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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.



If you wish to learn more, please read more of our article in our blog at and download our free 108 page E-book on how to enhance you health and longevity available from the top of all Yoga Synergy web pages. 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 We 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.


Ten things to do that can improve your life

Here are ten great reminders for the day that have been shown to have a positive effect on your life. This is inspired by an article by Eric Barker but I have adapted it to be more inclusive of Yoga practitioners.

1. Get out in nature – bare feet on the earth if best and in the water if you can
2. Exercise – do some yoga – move your spine
3. Spend time with friends and family
4. Express gratitude
5. Meditate – be happy with yourself
6. Get enough sleep – and relax more in the day
7. Challenge yourself – physically, mentally and emotionally
8. Laugh – kids laugh 300 times per day – adults often not more than twice!
9. Touch someone – hugs are even better!
10. Be optimistic – its free!


One of the first Yoga Synergy Workshops by Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss at the Poland Rainbow Festival in 1991

One of the first Yoga Synergy Workshops by Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss at the Poland Rainbow Festival in 1991


Read our detailed information about what to do get the most of these ten reminders by clicking on the rest of the article below.


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The Best Side Stretches for Energising You and Relieving Back Pain


by Simon Borg-Olivier

In every day life many people do not get enough sideways movement and freedom. Sideways ‘stretches’ (spinal lateral flexion) are really important movements and postures, and are often understated and not practiced in many exercise, stretching and yoga classes.

In this post we demonstrate a simple side stretch (Figure 1 and Figure 2) that can be simply done from standing, and can even be performed with normal clothes on while you are at work. I also give  detailed instructions with the application of 18 different bandhas throughout the body for performing two well known ‘side-stretching’ postures from the classic book by Sri BKS Iyengar “Light on Yoga” named Utthita Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle Posture, Figure 3) and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolving Lateral Angle Posture, Figure 4). Once performed using these bandhas these postures become very effective methods to enhance your levels of energy and can be an effective means of preventing and relieving joint pain.

The simplest ‘side-stretch’ (Figure 1 and Figure 2) can be done as follows without trying to overstretch or cause pain:

  • stand with your legs about hip width apart and your knees slightly bent
  • push the sitting bones down, and move the top of the hips back to lengthen the lower back
  • move your lower front ribs back and lift and slightly round out your upper back
  • lift your left shoulder (and also your whole arm if possible) as high as you can (shoulder past your ears if possible)
  • push your right shoulder downwards and lengthen your right hand towards to the floor
  • lean on your left leg and then push the right ‘sitting-bone’ slightly up and forwards and come onto your right toe tip.
  • breathe naturally into your abdomen and make sure you do not over stretch or cause pain.
Lengthening the side of the body, by Simon Borg-Olivier

Figure 1: Lengthening the side of the body, by Simon Borg-Olivier

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Figure 2: Lengthening the side of the body, Bianca Machliss (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)











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Mallakhamb: What I learnt from Practicing Yoga Postures on Poles and Ropes in India

by Simon Borg-Olivier

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Vrshikasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Vrshikasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988;

Many people in Australia and around the world are now practicing postures and movements, similar to those seen in hatha yoga, on poles in ‘Pole dance’ studios and on hanging circus silks and rope inversion swings. I was fortunate enough to learn how to do yoga on poles and ropes two decades ago in India in the traditional Indian training system called Mallakhamb.
Lessons I learnt from practicing yoga postures on poles and ropes in India:
1. Move your spine actively from your core.
2. Use your inner thigh muscles more in your ground based exercise.
3. Use the muscles at the back of your knees more in your ground based exercise.
4. Learn to move slowly when it is easy to go quickly into a posture and learn to move fast when it is easy to go slowly.
5. Do not be dependant on the external force of gravity to move your body into positions
6. Strengthen your back muscles by practicing bending backwards using your back muscles.
7. Release and relax your back muscles by using your bending forward muscles and breathing into your abdomen


Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian sport in which the practitioner practices yoga-like postures and movements on a vertical wooden pole or a rope. The name Mallakhamb is derived from the terms malla which means a wrestler and khamb which means a pole. Mallakhamb can therefore be translated to English as “the wrestler’s pole”.

I was inspired to write this blog after the amazing experiences I had learning with the wonderful teachers and students of the ‘Maharashtra Mandel’ in Tilak Road, Pune, India. I had the honour of training with these guys every afternoon on all the 8 x one month long trips I had in Pune to study with Sri BKS Iyengar from 1986 to 1997. I would usually do practice or class with Guruji (Mr Iyengar) or his amazing son Prashant ji or brilliant daughter Geeta ji in the morning and then practice pole or rope Mallakhamb in the afternoon.
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How to Monitor and Reduce Your Stress Levels

In this blog I will be discussing how to monitor and reduce your stress levels by using your heart rate, some simple berthing exercises and some other ‘tricks’. You can very simply improve you overall internal health, especially that of your nervous system and your immune system by increasing your heart rate variability (HRV). This can be most easily done if you can learn to inhale for 6 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds . The heart appears to work in a 12 second cycle when you are resting or doing simple tasks. You can synchronise your breathing to your heart rate by inhaling for 6 seconds as your heart rate increases, and your exhale for 6 seconds as your heart rate decreases.


Heart rate variability by Simon Borg-Olivier

Figure 1: Heart rate variability in an adult with controlled slow breathing: horizontal axis is time, vertical axis is heart rate, ascending lines correspond to slow controlled inhalation, descending lines correspond to  slow controlled exhalation; by Simon Borg-Olivier (click on this image for full photo)


This photo shows a graph of my heart rate variability (HRV) over 5 smooth breaths in a simple seated posture. Notice how on inhalation (line going up) my heart rate goes up to as high as 72 beats per minute. Then when I exhale (line going down) my heart rate goes down to as low as 42 beats per minute. Increased HRV is one the best indicators of internal health. Good yoga can easily teach this. For adults HRV is generally very poor without something like good yoga in your life. Much of the yoga practices I see around the world actually causes more stress (and worse HRV) than good health. Yoga is ideally the art of doing stressful things while being relaxed yet getting stronger and fitter. My nine year old daughter Amaliah did this exercise and her HRV went back and forth between 38 to 115 beats per minute on each breath while just sitting relaxed for a few minutes. Now that’s the healthy state most kids have! Adults have to work for it!
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