How Your Breath Moves Your Body

MRI of Breathing
Martin Uecker/BiomedNMR

Watch in the gif to the left how the rib cage expands and rises with each in-breath as the organs below the diaphragm* are pushed down to make room for air to fill the lungs. The diaphragm, the primary breathing muscle, is a mushroom-shaped structure. It lies under your ribs and above the liver, stomach, spleen, intestines and other organs. The diaphragm works like a bellows. When it contracts and moves down, more space is made available in the chest for the air to rush into the lungs. And below the diaphragm, your belly expands, the digestive organs and pelvic floor move downward – functionally making room in the body to receive life-giving oxygen in the lungs.

As the air in your body is exhaled, the diaphragm moves up to push the air out. It is restored to its resting position and so are the other organs. Your ribs and belly relax.

As you look at this gif, try to feel your body moving as you breathe. Feel the rise and fall of the breath as you inhale and exhale: in your chest, the belly, sides and backs of your ribs and spine. Can you feel these areas of your body move with your breath?

Most of us inhibit breathing as we negotiate our daily stresses. We habitually hold tension throughout our bodies. However, we can learn to disinhibit, or relax, our breath and our bodies, and when we do, we will feel the benefits: decreased tension, enhanced energy and more.

This is where integrative and holistic practices like Yoga Physical Therapy come in. Learning to feel the breath in the body is a subtle, yet powerful, yoga and mindfulness tool to restore health and integrate mind and body. It’s a way to investigate and gain understanding within your own experience of how your mind and body work together. It’s key in working with pain. Mindfulness practices bring awareness and acceptance – sometimes even surprising and powerful realizations – to aid in your recovery from acute or chronic pain, especially neck and back pain.

Sharon Gary of Yoga Physical Therapy, one of the best integrative and holistic physical therapy practices in NYC, integrates healing exercises and activities with mindfulness breathing to open, relax and work deeply in healing your pain.


*In this gif, the diaphragm shows as black space because the settings of the MRI were set to visualize other structures.

Your Lymphatic System

Did you know that your breathing habits may positively affect your lymphatic system?

Let’s begin with a review of the anatomy and functioning of the lymphatic system. Closely related to the cardiovascular system both anatomically and functionally, the lymphatic system is composed of capillaries; larger lymphatic vessels, called collecting vessels; the lymph fluid itself; lymph nodes; and numerous lymphatic ducts.

The journey of the lymphatic fluid looks like this: lymph fluid is picked up from the cells, where it travels via the lymphatic capillaries to the collecting vessels, then up to the lymphatic ducts, where it is filtered and  returned to the bloodstream.

What is this lymph fluid? It is a fluid that is the byproduct of cellular function and respiration. It is extra, or interstitial, fluid containing bacteria, fat and proteins, fluid that remains between the cells which was not picked up by the bloodstream. It is a waste by-product discharged from the cells. This clear and colorless fluid is then transported to the lymph nodes, where it is filtered and cleaned of foreign substances, bacteria, proteins and other large particles. From the nodes, the lymph travels to the ducts, formed by the convergence of lymph vessels. They include the lumbar duct, the common duct that empties into the cisterna chyli, the cisterna chyli, the thoracic duct, the left jugular and subclavian ducts and the right lymphatic duct.*

Lymph, then, travels from the cells to the capillaries, to the nodes, through the ducts, to empty in the large blood vessels located at the base of the neck, where it is emptied back into the bloodstream. However, unlike blood, lymph moves in only one direction through a variety of parallel mechanisms:

  1. hydrostatic pressure;
  2. valves to prevent back flow;
  3. voluntary muscle contractions throughout the body;
  4. respiratory movements that create alternating pressures within the chest cavity (pressures created by the contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and respiratory muscles);
  5. contractions of the abdominal wall upon forceful exhalation — vigorous exercise, coughing, sneezing — creating a positive pressure in the cisterna chyli that pushes the lymph up towards the large veins in the neck;
  6. pulsations of adjacent blood vessels throughout the circulatory system.*

Three liters of lymph enter the bloodstream every 24 hours. Since muscle contractions aid lymph flow, you can see how important general exercise is to aid turnover in your lymphatic system. Furthermore, the thoracic duct, cysterna chili, the lumbar duct and the common duct are all very near the diaphragm, our primary breathing muscle. The thoracic duct passes through an opening in the diaphragm.

On an anatomical level at the very least, you can see how deep breathing exercises may have a direct and positive impact on lymphatic flow. Deep breathing exercises create greater pressures within the chest and abdominal cavities. Additionally, through the contractions of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, a positive pressure is created in the trunk to further push the lymph upwards towards their emptying ports in the neck.

