The Joy and Necessity of Diaphragmatic Breathing

One of my worst habits is holding my breath.  If I’m in a stress situation, I stop breathing.  If I am in high-concentration mode, I stop breathing.  When I tend to exercise — even during my Yoga asanas — I tend to forget where I am and hold my breath instead of breathing properly.

The reason it is a bad idea to hold your breath — except when you’re under the water and such — is because holding your breath spikes your blood pressure something awful.  Your face changes color.  Your heart rate rises.  Your whole innards are about to explode through your noggin.

Learning how to effectively breathe is key — not only during Yoga and aerobic exercise — but during your regular, ordinary, life as well.

The problem with our breathing is that so few of us do it properly.  We breathe by expanding our ribcage instead of dropping our diaphragms and extending our stomachs.

Diaphragmatic Breathing is the key to your joy and your body will thank you when you finally begin to breathe correctly again.  When you take a proper diaphragmatic breath, your ribcage does not move outward; your diaphragm drops downward  as your stomach expands and you are finally able to take a deep and cleansing breath.

It can be difficult to retrain your body to “breathe down, not out” because, temporarily, your stomach will stick out and make you look fatter.  Many of us have self-trained ourselves to “hold in our stomachs” so we look falsely thinner than we do in real life.  There is a way to “diaphragm breathe” that only expands the top of your stomach a bit and leaves your lower abdomen slightly flexed for a thinning effect, but today, we’ll concentrate on learning how to properly breathe using whole-abdomen movement.

The first thing you need to learn is to not use your ribs to breathe.  When we sigh, we tend to push our ribcages out to their fullest flex and, if we’re really under stress, we may not be able to “catch our breath” even though the ribcage is fully expanded.  When you diaphragmatically breathe, you will always be able to take in a full and healthful, non-stressed, breath in every condition.

The easiest way to practice diaphragmatic breathing is to get flat on your back on the floor and then place something like a flower or a book of matches on your abdomen.  The idea is to move your abdomen outward so you move the flower or matchbook during an inhaled breath and, as you exhale, the object return to the starting position.

If the object does not move, you are breathing “sideways” using your ribs and not “upward” using your diaphragm.  Do not stress.  Do not hold your breath.  Allow your tummy to “go fat” as your inhale and you’ll know you’re finally engaging your diaphragm in your breathing.

Inhale slowly through your nose, exhale through your mouth.  These are deep, cleansing, focused, breaths.  When you’re using your diaphragm to breathe during your regular day, you don’t have to exhale through your mouth.

Do not pause between inhaling and exhaling — because then you’re holding your breath, if even momentarily, and that’s the opposite effect we’re trying to achieve.

As you become more practiced and comfortable with this “belly breathing” on your back, start breathing that way during your ordinary day while sitting in a chair or walking.  Long distance runners have taught themselves to breathe from the diaphragm — and not the ribcage — and that’s why they are able to sustain long distance running without running out of breath.

While you wander around your day with your new diaphragmatic breathing technique to guide you, look for the “diaphragmatic bulge” in others around you.  You’ll see a slightly rounded area right below their ribcage that is always appearing and disappearing while their lower stomachs stay relatively firm and in place.

Those folks are the real life, expert, diaphragmatic breathers, and you can watch the breath enter and leave their bodies — usually in and out through the nose in everyday existence — and you’ll learn in their simple example that right breathing leads to a stronger body and a much deeper sensation of total awareness.

Just beware that diaphragm breaths don’t work well in bed during spooning sessions. The spoonee tends to get pushed away by the spooner’s diaphragmatic belly.

11 comments

  • Thank you so much for the simplified explanation of how to do this properly – makes much more sense that the person – physioterrorist – who taught me to breath properly – which seemed to take for ever – and I cannot even remember the words and methods now – just that I do it.

  • going to book mark this so I can point others to it .

    • Thank you!

      I find people who love to swim have the hardest time making the transition to diaphragmatic breathing because of buoyancy expectations. They want the center of their air to be in their chest and not their abdomen. I can understand that for safety reasons. The higher up in your body where you store your air is the part of you that will be “out of the water” soonest and longest.

  • I was taught post surgery and had a scar from breastbone to pelvic bone and after three weeks in bed had lost all my muscle tone – I found it incredibly difficult to learn – more to do wit the state I was in than anything else I suspect.

    • Yes, the body demands to be in action. I know many surgeons here in NYC want all their patients up and walking the same day as they get surgery if at all possible. My former eye doctor broke his back skiing, went into the hospital, had spinal surgery to stabilize the breaks, and he then asked his doctor if he could walk home, and his MD said, “Sure, if you’re up to it.” He was — and he did!

      When I was growing up “bed rest” was guiding principle in healing — not any longer. They want you up and moving around a lot. When I had my double hernia surgery, my doctor didn’t want me to even nap when I got home. “Go for a walk,” he said. We did and, yes, it hurt quite a lot.

  • First time was emergency and I was in quite bad way – intensive care for a while, then high dependency for another week – totally lost muscle usage. Correction surgery was totally different – I was up and moving around the following morning. Ouchies to double hernia and walking!

    I know when my mum broke her hip when she was 87 or so and affected by old age , she forgot she had broken her hip and was walking around on it as soon as they got her back to the nursing home. She healed remarkably quickly due to the fact she had “forgotten” about the surgery and was walking on it normally and not correcting and putting too much pressure on the other hip!

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