Breathe

A Step-By-Step Guide To Diaphragmatic Breathing (Belly Breathing)

Posted August 16, 2019 • Read Time: 12 minutes

The simplest and most powerful technique for protecting your health is absolutely free – and literally right under your nose.

– Andrew Weil, MD, author of Spontaneous Healing

Today, you’ll take between 17,280 – 23,040 breaths. (1)

Since breathing is something you do automatically, you probably don’t give it much thought.

And yet, something as overlooked as your own breath is one of the most potent health-inducing, performance-enhancing, and stress-busting assets you already have at your disposal.

With each inhale and exhale your breath is reflecting how healthy your mind and body are.

Believe it or not, your breath can even predict how long you’ll live.

According to the Framingham study researchers, lung function is an indicator of health and “literally a measure of living capacity.” (2)

Let that sit with you for a moment.

How well you breathe determines how long you’ll live… and how well you’ll live.

So let’s have a look at what right breathing looks like and why most of us have been doing it wrong…

One

Engaging the Diaphragm for Optimal Breathing

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that separates the thoracic cavity (containing your heart and lungs), from the abdominal cavity.

The secret to optimal breathing lies in the top part of your belly. 

There, at the bottom of your rib cage, you’ll find your diaphragm. 

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that separates the thoracic cavity (containing your heart and lungs), from the abdominal cavity.

The diaphragm is the most efficient muscle in the breathing process and is considered the main respiratory muscle. 

Your abdominal muscles act out a supporting role and help the diaphragm move to the rhythm of your breath.

When you breathe in, the diaphragm contracts downwardly while the intercostal muscles (the muscles in between your ribs) contract and pull upward. 

As you exhale, the reverse happens. 

Your diaphragm moves upward and the intercostals move downward. 

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing (aka belly breathing, abdominal breathing, controlled breathing, and deep breathing) is a type of breathing training/ breathing technique that helps to strengthen your diaphragm so you can breathe better to live better.

It can also be considered an important stress management tool because it’s one of the easiest relaxation techniques you have at your disposal.

 

Two

Oxygen – the Breath of Life

Oxygen is the breath of life. 

It’s a carrier for what the Chinese call Chi, the Japanese call Ki, and the yogis call Prana… Vital Energy.  

The breathing process consists of two phases, the inspiration (inhalation) and expiration (exhalation.) 

The word inspire literally means ‘to breathe life into.’ 

With each full conscious breath, you can fill yourself with vital energy.

Inspiration (done properly) begins with the intake of oxygen-rich air in through the nostrils, down the throat, all the way into the bottom half of your lungs. 

Here’s a short video detailing the breathing process:   

 

The lower half of your lungs is the thickest and most closely compacted, which means more oxygen can enter the bloodstream. 

Consciously breathing into the lower half of your lungs by engaging the diaphragm, literally allows you to ‘breath more life into’… you. 

Oxygenated blood travels to the heart, where it’s pumped to the rest of the body via blood vessels that move into surrounding tissues. 

Ultimately, oxygen reaches every cell that makes up the body. (3) 

Almost all cells in your body need oxygen to survive. 

Literally and metaphorically, breathing adds more life into you and the majority of your +/- 30 trillion cells.

 

Three

Chest Breathing vs. Diaphragmatic Breathing

A Step-By-Step Guide To Diaphragmatic Breathing (Belly Breathing)

If your upper chest is moving when you breathe then you’re not using the lower part of your lungs, which means you’re not breathing optimally.

Chest breathing engages only the top part of your lungs, and remember that the lower half of your lungs is the most oxygen-rich.

If you’re breathing with your chest and not your diaphragm/ belly you’ll likely overuse your neck and shoulder muscles, which are not meant to be breathing muscles.  

This can lead to muscle tension and pain, which is never fun. 

Chest breathing can also trigger stress signals (fight-or-flight mode) in the body, which is also not fun. 

Which is why breathing with your chest is also known as stress breathing!

Since most of us experience some degree of stress regularly, we may be stress breathing and not even know it. 

This can take a big toll on your health, immunity, and energy reserves, not to mention your mental and emotional wellbeing.

