the lungs

by julee snyder


With pranayama, or breath practice, as one of the eight limbs of yoga, the lungs play a vital role to practice.  Here we will look at the topography of the lungs, try to get a sense of the three dimensional structure, and then apply it to practice.


The apex of the lungs comes up as high as the first rib, which pierces above the collarbones.  The base of the lungs runs at an oblique angle front to back, from the 6th rib anteriorly to the 11th rib posteriorly.  The lungs surround the heart and fill in the thoracic cavity.

The left lung consists of two lobes, which are slightly narrower than the right.  The right lung consists of three lobes.  Check your anatomy books to clarify the topography of the different lobes.


The trachea extends from the larynx into the chest where it divides into right and left bronchi.  The bronchi divide into smaller and smaller segments called alveoli.  These tiny pouches, the alveolar sacs, are surrounded by capillaries and are the site of gas exchange.

The pleural membrane covers the lungs separating it from the inside of the thoracic cavity.  The serous fluid contained in the membrane reduces friction.

The lungs are dome-shaped at the top and concave at the bottom with the back longer than the front.  The base of the lungs rests on the diaphragm into which the pleura is invested.  The diaphragm separates the thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity.  The diaphragm is a double-domed shape with the right dome higher to accommodate the liver.


The lungs are concerned with breathing. The respiratory and circulatory systems work together to distribute oxygen to the cells and remove carbon dioxide from the cells of the body.  When the diaphragm drops and the ribs expand on the inhale increasing the volume, the internal pressure of the lungs is lower than atmospheric pressure and air rushes in.  The alveoli walls are one cell thick as are the capillary walls and gas exchange happens through simple diffusion by gas pressure gradient.

working with individual lobes

Become aware of your breath.  Visualize one lobe at a time, focusing attention on its center point.  Breathe into that lobe, sending the expansion in all directions.  Exhale with a hiss, continuing to expand.  Hiss only as long as the lobe continues to expand.  Repeat the sequence for all five lobes.

movement of the lungs on the axes in all planes

You can explore the lungs as a unit, each lung separately, and each lobe separately.  Find motion in all planes – sagittal, coronal, and transverse.  Play also with compression and expansion in the different planes.

rib cage tilt support with lungs

In sitting, remove slack between lower lobes, head and hands.  Tilt to left initiating from the left lower lobe.  Tilt to the right initiating from the right lower lobe.

moving arms with lung support

Experiment with moving arms with the support of the lower lobes of the lungs on the same side.  Feel that as the arms rise, you can recruit the middle and upper lobes for more support.

moving lungs in space

Begin to feel the support and buoyancy of the lungs and their support for the arms in asana.  What do you notice in table, plank, side planks, crawling, down dog, warrior 2, half moon, twist?


Take out the slack between lower lobes and the brain.  Emphasize the expansion of the lower lobes to the back when walking forward.  Emphasize the expansion of the upper lobe to the front when moving backward.

Happy practicing!


*credit here is owed to Jean-Pierre Barral and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.  Some of this material comes directly from their manuals.