The Risks and Benefits of Chest Breathing

Simon Breathing around the spine in unsupported headstand, and here doing exhalation retention with isolation of the rectus abdominis (nail)

Simon Borg-Olivier breathing around the spine in unsupported headstand, and here doing exhalation retention with isolation of the rectus abdominis (nauli)

Chest breathing can be extremely beneficially if done correctly but can also cause problems if done in a way that overstimulates the nervous system.

Many people teach and practice to inhale into the chest, and to exhale from the lower abdomen, but clinical research using Real Time Ultrasound (RTU) has shown that about 90% of the average adult population cannot really breathe into the chest without first inhibiting the functioning of the diaphragm by activating either the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation which firm the abdomen and draw the navel to the spine (co-activation of the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles, or ha-mula bandha), or by activating the anal constrictor muscles (ashvini mudra). Similarly, most people cannot exhale from the lower abdomen (and draw the lower abdominal muscles inwards) without inhibiting the diaphragm and immobilising the lumbar spine.

In this two minute video, Yoga Synergy Director and physiotherapist, Simon Borg-Olivier demonstrates breathing around the spine in such a way that the expansion due to inhalation is first seen and felt in the lower back, then the upper back, then the chest, and finally the abdomen. Then the contraction due to exhalation begins in the lower back, then the upper back, then the chest and finally the abdomen. In this type of the breathing, which is best learnt from a seated or normal standing position, the inhalation up the back starting from the tailbone up the spine is quite subtle, so it appears that the chest is being inflated first and the abdomen second. Similarly, on exhalation up the back starting from the tailbone up the spine is quite subtle so it appears that the chest is being compressed first and the abdomen draws inwards second. In the final part of the video Simon holds his breath out and performs an expansive uddiyana bandha, which is an expansion of the chest and upper back like an attempt at inhaling into the chest with a relaxed abdomen but without actually inhaling. This is followed by an isolation of the rectus abdominis (nauli).


This type of circular breathing around the spine has many benefits. Inhalation up the back of the body tractions the spine and brings blood to to inter-vertebral joints. Inhalation down the front of the body (i.e. breathing into the chest first) relieves prolapse of the internal organs, which can help to remove pressure of the intestines, reproductive organs and the bladder, as well as improve venous blood to the heart. Exhalation up the back of the body can help to remove stale blood from the spinal veina (which have no one-way back flow valves like the veins in the limbs have) and strengthen the multifidus muscles that are so important to healthy spinal function. Exhalation down the front of the body helps to massage the internal organs as well as helps to slow the heart rate and calm the nervous system

Simply breathing into the chest has many benefits including relieving prolapse of the internal organs of the lower trunk, allowing the lungs to become fully inflated and also freeing the joints of the ribs, the upper back and the neck. However, most people tend to only get minimal benefits from breathing into the chest because they do it by first inhibiting the diaphragm by tensing the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation or the the anal constrictor muscles.
Exhaling using first upper transverse abdominis then lower abdominis fibres, as shown in the video, can also be very good for massaging the internal organs, mobilising the lumbar vertebrae to relieve lower back pain, and also assist in the secretion of hormones from the endocrine glands. Most people, however, cannot isolate the upper and lower fibres of the transverse abdomens without also activating the oblique muscles of  the abdomen that inhibit diaphragmatic function; the correct functioning of the reproductive system, immune system and digestive system; as well as the natural mobility of the lumbar spine.
For most people the circular breathing is too hard to perform even in standing or sitting, let alone when you are upside down. For many people attempts at chest breathing can lead to negative results, including symptoms of stress and hyperventilation, unless they can expand the chest without any muscular tension in the abdomen. Similarly, many people who exhale from the abdomen will only succeed at constricting the lower abdomen to immobilse the lumbar spine, restrict blood flow to the legs and unnecessarily increase heart rate, while subsequently inhibiting the diaphragm. Hence most people will get better results in their physical practice by working with natural breathing in which the inhalation is abdominal (diaphragmatic), the exhalation is passive, and the amount of breathing is minimal.
The following diagrams come from the text book by Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss on the Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga. They describe simple supine and seated versions of the abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing, chest (thoracic) breathing, and complete breathing (abdominal then chest breathing). These are all necessary prerequisites to being able to breathe as shown in the video standing or sitting normally (let alone doing it upside down, which is much more advanced). To inhale into the lower back simply round out the lower back, relax that region and think of it while breathing into that part. To inhale into the upper back simply round out the upper back, relax that region and think of it while breathing into that part. Generally, to inhale into any part of the body simply expand or lengthen that region, relax that region and think of it while breathing into that region of the body. Likewise, to exhale from the lower back make a ‘valley’ in the lower back (without shortening the spine), gently activate the muscles in that region if necessary and think of it while exhaling slowly and gently from that part. To exhale from the upper back simply make a ‘valley’ in the upper back, gently activate the muscles in that region if necessary, and think of it while exhaling from slowly and gently from that part. Generally, to breathe out from any part of the body simply contract that region inwards without shortening joint spaces, gently activate the muscles in that region if necessary, and think of it while exhaling slowly and gently from that region of the body.
However, once natural breathing has been mastered in simple postures and also in simple movements that move the spine, then it can be really beneficial for the advanced practitioner to progress to the type of breathing shown in the video.
Abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing

Abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing (please click on this photo to enlarge the text)

Chest (thoracic) breathing

Chest (thoracic) breathing (Please click on this photo to enlarge the text)

Complete breathing (abdominal breathing following by chest breathing

Complete breathing (abdominal breathing following by chest breathing) (Please click on this photo to enlarge the text)


Inhalation around the spine (inhaling up the  back form lower back to upper back and then continuing to inhale into the chest then the abdomen) like have shown in the video has many benefits as discussed above. However, to the untrained eye it looks like I am breathing first into the chest because, although breathing in the back can be easily felt, it can not be easily seen.  It also appears that as I inhale the navel is being drawn towards the spine, especially when the chest expands and at least in part because the chest expands. Additionally, at the end of the exhalation the navel again moves towards the spine using the transverses abdominis, which does not inhibit the diaphragm and does not immobilise spinal movement. There are in fact four different ways to “pull your navel to your spine”. These four distinct ways and their effects (especially on the diaphragm and the spine) are:

Method 1: By using (activating) the muscles of forced ‘hard’ abdominal exhalation (ha-mula bandha); including co-activation of the internal and external abdominal obliques – this hardens the abdomen but prevents the diaphragm from working in a calm way.

Method 2: By using (activating) the trunk muscles involved in active spinal movements (tha-mula bandha); including rectus abdominis – this hardens the abdomen but still allows diaphragmatic breathing.

Method 3: By using (activating) the transverse abdominis (the muscles of ‘soft’ abdominal exhalation)(ha-mula bandha) – this keeps the abdomen feeling relaxed but allows you to exhale fully from the abdomen and still be able to breath diaphragmatically.  However, only about one in ten adults can do this without special training .

Method 4: By using (activating) the muscles of chest inhalation (tha-uddiyana bandha) with or without inhalation – this does not use any abdominal muscles, therefore the abdomen remains relaxed and the diaphragm can still function.

These methods of drawing the navel towards the spine can also be blended. Many people use a combination of several methods to ‘draw the navel towards the spine’. Drawing the navel towards to spine, and the reasons why it is so easily misunderstood is further explained in this video in an earlier blog.

The breathing I demonstrate in the video uses Methods 3 and 4 to draw the navel to the spine on inhalation. I use Method 4 to inhale into the chest.  Then I use Method 3 (transverses abdominis) to exhale from the abdomen. Clinical studies using Real Time Ultrasound (RTU) suggest that most people  cannot use Method 3 (transversus abdominis) alone to softly draw the navel to the spine to exhale fully. Most people use Method 1 (the abdominal oblique muscles) at least in part, to draw the navel towards the spine both during inhalation and on exhalation. However this usually inhibits the diaphragm and immobilises the spine. Hence the inhalation to the chest is done by default and does not result in a complete inhalation, and the exhalation to the abdomen complicates this further by restricting circulation, increasing heart beat, increasing sympathetic tone (i.e. enhancing the ‘flight or fight’ response) and often resulting in hyperventilation and its associated complications.



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Yoga Synergy also runs regular teaching training courses with Simon Borg-Olivier and/or Bianca Machliss in Australia, India and elsewhere around the world (please see also run comprehensive and award winning online courses that are described below. These courses are great for anyone interested in yoga, exercise or health, but they are also beneficial for anyone who wants to partake in an ongoing yoga teacher training.

This is a ‘must do’ course for anyone who wants to practice/teach safe and effective yoga. You will learn how to use 9 main joint complexes, 20 muscle group pairs, muscles, 3 main nerve reflexes, 10 circulatory pumps (mudra systems), 18 muscle stabilising coactivations (bandhas), 9 nerve tensioning postures (mudras) and 8 main breath-control exercises (pranayamas).
“It is very important, but not enough, to know where your muscles and bones are … You have to know what to do with them!”
This course is the public version of the award winning RMIT university course written and presented by physiotherapists and yoga teachers Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss. It is the culmination of the 30 years of teaching experience and the practical application of the ‘Yoga Anatomy and Physiology’ course.
Each course is 120 hours fully online and is CEP points credited.


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