Yoga and Somatics for Healthy Lungs

breath immunity yoga Oct 21, 2022

In the first of two blogs giving you a flavour of the content and practices in my book Yoga and Somatics for Immune and Respiratory Health (Singing Dragon, October 2022) we explore the myriad ways in which a mindful, embodied movement practice can affect the whole of our immune maintenance and health.

Also see this article: Yoga and Somatics for Immune Health

All illustrations are from the book, copyright Charlotte Watts 2022

Find details on my Teaching Yoga for Immune and Respiratory Health course with Yogacampus here.

You can order my book, Yoga and Somatics for Immune and Respiratory Health here.


We are animated through breath….

Breath is life and an area of our health that we can affect profoundly with simple movements and breath practices. 

Essentially breathing is a continual tidal rhythm, drawing oxygen into the body with the inhalation and releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) out on the exhalation. This happens on a large scale through the lungs, but also for each and every one of the cells throughout your entire body in cell respiration. It is the respiratory system that provides the means for vital oxygen to enter bodies via our primary breathing organ, the lungs, into the blood stream and ultimately through the whole body.

Healthy lungs working optimally take in about ½ litre of air roughly 12-15 times each minute. They meet the cardiovascular system for oxygen delivery, with all the blood in the body passed through the lungs every minute. Although we may view the lungs as bags that fill with air, in fact they are more like porous, elastic sea sponges in texture and their movement is often equated with the pulsing motion of a jellyfish. The right and left lungs are different, as the left is smaller with the heart nestling up into it and only two lobes (sections) with the right having three. 

The lungs are not muscles, but rely on the movement of the diaphragm (the upside-down bowl shaped muscle at the bottom of the ribs) which contracts and moves downwards towards the belly to increase the volume of the thoracic (chest) cavity. This creates a partial vacuum, which draws air into the lungs. This action is supported by muscles between the ribs (external intercostals) contracting to allow the inside space to expand.

The exhalation is the diaphragm releasing in an elastic recoil and drawing back up into the chest to push COcoming back. The internal intercostals only get involved and contract when the exhalation is forced, such as during exertion, panic or in specific breathing practices. In a relaxed state out-breath, there is no action required; a full exhalation is the result of allowing a complete inhalation to come to its full conclusion.

The 4 Stages of Breathing:

  1. Inhalation: the process of drawing in air, with an aim for this to be smooth and continuous.
  2. Pause After Inhaling: cessation of the flow of air like a peak, leading to retention of the air in the lungs and movement there suspended.
  3. Exhalation: like inhalation, looking to be smooth and continuous, whilst reducing the tendency to add force to the exhale is beneficial.
  4. Pause after exhaling: completes the cycle which terminates as the pause ends and a new inhalation begins. In yogic breathing practices (pranayama), this moment is known as the ‘perfectly peaceful pause’.

The pause after exhalation is commonly interrupted in stress breathing patterns, where we can tend to draw in the inhalation before the exhale can come to completion. When we do need to stay motivated or ready to deal with danger, this can keep us in alert states, but it can be wearing as uses up so much energy.

Stress response breathing is often 18-25 breaths per minute, whilst at rest it can be 8-12 per minute. This speed-up is referred to as ‘over-breathing’ and is a low-grade form of hyperventilation. This can create both too much oxygen, whilst exhaling too much carbon dioxide. Without testing levels, we simply need to come back to slower, relaxed breathing to allow natural balance.

Health of the Lungs

The lungs are supplied by nerves of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), that keeps the show running in the background without us needing to consciously get involved; regulating essential functions such as breathing, heartrate, blood pressure etc. The inhalation is governed by the sympathetic or activating tone of the ANS (which creates the fight-or-flight response) and the exhalation by the calming (rest-and-digest) parasympathetic ANS mode. When our breath is in a most easeful rhythm, there is a balanced and balancing tide between the energising arousal of the inhale and the releasing, soothing exhale.

When we get caught in the ‘constant alert’ of continual stress (or from trauma), we can become sympathetic dominant and gasp more at the energising and mobilising inhalation, even pushing our heads forward to take in air through the mouth rather than the nose. Our brains demand up to 25% of the oxygen we breathe in, so concentration, focus and mental cognition can suffer with the reduced breathing efficiency of chronic stress.

The respiratory system also filters out, dust, bacteria and other microbes that might have a negative effect on our health. It has a protective mucous lining and if sensing pollution our nervous systems are signalled to produce more shallow breaths for protection, which results in less oxygen to cells.

Cultivating breath consciousness

Many years ago, it was believed the ANS could not be influenced by any other part of the nervous system. Research on yogis in Indian in the 1930s-60s showed that through meditation and conscious attention and manipulation of their breath, they could slow their heart rate (

It is now well-accepted that the breath is the easiest and most direct way to affect our nervous system (Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:770). Cultivating a smooth and steady calming exhalation can be part of mindfulness of breathing practices within meditation, with conscious awareness of the felt experience of the breath used as a guide to develop focus.

In a 2018 systematic review of the research to date on the relationship between slow breathing and psycho-physiological states found a strong correlation between slow breathing and psycho-psychological flexibility; essentially how adaptable and resilient we are. This links parasympathetic activity - as well as central nervous system activation - related to emotional stability and psychological wellbeing.  They also found reliable associations between slow breathing and increased HRV and EEG alpha and a decrease in EEG theta power as well as positive psychological and behavioural effects (Front hum Neurosci 2018; 12;353).

