Understanding Belly Breath (Adham Pranayama)
Let’s start with a general understanding of Belly Breath, a little bit of the science, and some of the benefits.
Overview of Belly Breath
First up, is the etymology. We’ll begin with the Sanskrit. “Adham” means “low” and “Pranayama” is a compound word. “Prana” is often translated to mean “life force energy”, and “yama” to mean “gain control of”. So, “Adham Pranayama” could mean “gaining control of our life force through breath control focused in the lower abdomen”. That’s a rather interpretive translation, but you get my drift. Pranayama is one of eight limbs of yoga and is often translated as “Breathwork” in English. while its scope is far bigger than that, for beginners, that is a good place to start as it’s tangible.
The common English translation, “Belly Breath” is actually a bit of a misnomer and can lead to some confusion around exactly how to practice this technique. This will be covered further down the page in Precautions and Contraindications. For now, let’s agree that Belly Breath does not actually entail breathing into the belly, as is so often cued. That is physiologically impossible and would require emergency medical aid.
At the heart of Adham Pranayama lies a profound understanding of breath’s potential. Essentially, it is a foundational abdominal breathing practice that fosters breath awareness. This makes it a mandatory prerequisite to all other breathing practices that make up Pranayama.
This technique allows us to tap into a natural, rejuvenating breath rhythm that harmonizes the body and mind and lights the path toward inner peace.
Anatomy of Belly Breath
Delving deeper, let’s explore the intricate mechanics of breathing. Our breath is a mirror of our inner state. That might sound a bit esoteric, but there is modern science to back this claim. Adham Pranayama helps us to shift from shallow chest breathing to more expansive diaphragmatic breathing.
Shallow breathing that only really expands the upper chest can both trigger and be triggered by a stress response. This is our sympathetic nervous system switching on. This system is responsible for what we colloquially call “fight-or-flight”.
In order to fight or flee from a perceived threat, we need energized muscles. To be energized, muscles need oxygen fast. This means the heart must pump the blood around the body faster, which means we need to breathe quicker in order to get that oxygen into our blood and on its way to our muscles.
Ever found yourself shaking before a presentation and you can feel the fast heart rate? That’s your body mistaking the presentation as an imminent threat to survival like it did when our ancestors were faced with a hungry tiger. It stimulates the same response.
So, Belly Breath encourages the control of breath to allow for deeper breathing. This signals to the brain that there is no threat, and the brain will switch on the parasympathetic nervous system. This is our rest and digest state. In this state, our breathing pattern is relaxed, slow, and regular.
Benefits of Belly Breath
The treasures of Belly Breath are plentiful:
- Focusing on the breath encourages us to stay in the present moment. We are, for a few moments, not worried about the future or ruminating on the past.
- Deep breathing means greater expansion of the chest. This over time, leads to increased lung capacity and strength, meaning we have the space to take in more oxygen as we expand the breath into the lower lobes of the lungs.
- Increased oxygen demand, improved circulation, improved cardiovascular function, and improved digestion according to this article.
- The autonomic nervous system finds balance, helping us navigate life’s ebbs and flows with a little more grace. This is called our Window of Tolerance which I talk more about in The Science of the Breath.
- The possibility of it positively impacting respiratory infections and even those with Asthma, though the evidence to suggest this is moderate.