We can turn this around by becoming intentional belly breathers instead. 

This means learning to strengthen our diaphragm by cultivating the habit of breathing with our bellies. 

True, regenerating deep breathing… is belly breathing. 

You know you’re breathing with your diaphragm when your lower belly rises as your lungs fill with air during each inhale. 

As you exhale your belly will contract inwardly towards your spine as the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards while pressing on the lungs.

 

Four

10 Scientifically Proven Health
Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing:

10 Scientifically Proven Health Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Breathing and controlling your breath is one of the easiest ways to improve mental and physical health.

– The Wall Street Journal

The body needs three main forms of nourishment to survive: food, water, and air. 

You can live up to three weeks without food. 

You can live a few days without water, but you can only live a few minutes if you stop breathing. 

Your brain can only survive around 6 minutes without oxygen before it starts dying. (4) 

Diaphragmatic breathing has proven to: 

1. Improve respiratory function, by relaxing tight chest (5) muscles and by increasing lung capacity (6).

Research suggests that diaphragmatic breathing can be especially helpful to those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). (7)

 

2. Lower heart rate and blood pressure, and is even recognized by the FDA in the treatment and regulation of hypertension. (8)

It also improves circulatory system function by maximizing the delivery of oxygen to the bloodstream and to each of the trillions of cells in your body. 

 

3. Maintain blood pH levels (the scale of alkalinity to acidity.) (9)

Blood acidity is neutralized with the release of carbon dioxide from the lungs.

Deep, slow breathing helps the brain and lungs continuously optimize pH levels. (10) 

10 Scientifically Proven Health Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

4. Engage your diaphragm internally which in turn massages your abdominal organs and glands, stimulating them and promoting their healthy and optimal function. (11) 

 

5. Boost the immune system because as the diaphragm massages the internal organs and glands it helps move lymph (fluid containing the immune system’s white blood cells) throughout the body to their targeted locations. (12)

10 Scientifically Proven Health Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

6. Detoxify the body.

Controlled breathing stimulates lymphatic movement.

One of the key functions of your lymphatic system is to flush toxins out of your body.

Your lungs are also a major excretory organ.

With every maximized exhale, you expel waste, toxins, and excess carbon dioxide from your system. (13) 

 

7. Maintain healthy digestive function and help ease upset tummies.

The same diaphragmatic massaging motion that helps flush toxins also helps stimulate blood flow of your intestinal tract, ensuring your gut muscles keep on moving as they’re intended to.

Breathing deeply can help prevent acid reflux, bloating, hiatal hernia, and intestinal spasms. (14)

Deep breathing also helps quell the stress response, which compromises digestion.

It’s worthy to note here that multiple studies and research confirm a high correlation between digestive/ gastrointestinal issues (i.e.: IBS) and mental health imbalances such as anxiety and depression. (15) 

10 Scientifically Proven Health Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Deep breathing also helps quell the stress response, which compromises digestion.

It’s worthy to note here that multiple studies and research confirm a high correlation between digestive/ gastrointestinal issues (i.e.: IBS) and mental health imbalances such as anxiety and depression. (13)

 

8. Increase theta brain waves. (14)

Theta brainwaves are associated with the state of deep relaxation and dreaming sleep, as well as increased creativity, super-learning, integrative experiences, and increased memory. (15)

10 Scientifically Proven Health Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

9. Relaxation Technique.

This is because your breath acts as a switching station for your nervous system, specifically between the two branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (stress response), and the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response.)

Deep, slow breathing relieves stress and relaxes you, and also engages your sympathetic in ways that work for you, not against you.

In this way, deep breathing helps send your body signals of safety so that you can enter into a higher state of functioning – one that is healing, regenerating, and conducive to sustained fulfillment and thriving. (18) 

 

10. Be an effective option for treating emotional and mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. (19)

Just do a Google search and you’ll find numerous studies and other literature published on this subject, like this one published in the Journal of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback: 

10 Scientifically Proven Health Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Five

Nostril Breathing vs. Mouth Breathing:

The most effective way to breathe is to inhale and exhale through the nose, not the mouth. 

