Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly or deep breathing, involves learning to breathe using your most efficient muscle for respiration, your diaphragm. This type of targeted breathwork has been proven to provide improved stability to our core and spine, as well as lowering stress levels.
Although we all start off as diaphragmatic breathers, over time many of us move from being belly breathers to upper chest breathers. Body image has a negative impact on respiration in our culture and a flat stomach is considered attractive, so women (and men) tend to hold in their stomach muscles. This interferes with deep breathing and gradually makes shallow "chest breathing" seem normal. Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm's range of motion and lung expansion with each breath. This loss of diaphragmatic expansion limits oxygen exchange and signals to your brain that we are low in oxygen, making you feel short of breath and anxious.
Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. This improves body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body and signals to the brain that we are not in immediate danger. Slow, deep abdominal breathing can therefore promote release of relaxation hormones within the body, lowering our response to pain, as well as our anxiety levels. Over time this can work to lower heart rate and blood pressure.
While the diaphragm is important for optimal respiratory function, it also functions as a postural muscle and provides stability to your spine. As the diaphragm becomes weakened and under activated, you are now at increased risk of developing low back pain or injury due to the loss of stabilization. Strengthening your diaphragm will restore this stability and better protect your core.
How to Breath with your Diaphragm
- Set-up: Lie on your back on a flat surface (exercise mat or bed), with your knees bent and your head supported. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your abdomen, just below your rib cage. This will allow you to monitor what muscles you are using to breathing.
- Inhalation: Breath slowly in through your nose as you feel your stomach move out into your hand. The hand on your upper chest should remain as still as possible.
- Exhalation: Tighten your stomach muscles, as your stomach moves away from your hand as your exhale through your mouth. The hand on your upper chest should remain as still has possible.
Practice this for 5-10 minutes daily. You can further strengthen your diaphragm by placing a small book on your abdomen. As you become skilled with diaphragmatic breathing, try to incorporate this into other positions and activities.