Not all breaths are created equal: Diaphragmatic Breathing

How we breathe lays the foundation for so many of the personal habits that shape our greater health and fitness. It’s kind of amazing how automatic the whole process of respiration is and how little we tend to think about something with such powerful influence on well-being.

There are two mechanisms for breathing, belly and chest. In an ideal world, you’d use belly breathing most of the time.

Belly breathing uses the diaphragm. If you put your fingers below your rib cage, press in and breath into your fingers, you’ve found your diaphragm and successfully executed a belly breath. Belly breathing promotes healthy posture, improves the sound of your voice and projects confidence.

When the body is under duress, whether it be due to exercise or fight or flight, the body wants to quickly increase lung capacity; and for that we have chest breathing. This second breathing mechanism augments lung volume by expanding the rib cage.

How “belly breathing” works
The diaphragm is a muscle that attaches to the bottom of the rib cage with all fibers pointing inward. It forms a dome over the top of the abdominal cavity. When it contracts it draws the floor of the lungs downward causing you to breathe air in. The downward motion pushes on the abdominal contents causing the abdominal wall to expand outward, which is why it’s called belly breathing. When breathing naturally this expansion and retraction of the belly is visible.

Unfortunately, many of us breath into the chest as matter of habit, which leads to all kinds of undesirable health, fitness and physique outcomes. Getting caught up in this compensated breathing mechanism causes stiffness in the neck, back and shoulders, often leading to impairment and pain. It limits our ability to perform physically and mentally, and stymies the growth of living tissues. And it shapes our posture in ways that look and feel unnatural.

Chest breathing typically gets triggered by fear, anxiety, stress or an obsession with presenting a flat belly. I think you know what I’m talking about here. That feeling of your head sinking into your torso, your shoulders rounding forward and your breath becoming shallow as you worry about that thing that’s been pestering you. Or the constantly “sucking it in” and puffing the chest to obscure any protrusion of a belly. So many of us do this and it’s not meant to be. There are natural ways to hold the abdomen, breathe diaphragmatically and project the character we want.

The best way to experience belly breathing is to lie on your back with knees bent up and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your belly and feel the deep expansion and retraction of the abdominal wall while you slowly breathe in and out. In this position your spine and pelvis will find neutral alignment as you relax the tension in your body. If you are having trouble finding the feeling, close your eyes and picture that there is a balloon in your belly. Fill the balloon in all directions as you breathe in. Hold for a moment. Then allow the balloon to shrink and push the air out.

Wouldn’t it be great if belly breathing were this easy to do all the time! Because we don’t spend the bulk of our lives lying around on our backs, the game is to learn how to belly breathe, then practice this relaxing form of breathing while moving through all the activities we do each day.