Most humans can live up to three weeks without food, three days without water, but only three minutes without oxygen. It is clear that our breath is key to our survival, but the ancient yogis also proposed that breath is key to vitality.
Through yogic breathing practices, called pranayama, we can control our own physiology. One of the most basic techniques of doing this is often called "belly breathing."
What is Belly Breathing?
This is one of the most basic pranayama, and is even often called “yogic breathing.” Do you really breathe into your belly? Nope. You can only breathe into your lungs. In some ways, calling this
technique “belly breathing” is a misnomer.
Although you are not actually breathing into your belly, your belly does move in and out due to movement of the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that separates the thoracic cavity (where the lungs and heart are) from the abdomino-pelvic cavity (where our digestive and reproductive organs are). In fact, another name for this technique is “diaphragmatic breathing,” which is the term I will use.
To try it, bring one hand above your belly button and one hand at your heart. Close your eyes and take a few deep, full breaths, allowing your hands to move out and up slightly with the inhale and move back in with the exhale. When the diaphragm moves naturally with your breath, a lot of seemingly magical things happen. Here are just some of the benefits of belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing from a physiological perspective.
1. Helps Our Respiratory System to Work Most Efficiently
Have you ever watched a baby or your dog or cat breathe? What do you notice? Probably a lot of 3-dimensional expansive movement around the abdomen and whole body. Our breath should naturally move us, and it did—before society trained us to breathe inefficiently.
What were we told as we got older? Suck it in and squeeze your belly. We wore tight clothes that restrict breathing. As we get older, many of us unintentionally trained ourselves out of the most efficient and natural method of breathing—diaphragmatic.
With poor breathing habits, gas exchange is not efficient. This means that our cells are not getting the nutrients they need at the best rate. When trillions of cells are not happy, we can feel unhappy, with lethargy and brain fog in the short term, along with chronic health problems in the long term. Retraining ourselves to breathe with the diaphragm more can lead to natural vitality and well-being.
2. Stimulates the Relaxation Response
The “relaxation response” refers to the turning on of the parasympathetic nervous system. This also turns off the overactive sympathetic nervous system (aka fight or flight, or the “stress response”). Deep breaths are our only access to this autonomic nervous system, which automatically makes our heart beat and food digest most efficiently.
By developing the capacity to choose the relaxation response over the stress response MORE often, we can calm anxiety and lower the risk of stress-related conditions like heart disease, digestive disorders, sleep disorders, depression, and more.
In particular, you can initiate the relaxation response by practicing deep, diaphragmatic breaths with elongated exhales.
Go ahead and try it now: This time, put both hands right above your belly button near your lower ribs and diaphragm. Take 5 deep breaths with a 3-second inhale and 6-second exhale. Feel the movement under your hands. Do you feel the profound difference from that simple exercise?
3. Relieves Pain
My specialty as a yoga therapist is in working with pain relief. My clients report increased flares of pain when they feel the most stressed. Chronic pain is intimately interrelated with an increase in the stress response.
By using breathing techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, we can help relieve pain in the short term and lower the likelihood of flares in the long term.
4. Gently Stretches and Tones Core Muscles, Including the Pelvic Floor
The core muscles mainly include the abdominals, erector back muscles (the muscles that keep us tall and erect), diaphragm, and pelvic floor (see my article on the pelvic floor here). When we breathe, that natural three-dimensional movement of the body helps keep the muscles in the area healthy.
5. Improves Posture
In order to do diaphragmatic breathing properly, you have to sit tall. This allows all of your organ systems to work more efficiently. You digest your food better, your heart pumps more efficiently, your nerves and blood vessels are less likely to get pinched, and you actually release more hormones that make you feel more confident.