Art in Action: Shape Changing Breath

breath space 040216

Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

A year ago, a favorite yoga teacher turned me on to the teachings of yoga master and anatomist, Leslie Kaminoff. One of the most profoundly helpful things I learned from Kaminoff’s excellent book, Yoga Anatomy, is his definition of breathing.

We tend to think of breathing as something we do: pull air into our lungs and push it out. Actually, suggests Kaminoff, what is actually happening the two interior spaces of the abdominal and thoracic cavities change shape to allow breath to move.

Kaminoff describes the abdominal cavity as a water balloon that can change shape but not volume and the thoracic cavity as an accordion that changes both shape and volume. The two cavities are connected by the dome of the diaphragm.

Experiment with this now: take a deep breath and notice how your abdomen and ribs move. Now breathe again but this time squeeze your belly muscles in and see how that changes the ability of the cavities to change shape.

Effective or ineffective breath, then, comes down to the ability to change the shape of the body’s cavities.

And in fact, you aren’t actually breathing! Kaminoff writes:

It is important to note that in spite of how it feels when you inhale, you do not actually pull air into the body. On the contrary, air is pushed into the body by the atmospheric pressure (14.7 pounds per square inch or 1.03 kg/cm2) that always surrounds you. This means that the actual force that gets air into the lungs is outside of the body. The energy expended in breathing produces a shape change that lowers the pressure in the chest cavity and permits the air to be pushed into the body by the weight of the planet’s atmosphere. In other words, you create the space, and the universe fills it. (Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff, illustrations by Amy Matthews, p 6. My emphasis.)

When I understand breathing in this way, I can make choices that enhance the ability of my abdominal and thoracic cavities to change shape and let the air in. There is ease in letting the air breathe me rather than the other way around.

Kaminoff goes on to present this definition of breathing and why it matters:

Breathing, the process of taking air into and expelling it from the lungs, is cause by a three-dimensional shape change in the thoracic and abdominal cavities.

Defining breathing in this manner explains not only what it is but also how it is done. As a thought experiment, try this: Substitute the term shape change for the word breathing whenever discussing the breath. For example, “I just had a really good breath” really means “I just had a really good shape change.” More important, “I’m having difficulty breathing” really means “I’m having trouble changing the shape of my cavities.” This concept has profound therapeutic implications, because it tells us where to start looking for the root causes of breath and postural issues …. (Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff, illustrations by Amy Matthews, p 7.)

Whether you are a yogi or not, I highly recommend this book. Even more, I recommend thinking about your breath in terms of shape change and allowing air in.

Breathe deep, everybody. Or rather, let the universe fill you deep!


Leslie Kaminoff has a slew of videos about breathing and anatomy. Here are three that are connected to our focus including my very favorite, The World Famous Chair Demo Party Trick:

Breathing as shape change in the abdominal and thoracic cavities

Breath: Water Bottle and Accordion

The World Famous “Chair Demo” Party Trick

  1. Reblogged this on Live Young. and commented:
    I love the take on ‘breath’ this article articulates. Ever since I read the “Anatomy of Yoga” a few months ago, which presented inhalation in the same manner, I’ve noticed the simple change in my practice as I’ve become aware of this perception.

    • Funny, isn’t it? How seeing or understanding it in a different way changes the physical practice. ❤

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