Sometimes, you might just be having one of those days. You know the kind I’m talking about. Instinctually, after a particularly trying moment, you might take a deep breath in and let it sigh out.
Perfect. You’re already a master.
Diaphragmatic breathing is something we do instinctually. It’s also something we can easily do consciously. Just like other forms of mindfulness, diaphragmatic breathing can have far-reaching benefits, not the least of which is that breathing is good. And when you’re breathing with your diaphragm into the furthest reaches of your lungs, it can be even better.
This breathing exercise is more physical than many others. It actually makes you use your breathing muscles, potentially giving those muscles a workout. Named after the muscle it targets, diaphragmatic breathing encourages the use of your diaphragm. You’ll breathe so deep that your belly expands to make room for the breath, and let your belly back down to help that breath flow out.
The diaphragm is located below the lungs, attaching around the lower portion of your rib cage. It separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity. As you breathe, the diaphragm alternates between flattening and curving upward, responding to and influencing the pressure in the chest cavity. I highly recommend you watch a video of the diaphragm in action to help you understand what you’ll be feeling here. It’s truly some fascinating stuff! This muscle is the reason the belly expands and contracts to help you breathe.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation of many other breathing exercises, and can be adapted to most pranayama. Heck, it can be adapted to normal, every-day breathing. Or singing. Or even weight lifting.
On a purely physical level, this breathing exercise works the muscles responsible for breathing. And like fixing your posture, becoming familiar with this style of breathing can help fix poor breath practices. It trains your diaphragm to be responsible for the effort of breathing, unlike shallow breathing which can use the muscles of your chest, ribs, and back.
On a chemical level, this can also lower stress hormones. It can release beneficial hormones. It can lower blood pressure, which is doubly benefitting from not having so many stress hormones running around trying to get your blood pressure back up. It does all this through the diaphragm’s connection to the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve. Please check out my article on Resonant Breathing for more details.
The practice is simple.
When you’re just getting started, I highly recommend practicing this form of breathing while lying down. For one thing, sitting requires you to use the muscles of your trunk to stay upright. It’s a bit tricky learning to use an internal muscle while you’re already using a bunch of external muscles to maintain your posture. Take away the potential (muscular) distractions and effort by simply lying down. You’ll find focusing on your diaphragm easier. You can also place a hand on your belly to help draw your focus to your belly’s movement. You can also place the other hand on your chest, to verify that it isn’t moving too much.
- Sit, lie down, or stand in a comfortable position
- Relax as much of your body as you can. Focus on thoroughly relaxing the shoulders.
- Place one hand on your stomach.
- Inhale through your nose for a couple seconds. The real trick of diaphragmatic breathing is to make sure your inhalation causes the belly to expand. The chest should not move much. Use your hands to verify that this is happening and draw your attention to the appropriate areas.
- Exhale through pursed lips. Close your mouth most of the way, leaving your lips in position to use a straw or whistle. Press lightly on your stomach as you exhale, and exhale steadily.
- Repeat the inhale and exhale until you are done.
I find that a 10 minute practice of deep breathing is wonderful at relaxation, while 5 minutes is all it takes you calm the mind and body down. It’s so relaxing that any longer, and there’s a good chance you’ll be drifting off to sleep.
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