Diaphragmatic “Belly” BreathingLearn to Breathe Correctly
Most people breathe as if they were just in a car crash or as if they just finished a 100-meter sprint. Their shoulders are elevated, their breath is shallow, and their chest puffs with each inhale. When you breathe this way, as if you’re under extreme mental or physical stress, your nervous system triggers a series of stress responses in your body constantly. Not good.
If you’ve practiced yoga, you might have heard your teacher talk about belly breathing. It’s a strange term since neither your diaphragm (breathing muscle) or your lungs reside in your belly. Nevertheless, this practice of diaphragmatic breathing can be a very effective hack to retrain healthy breathing patterns.
To palpate your diaphragm, dig your fingers under your ribcage and inhale. Can you feel it? Your diaphragm is a unique muscle that separates your upper and lower thoracic cavities.
It looks like two jellyfish side-by-side, and when it contracts, it flattens down to create a negative vacuum in the lungs that creates an inhale breath. When your jelly fish muscle relaxes, it returns to its double-dome shape and the exhale happens naturally, passively.
Try it now and visualize it. Inhale, your breathing muscle flattens out. Relax, and it returns to its original shape and the air naturally exhales.
How to Use Belly Breathing to Fix Your Breath
Have you ever been to a church, temple or mosque? Did you notice the priest, the rabbi, the imam, or monks? Try to remember their posture, particularly their shoulders and their abdomens. In most cases, their shoulders are soft and even slightly rounded, and their belly is relaxed and even protruding. This is the posture of a belly breather. I don’t want you to slouch through your day, but I do want you to learn to breath with a preference for your diaphragm so you too can self sooth and find balance in life.
Practice Belly Breathing
- Step 1: Lie flat on your back
- Step 2: Place your right hand on your abdomen
- Step 3: Inhale, allow your hand and belly to rise up high
- Step 4: Exhale, allow your hand and belly to fall and hollow out
Body Image, Belly Insecurity & Poor Breathing Patterns
When you look in the mirror, do you suck in your belly? Most of us do, and worse, many of us unconsciously suck it in all the time. This tension often constricts full contraction of your diaphragm, so the inhale work transfers up to the ribs, chest, upper back, and neck. These helper muscles are involved in healthy breathing too, but they are not designed to do all the work. When they are recruited to do the heavy lifting of breathing, this pattern is referred to as a high costal breathing. It’s a suboptimal way to breathe and can increase stress and anxiety as well as impair digestive and mood.
High Stress = Bad Breathing
Have you ever seen two people arguing at the grocery store? If not, can you imagine the scenario? Do you think they would have their shoulder relaxed and breath slowly in and out through their diaphragm, or do you think their chest and shoulders would be elevated as they breathe fast and shallow? Would they breathe low and slow through their nose? Or fast and high through their mouth?
This high costal breathing pattern is the result of their mental stress, but it’s a two-way street. If you breathe this way during times without stress, you’ll feel the same as if you right back in that argument. The good news is that if you breathe low and slow as if you’re cool, calm and collected, you can change your nervous system state even in stressful situations. This type of response is something you learn, and yoga breathing practices are designed to do just that.
When asked to take a deep inhale, at least half of those asked will suck in their stomach and puff their chest as they breathe in—the opposite of how we’re designed to breathe. This tendency is called backward breathing, and it’s a very difficult habit to break. When you inhale, it should be low and slow, and as you exhale, the breath should naturally release form that same region. While there will be some movement in your chest and shoulders, it should be minimal during normal breathing.
Tidal Volume vs. Lung Capacity
Tidal volume refers to the volume of air that moves in (and out) during one respiration cycle. At rest, most people breath around 500 ml of air with each breath, but your total capacity is much, much greater. Let’s walk through a thought experiment so we can better understand how this works.
Imagine you sit on a couch, relax back into the pillows, and breathe naturally. Around 500 ml of air will come in and out at a rate of 12-20 breaths per minute. Before you even breathe, there is a reserve capacity of around 1200 ml just hanging out there, and if you really forced the air in, you could pull in as much as 3,000 ml instead of 500 ml.
Your total lung capacity is somewhere between four to six liters of air, depending on your size, and you’re turning over your entire capacity every 45 to 60 seconds without even thinking about it. When we begin slow and low yoga breathing, we often reduce the rate at which we’re breathing, but the volume of each breath might increase by a factor of five. Instead of inhaling 500 ml of air, you might inhale 2,500 ml or more. This is where it get interesting.
In terms of the actual gas exchange, in most cases, things stay pretty much status quo. Your blood oxygen remains mostly constant during breathing exercises, but as you slow down the rate at which you’re breathing and increase the volume breath-by-breath, it tells your nervous system that you’re cool, calm and collected. It also helps to fully articulate your alveoli, fully engage your diaphragm for strength and coordination, and it optimizes your carbon dioxide levels for oxygen absorption and breathing passageway dilation.
While it is possible to increase your total lung capacity by five to 15 percent, yoga breathing primarily focuses on improving the strength and coordination of your breathing muscles, optimizing your oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, and balancing your nervous system.
Want to learn more Pranayama Breathing Exercises?
Check out these animated Breathing Exercise GIFs