Belly Breathing - How To Practice This
Hey Readers! Welcome back to part 3 of my Belly Breathing series. If you have not yet read part 1 (click here) or part 2 (click here), I recommend that you go back and read those earlier parts first. In part 3 of this series, I will go over various ways to practice belly breathing, based on scientific research and my own personal breathwork practice. As discussed extensively in part 2 of this series, belly breathing confers MANY physiological AND psychological benefits to your body and mind.
Before we delve deeper into the "HOW" of belly breathing, let's do a quick recap of what belly breathing actually is. Belly breathing, sometimes referred to as "diaphragmatic breathing" or "abdominal breathing," is a breathing style in which you use your diaphragm muscle to its fullest range of motion (ROM). Every time you take a breath, your diaphragm is involved, whether you use it maximally or not. Most people, however, do not use their diaphragm to its fullest ROM, causing the diaphragm to become passively shortened over time. When your diaphragm muscle becomes shortened, or tight, it does not move as well when you breathe. This causes you to rely on clavicular breathing, where you use chest, upper back, and neck muscles to help you breathe. Habitual clavicular breathing is not good for your body for two reasons. First, clavicular breathing is known to activate your sympathetic nervous system, which can bring feelings of anxiety, panic, and stress (click here for more information on your sympathetic nervous system) as well as increase your blood pressure and blood cortisol levels. Second, your chest, upper back, and neck muscles are not meant to be used for breathing "on the regular." Rather, these muscles have other functions (e.g. speaking, eating, swallowing, shoulder movements, etc.) as their primary job. When your chest, neck, and upper back muscles are recruited regularly for breathing, they cannot perform their other, primary, functions, causing you to compensate by using other muscles that might not be designed to carry out the job you are asking of it. This puts your entire body at a mechanical disadvantage and sets you up for injury and/or pain.
It is well documented that belly breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (which brings about feelings of peace and safety), but if your diaphragm is too tight, or short, you will not be able to get a full, deep belly breath, thereby inhibiting your parasympathetic nervous system. And, if that is not enough to convince you, reduced diaphragm mobility also has negative effects on your voice production. Your breath powers your voice, and the deeper you breathe, the better your vocal quality is. Poor breath support can lead to altered vocal quality (e.g. increased roughness) and/or vocal fold pathology (e.g. nodules). The good news is that you CAN train your diaphragm muscle to move maximally and with more ease. Your diaphragm is a skeletal muscle, and while there is some autonomic control (i.e. involuntary) of the diaphragm, you also have somatic control (i.e. voluntary) of the diaphragm (see my Autonomic Nervous System series for more info on this - click here).
In typical respiration, your diaphragm moves downward when it contracts, and it moves upward when it relaxes. Again, these movements happen whether you are using your diaphragm's full ROM or not. When you use the full ROM of your diaphragm, it moves further downward when contracting, pushing your belly contents (e.g. your large and small intestine), outward. You can visibly see a belly breath happening because the belly will expand like an inflating balloon as you breathe in (in contrast, a clavicular breath is visible in the chest and shoulder area, where the shoulders and chest elevate on a clavicular inhale). When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and returns upward into the lower rib cage, and your belly flattens like a deflating balloon.
Let's talk more about different ways to practice belly breathing and the recommended frequency and duration for belly breathing practice.
Different Ways to Practice Belly Breathing
Hands on belly or belly/chest. In this type belly breathing, place one, or both hands, on your belly (i.e. near the belly button), palms facing down. As you inhale, feel your belly expand as it pushes into your hands. Recall, your belly expands because the contracting diaphragm pushes your belly contents out of the way on the inhale. As you exhale, feel your belly soften and deflate, as it moves away from your hands. Recall, your belly softens because your relaxing diaphragm moves back up to the lower ribs, allowing your belly contents to resume their resting position. Do this for 10 breaths. An alternative to this option is to place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest. The hand on the chest is placed there so you can feel if you chest is moving as your inhale/exhale. If your chest is moving as your breathe, it is sign that you might be using clavicular breathing. Remember, clavicular breathing is associated with sympathetic activation, and hence increased stress, panic, and anxiety (see part 1 for more information on this - click here).
