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Bandha Yoga Scientific Keys to Unlock the Practice of Yoga
Scientific Keys

Activating Your Accessories
The Accessory Muscles of Breath—Part I

Western science has produced a vast fund of knowledge relating to respiratory biomechanics and physiology. We can directly apply this knowledge to improve our yoga. The question is, Where to begin?

Respiratory science is a complex subject. With this in mind, I approach combining respiratory science and yoga in a step-wise fashion—sort of a variation of Lao Tzu’s quote “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” 

Part One of this series relates to the accessory muscles of the upper chest, specifically the rhomboids and the pectoralis minor muscles. Contracting these two muscles creates what kinesiologists refer to as bucket handle or bellows breathing, i.e., the ribs move like the mobile handle of a bucket.  We can see this action in sprinters at the end of a race. The chest dramatically expands from the athlete unconsciously recruiting the accessory respiratory muscles to improve airflow, oxygenation, and carbon dioxide release.

We can consciously activate these same muscles during yogic breathing with similar effects.


© 2007 Raymond A. Long MD.

Understanding this concept requires a working knowledge of these two muscles. For example, the rhomboids are located on the back of the chest, originating on the spine and inserting on the inner borders of the body of the scapula. Contracting the rhomboids moves the scapulae toward the midline. This action draws the shoulders back and opens the front of the chest (see video below).

The pectoralis minor muscles are located on the front of the chest, originating on ribs two through five and inserting on the coracoid process of the scapula. Accordingly, contracting the pectoralis minor can either lift the ribcage (move the origin) or roll the shoulders forward (move the insertion). When we stabilize the scapula so that the insertion can’t move, contracting the pectoralis minor lifts the ribcage (see video below).

Bucket Handle Breathing

© 2007 Raymond A. Long MD.

Now, the first part of this technique involves contracting the rhomboids to stabilize the scapulae. This action holds the shoulders in place. Once we stabilize the scapulae, we can contract the pectoralis minor to lift the ribcage.

For a detailed discussion on these muscles please see “The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga.

To activate the pectoralis minor, I attempt to roll the shoulders forward. Since the rhomboids are stabilizing the scapulae, the shoulders can’t roll forward when the pectoralis minor engages. The contraction of the pectoralis minor is transmitted to the ribcage, lifting it. Doing this action a few times awakens the pectoralis minor so that we can directly activate it at will to lift and open the chest.
(For more on the subject of muscle awakening please click here for Awakening the Psoas ).

Once you become comfortable contracting these muscles in a seated posture, try this technique in an asana such as Virabhadrasana II as in our "Opening the Heart of the Warrior" Key.

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