, this has been distorted into the view that abdominal breath, is not a stepping stone but the actual technique.

Secondly, thoracic breathing is a more powerful experience than abdominal breathing, and this may have caused a baby and bath water type of reaction, whereupon instead of taking responsibility and managing the energy level increase with sensitivity and creative response, the technique is thrown out altogether.

We recognise this responsibility quite easily, but can sometimes expect something more from yoga techniques, treating them as if they managed themselves. Take eating for instance, we know that food gives us strength and energy, but we also recognise (if not always responsively) that too much of it can make us unwell, or that eating too quickly, or in a stressful environment, or eating foods that are hard to digest, can give us indigestion. Similarly, when travelling to work we may know the journey well, and be clear about our intended route before we start, but equally, we respond to the variables on that journey that may change from one day to the next, and alter the route accordingly. The way we handle a yoga technique then, is of key importance. If one does not fully appreciate one’s own role as an artist in yoga one might then cast blame on specific techniques and even consider dropping them altogether, this is where the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. The alternative then is to trust the techniques and where difficulty arises use that as a mirror to see how are you handling your practice. It’s the Buddha’s image of the snake again, which end you hold it from makes all the difference.

The final reason why people might advocate abdominal breath is simply down to ignorance. There has been a misunderstanding regarding the role of the diaphragm which goes something like this, ‘the abdomen moves as a result of the diaphragm’s movement, we want to breath diaphragmatically in Pranayama , therefore we should always try to make sure that the abdomen inflates during practice.’ This view is a result of not realising that the diaphragm’s movement will either lead to a chest lifting action or a belly bulging one depending on which parts of the body are kept still and which are allowed to move. This action can be observed throughout the body where we can use a muscle to pull two bones equally towards each other (open chain action), or we can fix one side of the joint in which case it leads to only one bone moving (closed chain).