Breathe Like a Jellyfish: Functional Breathing in Yoga

3D illustration background of jellyfish.

How functional is your breath? This was the exact question I asked myself in January 2002 when my blood pressure rose and my heart rate became rapid and irregular. My heart was in trouble and I knew it. I needed help right away. The help came in the form of purchasing a CPAP machine, a device used by millions of Americans to remedy sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is when a person’s tongue slips back in their throat, blocking the airways and causing someone to snore and or stop breathing, then suddenly gasp for breath. In my case, loss of breath and gasping would often wake me from sleep. How could I return to functional breathing?

Yoga Breathing Techniques and Modern Science

Image depicts yoga breathing techniques including functional breathing.

While I have had many years of practice with some classical forms of pranayama, like bellows breath, the breath of fire, alternate nostril breath, and bumblebee breath, including the more subtle techniques of breath taught in the Iyengar method, some understanding was missing.

As I dove deeper into a study of breath, my discoveries were both liberating and a bit overwhelming. So while there is really no wrong way to breathe, only more effective or less effective methods, I rediscovered and settled on a few helpful techniques that combine ancient wisdom and modern science. I share them with you now in the hope that they will help you too.

The Diaphragm Regulates the Heart

The diaphragm functions in breathing illustration

A typical adult uses as little as 10 percent of the range of their diaphragm when breathing. Because the heart is intimately attached to the diaphragm, like a large and lovely Christmas tree topper, by connective tissue called fascia, they really operate as a unit. When we inhale, the blood draws into the heart, and when we exhale the blood pumps back out. Extending the breath to use 50 to 70 percent of the diaphragm’s capacity reduces cardiovascular stress significantly.*

Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed or ignored by those either without good resources, or those unwilling to make lifestyle adjustments for the sake of longevity and reduced suffering. In sleep apnea, the diaphragm spasticity makes repeated attempts to contract to make us inhale, until it succeeds with a gasp that wakes the cat and any nearby family members! Because of this, sleep apnea offers a major obstruction to normal heart rhythms and heart health, contributing to high blood pressure and the risk of stroke.

Functional Breathing Tones the Diaphragm

Functional breathing invites all muscles involved in our breathing apparatus to fulfill their role in helping to stabilize the body’s core. These core muscles include the transverse abdominus muscles (TVA), diaphragm, pelvic floor, psoas muscles along the front of the spine, and the small multifidi muscles of the back spine.

Functional Breathing Looks Like This: 

When we inhale, the diaphragm draws down, the lower belly expands, and the pelvic floor softens. On the exhalation, the lower belly folds back in, thanks to the contraction of the transverse abdominus muscles, and the diaphragm raises. The range of motion of the diaphragm during breathing is called the “zone of apposition,” which reflects diaphragmatic tone. The greater the range, the healthier the individual.

However, when a person is a shallow breather, inhalation and exhalation occur mostly in the upper abdomen and chest. This lack of connection to the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor leaves people vulnerable to pelvic instability and lower back pain, along with loss of diaphragmatic tone and breath capacity.

How to Learn Functional Breathing

3D illustration background of jellyfish.

“A picture is worth 1000 words.” This saying points to the wonder of how an image can make a complex subject or group of ideas much easier to understand. This is the case with breathing and the image of a jellyfish in motion.

A jellyfish looks like a mushroom cap with long tentacles hanging down. When a jellyfish breathes, the circle of the mushroom cap expands out effortlessly, similar to your diaphragm when you inhale. The jellyfish contracts its tentacles around an imaginary central channel to propel it through the water on the exhalation.* Consider the tentacles to be like your transverse abdominis muscles, hugging in actively and connecting the pelvic floor to the diaphragm as you exhale.

How to Practice Jellyfish or Functional Breathing

We can realize several benefits when we use this image to teach ourselves to breathe spherically. These include the release of spinal tension; the even use of the diaphragm to enhance core stability; improved diaphragm shape and tone; more efficient use of oxygen; plus improved lung, kidney, and heart function.

  1. Begin sitting in a chair with your feet on the floor and your spine straight. Hold a foam yoga block or light paperback book between your knees.
  2. Place one hand over your heart and the other on your lower abdomen.
  3. Without disturbing your chest and shoulders, slowly extend your inhalation to a count of 4. Circularly expand your diaphragm like the cap of a jellyfish. Feel your lower abdomen expand.
  4. Begin a 4-count exhalation, imagining the tentacles of the jellyfish hugging in to activate your transverse abdominis muscles. Toward the end of your exhalation, lightly squeeze the foam block to feel the participation and tone of the pelvic floor.
  5. Repeat the process for five minutes, attending to your diaphragm and intending to create an even full circle.

Also Yoga for a Healthy Spine: The #1 Key to Enhance Strength, Improve Posture, and Prevent Osteoporosis from YogaUOnline and Lillah Schwartz.

Reprinted with permission from Lillah Schwartz and
lillah schwartz headshot

c-iayt certification logoLillah Schwartz, C-IAYT Certified Yoga Therapist, is an Asheville-based yoga teacher, teacher trainer, and author with more than 35 years of experience. A certified yoga therapist, her specialties include her book, Healing Our Backs with Yoga: An Essential Guide to Back Pain Relief, which came out in 2016. Lillah also has three therapeutic yoga DVDs for back pain relief. 

Recent articles


Upcoming courses


Yoga for
every body

How to Avoid the Top 3 Pitfalls of Forward Bends

With Julie Gudmedstad

Recent articles


Sorry, You have reached your
monthly limit of views

To access, join us for a free 7-day membership trial to support expanding the Pose Library resources to the yoga community.

Sign up for a FREE 7-day trial