3 Problems With Your Belly Breathing And How To Fix Them
The concept of "belly breathing" is referenced a lot in the world of mindfulness. I've heard movement and meditation teachers say "breath into your belly", or "fill your belly with breath", or "move the air down into your belly". In fact, I personally say these things in class all the time! The phrase was created because when you do it, the belly expands and contracts along side the breath. But you're not technically breathing into your belly - you're breathing into your lungs. So, calling it a belly breath can be a little confusing.
I often see students making well intentioned mistakes while doing this technique. In this post, we'll break down what a belly breath actually is and how to do it (don't miss the 10-Minute Tune-Up: Jellyfish Breathing, at the end of this post), We'll also discuss the three most common belly breathing myths and what to do instead.
To fully grasp belly breathing basics, we need to start by understanding your breathing muscle, also knows as the thoracic diaphragm. The thoracic diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that sits right below your lungs. You can see from the image that it separates the abdominal organs from the chest cavity. It attaches to the sternum (breastbone), the lower ribs, and the lumbar spine.
It has three openings that allow for different structures to pass through the muscle including the esophagus (food tube), the aorta (body's main artery), and the inferior vena cava (large vein that brings blood back to heart) the vagus nerve (longest cranial nerve in the body, responsible for digestion, respiration, heart rate, and gut-brain axis), and a main vessel of the lymphatic system. The vagus nerve is particularly relevant to yoga and mindfulness practices because when the nerve is healthy and toned, we're better able to manage stress - more on that later in the post.
Just like other muscles in your body, the thoracic diaphragm contracts and relaxes. When it contracts it moves DOWN and pulls air into the lungs. When it it relaxes, it moves UP and pushes air out of the lungs. It's basically a big internal pressure system that is responsible for our respiration. And with so many important structures passing through the thoracic diaphragm, it's important that the muscle is healthy so it doesn't disrupt other systems in the body.
Now that you have a basic understanding of where the thoracic diaphragm is and its function, let's bring it back to the concept of belly breathing. Remember, when you inhale, the thoracic diaphragm contracts and moves DOWN. This action puts pressure on your abdominal organs and they get pushed down towards your pelvis. THIS is what makes your belly push out a little when you inhale, which is why we call it "belly breathing".
Conversely, when you exhale, the thoracic diaphragm relaxes and moves UP. This is what creates the feeling of your belly gently contracting back to its normal state. This is why teachers sometimes say "draw your navel back towards your spine upon exhalation." This cue is a little misleading as students often assume they need to engage their abdominal muscles in order to properly exhale, which is not necessary. It happens on its own.
While the proper term for belly breathing is diaphragmatic breathing, the term belly breath is certainly helpful because it provides a tangible frame of reference for what is actually happening inside the body. It's hard to feel your thoracic diaphragm move, but placing your hand on your lower belly provides instant feedback for the practitioner.
The good news is that diaphragmatic breathing is the way we naturally breathe. If you've ever watched a baby sleep, you'll see their belly gently rise and fall. Watch a dog nap and you'll see the same thing. While there are advanced breathing techniques to control the breath, easeful diaphragmatic breathing is how we were designed to breath in our daily lives. When we try to overthink the breath, we can create problems. This brings us to myth one...
Myth1: While Belly Breathing, Your Chest Should Not Move.
This is not only inaccurate, but it often leads to a whole other host of problems. You may have heard the term "chest breathing", also known as "thoracic breathing". This refers to short, shallow breaths in the upper part of the lungs. This way of breathing is inefficient and doesn't allow for the full relaxation and contraction of the thoracic diaphragm.
Chest breathing can be caused by stress, poor posture, or tight clothing that does not allow for enough movement in the lower part of the torso. It can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and anxiety.
Thoracic breathing gets a bad rap. So much so, that when folks first start learning about how to breath better, I've observed that there is a tendency to try and eliminate as much movement as possible in the chest. But, the lungs are located in the chest! If you don't allow the chest to expand upon inhalation, you're limiting your breath capacity and over engineering respiration. Your chest should move a little, but not too much. This leads us to myth two...
Myth 2: You Need To Push Your Belly Out When Your Belly Breathe.
Just as you don't want to limit movement in one area of your body when you breath, you also don't need to force it into another. Remember, your lungs are not in your belly and you're not literally breathing into your belly. You don't need to force your belly to expand, push your belly out, or exaggerate your lower abdomen in any way. As discussed in the beginning of this post, when you breath with your thoracic diaphragm, your abdominal organs will naturally descend down towards your pelvis upon inhalation.
In fact, the bottom of your pelvis has what is called the pelvic floor diaphragm, a sling of muscles that hold up your pelvic and abdominal organs, in addition to many other functions that are not the topic of this post. For our purposes, however, it's important to understand that the thoracic diaphragm and the pelvic floor diaphragm need to work together in order to create core stability. When one moves down, the other moves down with it, and vise-versa.
If you push your belly out, or force air down into your belly, you will not become a better breather. You'll simply put unnecessary inter-abdominal pressure on your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, which can potentially lead to pelvic floor dysfunction, hemorrhoids, hernias, low back pain, incontinence - this list goes on. In short, don't force a belly breath. This leads us to our last myth...
Myth 3: Belly Breathing Only Happens In The Front Of Your Abdomen
We've discussed why belly breathing lends itself well to feeling your thoracic diaphragm do its job, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Lesser known but better terms for belly breathing include global diaphragmatic breathing, three dimensional breathing, or my favorite, jellyfish breathing! :)
Imagine a jellyfish in your mind. The top dome of the jellyfish sort of looks like our thoracic diaphragm. It flattens out and then domes back up, over and over again. The flattening out mimics the thoracic diaphragm contracting and moving down when we inhale. The doming up mimics the thoracic diaphragm relaxing and moving up when we exhale.
This visual is helpful for students because it frames belly breathing as a three dimensional experience. Go back and look at the image of the thoracic diaphragm at the beginning of this post. It spans from the front of the rib cage, all the way to the back. An optimal diaphragmatic breath creates expansion not only in the front of the belly, but also into the sides and back of the torso. This three dimensional expansion creates balance, core stability, healthy posture, and so much more.
Putting It Into Practice: Jellyfish Belly Breathing
We've created a free 10-Minute Tune-Up, Jellyfish Belly Breathing, to help you improve your belly breathing technique. This office-friendly class will not only provide clarity, but it will also leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed. Follow along, right at your desk and revisit this class anytime you need a little mental reset.
If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to our newsletter to receive weekly 10-Minute Tune-Ups and wellbeing inspiration. These classes are quick office-friendly chair yoga and meditation breaks to get you moving, breathing, and de-stressed - no change of clothing or equipment needed.
Katie Rowe Mitchell