The major challenge facing the development of low-emission combustors is combustion instability. By lowering flame temperatures, lean-premixed combustion has the potential to nearly eliminate emissions of thermally generated nitric oxides, but the chamber acoustics and heat release rate are highly susceptible to coupling in ways that lead to sustained, high-amplitude pressure oscillations, known as combustion instability. At different operating conditions, different modes of instability are observed, corresponding to particular flame shapes and resonant acoustic modes. Here we show that in a swirl-stabilized combustor, these instability modes also correspond to particular interactions between the flame and the inner recirculation zone. Two stable and two unstable modes are examined. At lean equivalence ratios, a stable conical flame anchors on the upstream edge of the inner recirculation zone and extends several diameters downstream along the wall. At higher equivalence ratios, with the injection of counter-swirling microjet air flow, another stable flame is observed. This flame is anchored along the upstream edge of a stronger recirculation zone, extending less than one diameter downstream along the wall. Without the microjets, a stationary instability coupled to the 1/4 wave mode of the combustor shows weak velocity oscillations and a stable configuration of the inner and outer recirculation zones. Another instability, coupled to the 3/4 wave mode of the combustor, exhibits periodic vortex breakdown in which the core flow alternates between a columnar mode and a vortex breakdown mode. © 2010 Published by Elsevier Inc. on behalf of The Combustion Institute. All rights reserved.