Anatomy of breathing – where and why our body moves

‘Why is awareness of our breathing and the way we breath is so important?’ See my previous article for a background to this discussion.

As I write I’m realising there is no short simple answer to this question, so I’m going to discuss it in sections: ‘Anatomy and Physiology of Breathing’, ‘How Breathing Helps us to Read the Body’s Signals – the stress response’, ‘The Importance of Being Aware of our Breath’, ‘The Breath in the Spiritual Path’, and ‘Re-learning how to Breath’.

I aim to write in a way that is easy to read without medical or yoga jargon but still give a good, in-depth knowledge of breathing from a medical, psychological and yoga perspective.

Anatomy and physiology of breathing

Air cannot get in and out of our lungs without taking up some space in the body, just as it’s impossible to fill a balloon without it expanding, our body has to accommodate the expanding lungs as they fill. So lets look at the what should and needs to move in our bodies when we are breathing,

The diaphragm: our primary breathing muscle is shaped like a parachute and sits under our lungs at the bottom of the ribcage. It is a muscle and when it contracts it flattens out; imagine someone pulling the edges of the parachute apart, the material of the parachute then becomes taught flattening out the dome. As the dome flattens it makes more space for the lungs, when there is space but no air filling the lungs it creates a vacuum inside the body which is how the air then gets sucked into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes, the parachute becomes dome shaped again pushing up into the lung cavity and squeezing the air out of the lungs.

So the diaphragm needs to move downward and the lungs must get bigger in order to take in air. This is a basic breath, we don’t get air unless this happens.


The belly: Under the diaphragm we have our inner organs, this is the space under the ribcage, the belly area. When the diaphragm moves downward, it takes up space in the belly area by pushing down into the inner organs. In order for the diaphragm to be able to work unhindered space needs to be made in the belly area. If we can’t see any outward movement in the belly while breathing we know that the diaphragm is not being allowed to move in the way it needs in order to provide the body with a full breath.

This is why you will often hear the instruction to ‘breathe into your belly’. It isn’t that the air of lungs actually fills the belly it’s that in order to make space for the air higher up in the body there is a knock on effect lower down. This is why in order to obtain a full relaxed breath it is necessary to relax the belly and let it expand when you breathe in.

The accessory breathing muscles: The diaphragm is the primary muscle of breathing and is all that is required in normal calm breath. When we require more air such as during times of intense physical activity then we have other muscles that help out to create even more space in the lung cavity and thus creating a bigger vacuum and the ability to pull more air in to the lungs in one breath. These muscles are called the accessory breathing muscles.

Accessory Muscles of Respiration.jpg

The accessory breathing muscles are the those between the ribs (intercostal muscles) and a collection of other deep and surface muscles that join the ribcage to other parts of the body like to the arms, neck and trunk (see diagram).

You might recognise having used these accessory muscles to help you breathe more intensely when you are really puffed after a strenuous run and you brace your arms on your knees; this gives give your chest muscles the best chance to help expand the chest cavity the most so you can draw in more air and ‘catch your breath’. You might also recall when you have a really bad cough you also brace your arms on your knees in order too cough more intensely.


Where and why our breathing can become physically disrupted: Children will naturally use their diaphragm as their primary breathing muscle, allowing space for the movement to the diaphragm by relaxing the belly.

As we grow up there are a myriad of factors that can disrupt our normal healthy breathing. It is fashionable to be slim so we train ourselves to hold our tummies in, then our diaphragm doesn’t have the space it needs to move so the breath becomes shallow and incomplete. Stress has the effect of increasing tension in many muscles in our body, including the stomach muscles, so stress also causes the breathing to become quick and shallow. I will discuss the relationship between stress and breathing more in the next article ‘How Breathing Helps us to Read the Body’s Signals’.

When the diaphragm is hindered from doing its job the accessory breathing muscles around the ribcage are forced to work harder, this is why we sometimes see more movement around the upper part of the chest when we are tense and our breathing is shallow. You might have seen an exaggerated form of this type of breathing if you have ever witnessed someone hyperventilating (which can happen in time of acute stress and anxiety). You might recall how it looks when the upper part of the chest is working frantically to try to get air in the lungs.

Injuries can also disrupt our breathing pattern. If you have ever broken a rib or had surgery either in the tummy area or chest area your body will naturally have found a way to breath to avoid the pain. If the pain goes on for an extended period of time it can change the breathing pattern on a long term basis.

So now we are some way to understanding why and how the body should expand and contract in order to breath in a healthy and relaxed manner. Still many people have deviations in their way of breathing  and of course we can live our whole lives not being aware or breathing to our fullest.

“If you had got used to the clouds and forgotten the sky could look any other way would you really never again want to experience the sun?” ~ Kim Westmoquette

In my next article I will write about ‘How Breathing Helps us to Read the Body’s Signals’.


I’m a physiotherapist and yoga therapist, if you are interested in learning amore about breathing and body awareness please contact me. My website is:

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