This Magical Deep Belly Breath Will Change Your Life
Babies and kittens really know how to breathe, do you?
Babies and kittens both know how to keep their bellies soft when they breathe. Watch one sometime; you’ll see their small tummies balloon out with every intake of breath.
Chances are, you breathe like babies and kittens when you’re asleep. And like most adults, you chest-breathe during your waking hours.
If, while awake, belly breathing feels unnatural for you, as it did me not too long ago, you’re not alone. Most people breathe shallowly, from the chest and ribs up to the throat. It’s an unconscious transition from the belly breathing of a baby to the chest breathing of an adult, but it’s one a lot of people make. Whether from stress, the tension in your neck and shoulders, or being conscious of posture and a desire to “hold your gut in” for appearance's sake; it’s how most of us breathe.
I remember as a preteen when I learned how to suck in air to make my stomach flat. At the time I knew nothing about core strength nor about toning my muscles, I only knew that if I expanded my chest while inhaling, I could fill my lungs up to my throat and make my ribs stick out.
In Pilates, you breathe into the sides of the rib cage instead of the belly to keep the abdominals tight throughout the exercises. This is fine during the workout, but you might try and switch to belly breathing when you’re “off-duty.” If you’re aware of your appearance in pictures and whenever you walk by a reflective store-front window, you probably suck in your belly. I do this, too. It’s understandable; we all want to look good in public! But for the most part, it’s the wrong way to take in air. You could be doing your body so much good if you just learn to belly breathe!
Belly breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, is well known to singers, meditators, and runners. You can even circulate your breath so that you never have to actually interrupt the flow of air. While diaphragmatic breathing can be learned to enable certain activities, it’s pretty easy to catch on if you just pay some attention to your body and practice.
Your diaphragm is a muscle that sits above your internal digestive organs. It looks like an upside-down bowl and sits just below the ribs. When you learn to belly breathe, you’ll find there is a slew of benefits to your health and well-being. There are many reasons to learn to belly breathe and to practice it many times each day.
- It’s super important for the lymphatic system. Besides exercise, deep belly breathing is the best thing you can do for your lymphatic health. If you ever have a manual lymphatic drainage session with me, deep breathing is part of the massage. I usually have to coach my new clients through it, since it can feel unnatural after all our regular practice of chest breathing!
- You get a better exchange of gas in the lower lungs. Deep belly breathing increases the oxygen intake and in turn, makes the alveoli of the lungs more efficient at exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide.
- Deep breathing = slower, more efficient breathing. Chest breathing tends to be more shallow and rapid than deep belly breathing. Belly breaths help you breathe more deeply and slowly, resulting in more efficient breathing.
- The vagus nerve, which promotes relaxation, is activated. Deep breathing with the belly actually reduces the heart rate and lowers stress levels. When confronted with fight-or-flight-or-freeze situations, you’ll be able to employ some simple, but radical breathwork to keep you calm and relaxed. Deep respiration induces the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. “Rest and digest” is the result.
- What does lower stress mean over the long term? Daily practice of belly breathing reduces blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic affirms that slower, deeper breathing may help reduce blood pressure and offers a review of a portable, electronic device that helps users to remember to breathe with more awareness. I don’t know the first thing about this device, but I imagine it’s a sensor which “reminds” or instructs its user to slow down and breathe. (You can do that yourself, so you probably don’t need to buy anything. But whatever works!)
- Diaphragmatic breathing actually improves your digestion! Yes, think about it. When you’re expanding your lungs in all dimensions, including down toward your guts and pelvic floor, you are giving your intestines a massage. The University of Michigan Medicine website says it can reduce abdominal pain, urgency, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating.
- Belly breathing decreases muscle tension. When the belly is soft and all the muscles of the belly are relaxed, then all the other muscles of the body begin to relax as well. Bringing oxygen to the muscles not only helps them function better, but also helps them relax. You may be subconsciously restricting, clenching, tightening, stiffening, or bracing some of your muscles due to fear, stress, repetitive movement, or merely habit. It’s really difficult to hold onto that mechanical posture when you’re softening your belly and respiration fully. Furthermore, deep belly breathing, done correctly, doesn’t require even the slightest aid from your neck or shoulder muscles.
- Improved mental abilities, including concentration and memory. Try it and see how much more focused you are after a session of deep belly breaths.
- All these benefits… for free! No prescription needed, no side effects from pharmaceuticals, no doctor office visits, no expense. Like most of the best things in life, belly breathing is free.
You just have to remember to do it. I post notes to myself around the house, like this:
How do you deep-belly breathe?
First, either sit or lie down. Standing posture engages your abs, back, and pelvic muscles, so I don’t recommend learning this breathing technique standing up. Instead, get into either a sitting or lying down position. It’s just fine to sit comfortably with your back straight, but not ramrod straight. If you’re new to this belly breathing thing, you may find it difficult to practice this in a chair. If so, then you’ll want to lie down and put your knees up, giving your belly plenty of room to expand. Also, consider the fact that you may get a little light-headed at first. Lying down is ideal.
I like to picture the diaphragm actually contracting. That’s just me as a massage therapist. I have an image in mind of my diaphragm — that upside-down bowl, generally connected to the lower ribs, that divides my torso in two — the upper thoracic region from the lower abdominal region.
First, I exhale completely, expelling ALL the air in there. I picture my diaphragm sinking in on itself, even sort of shriveling up like a jellyfish swimming. I even get my abs involved right at the very end of that exhalation, to push the air out. Then I very softly and gently fill my lungs with air, while envisioning filling my belly with air. It’s sort of a mental thing. I picture a balloon being blown up. Just remember that the lungs are really large and have great capacity. They expand in three dimensions! Up, front and back, side-to-side (for all you Pilates folks out there), and of course… down toward your belly.
When I first learned how to do this, I actually tried to push my belly out as I inhaled. Like a happy buddha, as round as I could get it. Now that the breath comes naturally, I don’t have to be as demonstrative in this regard; I just let it get super soft and pliable as it fills with air.
At first, you might find it helpful to put a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly. The chest hand should not move at all, but you are looking for your belly hand to move with each breath. In and out, goes your breath and your hand that’s placed gently on your tummy.
As for timing, you can play around with this. You can try to match your inhalations to your exhalations, say 4 or 5 seconds for each. You can even practice holding your inhalation and exhalation for a couple of seconds between each breath. I find that the most natural breathing sequence is inhaling for about 3–4 seconds, holding it for a second, and then exhaling for about 5–6 seconds. Whatever you do, just go slow and deep, and make sure you’re using the full capacity of your lungs.
Practice this every day a few times a day. Pretty soon, you’ll be belly breathing like a baby, without even thinking about it.