Remember the last time you had a bad cold and your nasal airways were swollen and closed off? 

That’s temporary mouth breathing. 

Some of us have developed the habit of chronic mouth breathing and we may not even be aware of it. 

It’s common to think that ‘deep breathing’ or other breathing exercises performed via an open mouth offer the same benefits, but they don’t. 

Quite the opposite. 

 

Chronic mouth breathing can actually damage our health and wellbeing for various reasons: 

– Nostril breathing protects us from various harmful external particles like dust, bacteria, and microbes via tiny little hairs called cilia. These hairs clean, warm, and humidify the incoming air and guard us from as many as 20 billion outside particles daily. (20) 

– Nostril exhaling creates more air pressure and slows the exhalation down because it is a smaller orifice than the mouth. This helps the lungs optimize oxygen intake. (21) 

Nose breathing imposes approximately 50 percent more resistance to the air stream, as compared to mouth breathing. 

This results in 10 to 20 percent more oxygen uptake. 

– Dr. Alan Ruth, Behavioural Medicine Practitioner

 – Helps us engage our diaphragm more efficiently. (22) 

– Nostril inhalation increases nitric oxide intake, which helps ensure smooth transportation of more oxygen throughout the whole body. (22) 

Here’s why you’ll want to switch from mouth breathing to nostril breathing: 

– Chronic mouth breathing can lead to chronic over-breathing and chest breathing. 

– Mouth breathing signals to your brain that carbon dioxide levels are quickly decreasing, so the body produces more mucus as an attempt to get you to breathe more slowly. (21) 

– Chronic mouth breathing can alter your facial structure and change your facial features. For example, it can make your face and jaw more narrow and droopy, which can lead to obstructive sleep apnea and snoring. (23) 

– Chronic mouth breathing dries the mucous lining of the airways, and it doesn’t warm or moisturize air as nostril breathing does, so it also doesn’t protect from pathogens and allergens either. (24) 

– Mouth breathing can lead to trauma to soft tissues in the airways as well as enlarged tonsils and adenoids. (22) 

Temporary mouth breathing due to a cold, for example, is not the same as chronic mouth breathing, which is a learned state. 

This will require some reprogramming of habits and behaviors to correct. 

 

Six

Breath Training:

A Step-By-Step Guide To Diaphragmatic Breathing

Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health. 

If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. 

There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and wellbeing than breathwork.

– Andrew Weil, MD, author of Spontaneous Healing

The best investment you can make in your mental, emotional and physical health is to create the habit of a daily breathwork practice. 

This isn’t new knowledge. 

In ancient traditions such as Yoga and Buddhist mindfulness, the breath is a tool that can help to calm the mind, increase focus and awareness, and strengthen and protect the body from disease. 

Breathwork is so important in Yoga that it has its own dedicated discipline called Pranayama, or the regulation of vital energy via the breath. 

There are many effective diaphragmatic breathing exercises you can try to get started with a daily practice. 

Here’s a step-by-step how-to of the diaphragmatic breathing technique which is widely recommended by high-profile institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and Harvard Medical School. 

 

There are three variations of this technique: 

1 – lying down

2 – sitting

3 – standing 

 

Lying down: 

Step 1 – Lie on your back on a flat surface (i.e. your bed, couch, or a yoga mat.)

Step 2 – Make sure your neck is supported and your knees bent (put pillows or cushion under them if necessary.)

Step 3 – Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage on your belly, this is where your diaphragm is and you’ll be able to feel it move as you breathe. (You can also place a book over your belly and watch it move as you breathe.)

Step 4 – Inhale through the nose and notice the hand on your belly go up with the in-breath, and back down towards your spine with the exhale. (The hand on your belly should move up and down with each breath while the hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.)

Step 5 – Inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 5 counts. (1 full round = 10 counts)

Step 7 – Repeat for a minimum of 6 full rounds, although ideally, 18 full rounds are best. (6 rounds = 1 minute, 18 rounds = 3 minutes)

 

Sitting: 

Step 1 – Sit comfortably with your back against a chair, couch, or the wall.

Step 2 – Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage on your belly, this is where your diaphragm is and you’ll be able to feel it move as you breathe. 

