I know — it practically sounds sacrilegious. Everywhere you look lately we are being told belly breathing is diaphragmatic breathing, and the best way to get your diaphragm to breathe is to allow all the air to push your belly out while your ribs stay still.
This came from good intentions! I taught clients this for years and practiced it myself. The main goal was to help people learn to stop breathing with their accessory breathing muscles in their neck, chest, low back and instead allow the body’s primary breathing muscle take back its job. Having someone lie on their back and breathe into their belly while trying to keep their chest and neck still felt like a revelation to chronic neck and chest breathers. A sense of calm and release washes over your body the first time you do this — eureka! I’ve been breathing all wrong and now I can start relearning to breathe into my belly! News flash: Your lungs are not in your belly.
While this may be a great awareness exercise to feel how much the accessory muscles have been unconsciously taking over the job of the diaphragm, this is not how we want to learn to breathe in our daily lives and activities. Just imagine your tummy bulging forward every time you inhale while you’re jogging — you need those abs engaged for structural support — and you have to be able to breathe at the same time.
The muscles in your belly are responsible for many things. Maybe their most important role is to support the position of the rib cage relative to the pelvis to allow the diaphragm to contract and relax — pulling air in and allowing it to flow out. This take core strength and balance so that when air draws in the lungs can fill fully, while that air allows for a 360-degree expansion of the entire torso — not the belly alone. This cannot happen with a relaxed belly.
For many, a weakened core and tight back can make the abdominal wall the easiest place for expansion to happen. If this becomes our primary breathing pattern, our ribs and back will become stiff and our abs will become weaker, leading to poor postural and movement habits. In other words, if we decide the only way to breathe is to relax the core and engage the back, we will begin to do this when we sit, walk, exercise, and perform other activities of daily living. If we can promote proper core integrity to allow for engaged abdominals and rib expansion, we can perform everyday activities without over-recruiting neck and back muscles.
One of the easiest ways to feel how to properly engage the muscles in your core that will support true diaphragmatic breathing is from one of the most basic yoga poses: child’s pose. Working with a few modifications, child’s pose can facilitate efficient diaphragmatic breathing and allow you to feel the position of and movement of the front of your rib cage relative to the back of your rib cage and spine.
From your hands and knees, bring both knees together and sit back onto your heels. Place your elbows shoulder width apart and directly in front of your knees. Gently begin pressing your elbows into the floor, allowing your shoulder blades to wrap around the sides of your rib cage. Your upper back should begin to round and your tailbone will begin to relax down. From this position begin exhaling gently from your mouth. Keep exhaling until you feel your obliques at the sides of your belly begin to contract to help finish the exhale. This may take five to 10 seconds and may be uncomfortable at first, but with regular practice will become easier. Now the challenge: Try to maintain this position without releasing your obliques when you inhale. You should feel air being directed to your back and feel your ribs expand back without your abs dropping down into you thighs. Repeat for four to five breaths before relaxing your obliques.
Practicing this breathing technique is closer to the kind of breathing we should be striving for always: a strong and engaged core, allowing for full torso expansion with every inhale.
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