Another reason to get moving and to do pranayama — powerful breathing exercises!



*Information taken from Anatomy by Ernerst W. April and Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy. Please note also that the above information is not comprehensive of the entire lymphatic system, which also includes the spleen and lymphocytes.


Read more about Sharon Gary, Yoga Physical Therapy and what a typical treatment with Sharon Gary looks like.

How Yoga Physical Therapy Works With Pain

Day 2. I started this blog because I want to get the word out about NY Yoga Physical Therapy. Sometimes I come home after working with a patient who has chronic pain with a great idea that we discovered during our session, and I want to share it. So this is a way to get me started writing about the work, to explain what it is that we do in Yoga Physical Therapy.

First and foremost, I look at the body with the eyes of a Physical Therapist. The training was the best I could find for understanding the components of the human body and how it moves in space. From my background in dance and yoga, I became a Physical Therapist because I was hungry to know about muscles, joints, the nervous system, and how it all fits together. Then, by studying the pathology of injury and disease, I learned what happens when something goes wrong. My job as a Physical Therapist is to find a way to help the injured body in pain recover. These 20 plus years of working with injuries and disease have only increased my understanding and intuitive approach.

Yet as great as the Physical Therapy training was, it didn’t give me a way to deal with the whole person. Often I would find people were tense, upset and holding tension in their bodies, especially those with low back pain, upper back pain, neck pain and those with frozen and painful shoulders. (I also see people holding tension in their feet, knees and hips.) At first, I didn’t know what to do with this growing observation. I wasn’t trained in how to deal with stress and the psychological components of pain, disease and injury.

Once I consciously started practicing holistically, incorporating Yoga, mindful breath work and other holistic practices into the sessions, I began to be able to help people help themselves with the effects of stress held in their bodies – physically, emotionally and psychologically. The introduction of the breath, not only into the exercises, but as a separate activity in itself, began to transform the effectiveness of the therapy sessions, especially in those with chronic neck pain, upper back pain, middle back pain and low back pain.

By helping you learn how to breathe into area injury and pain, you become aware of your own experience of feelings, holding, tension and tightness in that area of the body. On a physical level, getting breath into a tight or tense area literally begins to open up the area. As the muscles relax, they loosen their hold on the bones. The affected bone(s), pulled out of line by an overactive muscle, can begin to relax back into place. When the muscle, then the bone(s), release back into a relaxed state, then the affected joint can begin to realign itself. Yes, you can learn to breathe into targeted areas of the body. As the body relaxes, or disinhibits from tension and pain, then the breath can freely move the trunk.

Secondly, blood does not flow freely through tense muscles. So another result of using a mindful breath is that it helps muscles to relax. Relaxed muscles allow blood to freely circulate through these affected muscles. With more blood flow, more oxygen gets into the area. More oxygen equals more healing. The molecules and chemicals for healing can now get to get to the injured, painful area. Not only that, but the byproducts and waste molecules from cellular respiration – or cleaning up the debris from the injury –  is now able to move out of the area more quickly. This aids in decreased swelling, inflammation and therefore improved healing.

On the psychological level, mindful, meditative breathing is documented to lessen the effects of stress, including lowering blood pressure and decreasing heart rate. It lessens the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone of the fight-or-flight reaction. As a person becomes more aware of  bodily tension and learns to breathe into it, often the emotions or thinking that contributes to that tension begin to loosen their hold as well. As the mind begins to relax, so too does the body. Once the body begins to relax, so do the mind and emotions. It’s a dynamic, interactive process.

I’ve had patients thank me for helping them to identify and learn to work with the stress that is contributing to their pain and injury. Once they developed an awareness that they were holding tension in their backs, necks, feet or hips, they were able to begin working with, and begin lessening, that tension. Their pain started to go down, too.

For one patient with chronic back pain and neck pain, a sudden awareness and acceptance of how he held tension in these areas was the turning point in his treatment. He said, “I thought about what you said last week about accepting the discomfort. And over the weekend, I got it. It was weird, but my experience of the pain changed.” He stopped therapy shortly after.

Awareness is key. So is acceptance. With aware breathing into an injury, combined with specifically targeted positioning or stretching of the body, the healing process is powerfully supported. Using a gentle and mindful breath also gives us an effective tool to support the entire healing process, body and mind. Paradoxically, acceptance of pain can reduce the anxiety and fear surrounding it, which then contributes to the relaxation of the tension that we hold because these feelings.

Sharon Gary of Yoga Physical Therapy in mid-town Manhattan can help you with this holistic, integrative approach to healing.