Nasal breathing

Breath is most functional when in and out through the nose, but particularly on the inhalation. Cold air coming into the nose cools down the frontal lobe of the brain, which calms its activity. The air is then warmed entering the lungs and body, preventing tissues contracting in response to cold, rather than opening to allow full oxygen absorption. Nasal hairs prevent impurities entering the body and glands in the inner nose destroy bacteria.

Also, it is only when we breathe in through the nose that a substance called nitric oxide (NO) is produced; this opens up the cells in the lungs to receive oxygen, and supports bronchial tone – how well the airways in the respiratory tract contract and relax with breath. NO also works body-wide to relax the inner muscles of your blood vessels, increasing blood flow and lowering blood pressure. When breath is regulated it has a protective effect on the immune system (Chron Respir Dis. 2009; 6(1): 19–29).

Conscious, embodied movement for lung and respiratory health

For many with stressed breathing patterns, it can be challenging to even identify when the inhalation and exhaling are happening. Movement synchronised with breath can help foster this embodied awareness, allowing the full exhalation (and the pause after) to prompt parasympathetic action that increases oxygenation, spares vital nutrients, reduces heart rate, relaxes muscles and reduces anxious states.

With focussed attention on breath, the lungs can become healthy and powerful, a good insurance against respiratory problems. This fosters more naturally deeper regular breathing through an increase in the elasticity of the lungs and rib cage and support of the protective lung microbiome (beneficial immune-supporting bacteria).

Increased oxygenation in the lungs may lead to the elimination of toxins, better sleep, recovery and immune function. As we age, lung cells contract and take in less oxygen, so we need to maximise this capacity where we can. This involves several key factors we can support with exercise patterns synchronised with breath:

  • Support easeful oxygenation with full exhalations that allow full release of CO 
  • Supporting healthy posture to encourage nasal rather than mouth-breathing ie unravelling modern tendencies to push the head forward of the shoulders; from chest collapse or looking at technology.
  • Supporting full movements of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles for ease of breathing motions.
  • Loosening the shoulders and jaw also releases tension through the ribs and diaphragm.

Space into the shoulders out from the chest

It is helpful to start opening the shoulders and chest lying on the ground, where we don’t have the effort of lifting up from gravity.

  • Lying with head supported on one side, knees bent, settle into the shoulders here and reach the top arm forward.
  • Inhale to reach the top arm directly above the top shoulder, lifting up through the shoulder and keeping the gaze on the hand.
  • Exhale to reach the arm back, focus continually on the moving hand means the shoulder and neck can move together, as designed.
  • Inhale to reach back up to the ceiling and exhale back to the beginning.
  • Continue the movement, letting the breath guide the rhythm and pace for full body release.

Spine undulation to twist


This twist incorporates moving the spine with the rhythm of the breath – opening the front body on the energising inhalation and the back body on the soothing exhalation.

  • Sitting on the floor, take your hands behind you, at least as wide as the shoulders.
  • On an inhalation, lift up through the chest to arch the back and lift up through the shoulders. Lift the heart and feel a squeeze between the shoulder blades.
  • Exhale to round the back and continue breath leading the movement; inhaling to arch, exhaling to round the back.
  • Then as you next inhale to arch the back, let the knees drop to the right to twist. Exhale to centre and inhale knees to the left; alternating sides with each in-breath.
  • Rest sitting to hug the knees, head dropping.

Low salutation

  • Start on all fours to draw that belly area into the spine, rounding the back to drop the head and draw the weight off the hands as soon as you can.
  • Continue drawing the belly back and up to raise up onto your knees; up through the inner legs, spine and neck, taking the arms out and up.
  • Continue lifting to roll up the front body, to reach up.
  • Bend at the hips and drop the bottom back, spine lengthened to engage the belly and bring the hands back down onto all fours, with control and ease.
  • Continue the sequence at the pace that feels right, which may be inhaling up and exhaling back down.

Reaching movement through the ribs and diaphragm

Starting from a ‘z-legs’ seated position, with left leg bent inwards and right bent outwards, lean towards the left and take the right arm out to the side, focusing your gaze on it. Then sweep the arm down and past your body to create full circles, reaching up and over, back through the starting point. Allow the motion to reach from the belly, through to the chest, shoulders, neck and head. Change to the other side.

Moving Bridge Pose with ‘angel wings’

Actively opening the chest and ribs to strengthen muscles there.

  • From lying, feet on the ground, inhale and sweep the arms around from hips to where comfortable around like wings lifting up.
  • On the exhale, peel the spine back down again, arms sweeping back down.
  • Lift up and down as long as your breath can stay long, face and jaw soft, eventually holding the pose up for as long as you feel no strain.

Viparita Karani (Waterfall practice) sequence

In this supported inversion sequence, placing legs above hips (with a bolster or folded towels), above heart, above head allows full blood flow down from the lower body back to the heart via gravity, meaning the heart can rest and we can easily drop into calmer states with the chest lifted for full, easy breathing.

Find details on my Teaching Yoga for Immune and Respiratory Health course with Yogacampus here.

You can order my book, Yoga and Somatics for Immune and Respiratory Health here.