Belly on the floor or a ball. In this type of belly breathing, your body is in a prone position (i.e. lying face down). You could lie directly on the floor, boxing out your elbows, stacking your hands, and resting your forehead on your hands (first picture below). You could also lie prone on a yoga/stability ball (third picture below). My FAV is to lie prone on a coregeous ball (second picture below). You can purchase one of these therapy balls from Tune up Fitness (click here for more information). The coregeous ball is AMAZING! The material of the Coregeous ball is specifically designed to press into the muscle and surrounding connective tissue with a pressure similar to the palm of a hand (thus, it is pretty gentle). If you use a coregeous ball, place the ball directly under your naval and lie on top of it. If you use a yoga/stability ball, lie the front side of your trunk on the ball. Depending on how big your yoga/stability ball is, it might make contact with your entire anterior (or front) trunk (the one I am on in the third picture is actually pretty large for me, so it covers much of my anterior body). Just make sure that the yoga/stability ball is for sure in contact with your naval area, no matter what size it is. Whether you choose to use the floor or a ball (or something similar), feel your belly bulge, or push, into the floor/ball on the inhale (almost like you are trying to push the ball/floor away from you with your belly). As you exhale, feel your belly passively hollow and soften as the ball burrows into your belly. Continue this breathing for 3 minutes. This type of belly breathing helps to provide a ton of tactile feedback to your body about how much your belly is actually moving during respiration, and it provides a gentle resistance to your breath, helping to improve the strength, power, and endurance of your diaphragm. Be careful, however, not to practice this type of belly breathing right after eating or if you have any other abdominal issues in which you should not lie on your belly.
Belly directly on the floor with arms boxed out
Belly directly on coregeous ball (I know it is hard to see, but if you look closely, you will see the purple coregeous ball underneath my belly button area)
Belly on a yoga/stability ball
Use visual feedback to represent your diaphragm movement. In this style of belly breathing, you use a visual cue to represent the movement of your diaphragm and belly. Some people like to use the visual of a circle getting bigger on the inhale (to represent your belly inflating because of your diaphragm movement) and getting smaller on the exhale (again, to represent your belly deflating because of your diaphragm movement). Most smart watches, such as the Fitbit and Apple watches, have some type of "relax," meditation, or breathing function that gives you the circle visual cue. There are also apps on the market that provide this type of visual cue as well (e.g. "The Breathing App"). My favorite visual cue, however, is to use my fingers to represent my diaphragm and belly movement. To use your fingers as a visual cue, touch each fingertip on one hand to the same fingertip on the opposite hand, for all fingers. Move fingers outward to represent the inhale and inward to represent the exhale (see picture below).
On the inhale, open the fingers wide to represent your belly and diaphragm movement.
On the exhale, move your fingers inward to represent your belly and diaphragm movement.
Contract/relax breathing. In this style of belly breathing, you inhale completely using a belly breath (i.e. your abdomen swells on the inhale), and then you hold that breath for 5 - 10 seconds. While you are holding your breath, gently tighten the muscles in your trunk. Use just enough tension to hold the breath, but do NOT use extreme force at any point in this practice. After 5 - 10 seconds, exhale and relax all of your trunk muscles. Repeat 10 times. Contract/relax breathing is excellent for making your diaphragm (and other respiratory muscles, such as the intercostals) more pliable and mobile.
Visualization and Mindfulness. In this type of belly breathing, you could focus your attention on visualizing the movement of your diaphragm. So, instead of focusing your energy on feeling your belly rise and fall (as you would if you had your hands on your belly), you visualize your diaphragm moving downward on the inhale and upward on the exhale. Repeat this 10 times. You could also use belly breathing with other types of meditations or breath work. For instance, you could use belly breathing in conjunction with a counting meditation, where you inhale with a belly breath on 1, exhale with a belly breath on 2, and so on, until you get to 10, or 20. You could also use belly breathing with square breathing, balanced breathing, or extended exhalation (see my Autonomic Nervous System series about breath work for more information on these breathing exercises - click here).
*You can use just one of these techniques, or you could use any kind of combination you would like. For instance, you could use contract/relax breathing, with a counting meditation, while on a coregeous ball. Or, you could use hands on your belly, with visualization, and square breathing. It is totes up to you! As the next section will discuss, the most important thing is that you practice some type of belly breathing when you can, so you can reap the benefits.