Step 3 – Inhale through the nose and notice the hand on your belly go up with the in-breath, and back down towards your spine with the exhale. (The hand on your belly should move up and down with each breath while the hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.)

Step 4 – Inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 5 counts. (1 full round = 10 counts)

Step 5 – Repeat for a minimum of 6 full rounds, although ideally, 18 full rounds are best. (6 rounds = 1 minute, 18 rounds = 3 minutes)

 

Standing: 

Step 1 – Stand with your back upright. You can stand against a wall if that is more comfortable. 

Step 2 – Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage on your belly, this is where your diaphragm is and you’ll be able to feel it move as you breathe. 

Step 3 – Inhale through the nose and notice the hand on your belly go up with the in-breath, and back down towards your spine with the exhale. (The hand on your belly should move up and down with each breath while the hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.)

Step 4 – Inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 5 counts. (1 full round = 10 counts)

Step 5 – Repeat for a minimum of 6 full rounds, although ideally, 18 full rounds are best. (6 rounds = 1 minute, 18 rounds = 3 minutes)

 

Keep the inhale for 5/ exhale for 5 breathing rate if that is comfortable or adjust it as necessary. 

You shouldn’t be straining or feel forced – this exercise should flow naturally and feel comfortable. 

You can follow along with the emblem as you inhale and exhale. Imagine your lungs expanding with air as you breath in for 5 and then contracting as you breathe out for 5:

 

How often should I practice this technique?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, diaphragmatic breathing exercises should be practiced 5-10 minutes about 3-4 times per day.

This may seem like a lot, especially if you’re just starting out and aren’t used to it. 

Just start where you are and chunk it down. 

It’s better to do just 1 minute of breathing training a day every day than 5 minutes twice a week. 

Start with 1 minute a day until you feel it’s become a habit in your life. 

Then increase to 3 minutes a day and so on. 

At first, this way of breathing may seem unnatural or effortful. 

That’s ok. 

Be gentle and patient with your self. 

Some of us have to reprogram decades and even a lifetime of chest breathing. 

The more you practice and the more it becomes an ingrained habit, diaphragmatic breathing will seem like less effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References: 

(1) https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2014/04/how-many-breaths-do-you-take-each-day/

(2) https://www.oxygenesis.org/physical.html

(3) https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hlw/whathappens

(4) https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/brain-death1.htm

(5) http://www.ndhealthfacts.org/wiki/Breathing

(6) http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/46/4/714.short

(7) https://www.copdfoundation.org/Learn-More/I-am-a-Person-with-COPD/Breathing-Techniques.aspx

(8) http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/46/4/714.short

(9) http://education.seattlepi.com/respiratory-systems-role-homeostasis-3740.html

(10) http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/hormonal-and-metabolic-disorders/acid-base-balance/overview-of-acid-base-balance

(11) Wayne, Peter (2013-04-09). The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind (Harvard Health Publications) (p. 174). Shambhala.

(12) Hahnke O.M.D., Roger (2013-07-02). The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body’s Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *Breathing (p. 40). HarperCollins.

(13) https://drhealthbenefits.com/lifestyle/healthy/healthy-habits/health-benefits-of-deep-breathing-exercise

(14) Matveikova, Irina (2014-06-16). Digestive Intelligence: A Holistic View of Your Second Brain (p. 159). Findhorn Press.

(15) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19552631

(16) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16624497

(17) http://www.centerpointe.com/articles/articles-research

(18) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAL-MMYptQc

(19) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10484-015-9279-8

(20) Yahya, Harun (2003). Miracles in Our Bodies (p.93). Goodword Books.

(21) https://www.livestrong.com/article/255298-mouth-breathing-vs-nasal-breathing/

(22) http://www.lenus.ie/hse/bitstream/10147/559021/1/JAN15Art7.pdf

(23) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20824738

(24) http://www.berkeleywellness.com/self-care/preventive-care/article/mouth-breathing-problem

 

Benefits of Controlled Belly Breathing – Relieve Stress & Activate Your Relaxation Response Through Breathing Techniques & Exercises

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