Recommended Frequency and Duration for Belly Breathing
So, you might be wondering how often, and for how long, you need to practice belly breathing to see the benefits (which were outlined in part 2 of this series - click here for more information). Well, it completely varies depending on which research study you read. But, the common thread among all of the studies is that belly breathing, in some form or fashion, leads to positive effects in the body and mind.
Some studies have shown that even a single belly breathing practice can significantly reduce blood pressure, increase heart rate variability (for more information on heart rate variability, click here), improve blood oxygen levels, enhance pulmonary function, and improve cardiorespiratory fitness and respiratory muscle strength. Wow! That was quite a long list of benefits from just one single belly breathing practice.
Other studies showed gains from belly breathing when it was practiced for:
5 minutes a day for 30 days
3 days, with 3 belly breathing sessions per day, where each session involved 10 breaths
20 belly breathing sessions over the course of 8 weeks, where each session included 15-minutes of belly breathing AND 15-minutes of resting, or quiet, breathing in each session (sessions were completed every other day on weekdays)
30 minutes a day, 7 days a week, for 8 weeks
Once a day, 3x per week, for four weeks, where subjects completed contract/relax belly breathing (with breath holding at the top of the inhale for 10 seconds) in 10 reps over 5 sets, with one-minute rest between sets
Based on the information above, you can clearly see that there is no prescribed duration or frequency for belly breathing. Some studies showed benefits after just one session, while others showed benefits after several weeks, or a month. My takeaway from all this data is that you need to practice belly breathing in a way that works for your schedule and routine because you are likely to see the benefits no matter how often, or for how long, you practice it. I personally try to take 5-10 belly breaths at least once a day, if not two or three times per day. I usually lie on my coregeous ball (this is one of my absolute FAV ways to practice belly breathing), do contract/relax breathing, and/or combine belly breathing with another type of breath work (such as equal breathing, also known as "Sama Vritti") or meditation (such as counting meditation 1 - 10).
You can literally practice belly breathing anywhere. In pictures depicting belly breathing, the person is usually sitting or lying down. While those are excellent positions to practice belly breathing, you can also practice it while standing, or even while walking or running. For example, you could totally practice a few rounds of belly breathing while waiting in line at the grocery store or while sitting in your car at a red light. Sometimes, I practice a few rounds of belly breathing while I am running. Try to incorporate belly breathing as often as you can into your life. If you can only squeeze in a handful of belly breaths in an entire month, that is okay! Make it work for you and your life, knowing that even just one session of belly breathing can change your physiology and psychology for the better.
Belly breathing involves using your diaphragm muscle to its fullest ROM. Your diaphragm muscle is always active when you are breathing, whether you are practicing belly breathing or not. Most people do not maximally use their diaphragm muscle, resulting in inappropriate breathing patterns, such as clavicular breathing. Belly breathing is by far the most neurologically calming breathing style because it stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system. Belly breathing can be practiced in a variety of ways, including placing your hands on your belly or belly/chest, lying prone on the floor or a some type of ball, using a visual cue to represent your diaphragm and belly movements, contracting and relaxing the trunk muscles, and combining belly breathing with any other type of meditation or breath work practice. There is no set duration or frequency in which to reap the benefits of belly breathing. Some research studies observed gains from belly breathing after just one session. Belly breathing can virtually be practiced anywhere at anytime. You can practice belly breathing sitting, standing, or lying down. You can practice belly breathing in your car, at work, at home, or elsewhere. Belly breathing is a simple, efficient, and inexpensive way to restore health to your body and mind.
I have thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing this blog series. I am the process of planning, researching, and writing another series all about Gluteal Amnesia (yes, this is a real phenomenon). However, I do not plan to release that series for several weeks. In the meantime, I will release shorter, more casual blog posts about all things yoga and wellness. Thank you so much for reading my posts! It truly means the world to me that you would take time out of your day to read what I have written.
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of neuroscience, human movement, and breathing physiology. If you have specific questions about your breathing or beginning a breathing practice, please consult with your physician, personal trainer, or physical therapist. If you are interested in private yoga sessions with me, Jackie, you can book services on my website ("Book Online" from the menu at the top of the page), or you can email me at email@example.com for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my weekly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT
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