What are some breathing techniques I can try today?
OK, so for part 2 of this blog series about breath awareness, we are going to delve right into trying out one really simple, but really effective breathing technique, called Belly Breath.
So, this post is going to cover:
What is belly breathing?
What are its benefits (and contraindications)
How do I do belly breathing?
In the next blog post we are going to revisit Belly Breath and the part it plays in 3-Part Breath or Dirga Pranayama in Sanskrit. For now, we focus on the belly.
What is Belly Breathing?
The name is a little bit of a misnomer, as we actually aren’t breathing into our belly – that is physically impossible and would potentially require some A&E attention. It is often alternatively (and more accurately) referred to as abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.
The diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle that runs from one side of our abdomen to the other, underneath the lungs and above the tummy. It contracts and flattens downwards, bulging the belly out ever-so-slightly, creating a vacuum that pulls air into our lungs, then relaxes and domes upwards as we exhale. This happens, for most of us, autonomously.
However, many of us now don’t actually breathe to our full capacity, resulting in something called chest breathing – our breath is shallower and therefore quicker than in needs to be. As we looked at in thefirst postin this series, this can activate the Sympathetic Nervous System and create feelings of anxiety and nervousness, something we all want to avoid.
With Belly Breathing, we actively focus on the breath – particularly on expanding the belly out on the inhale, and relaxing the belly back in on the exhale. This awareness takes our breathing from shallow chest breathing to deep, slow, controlled belly breathing. Deeper, slower breaths allow for us to expand our lungs increasing the capacity, and slower breathing activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System, bringing us into what Siegel (1999) called our Window of Tolerance (see here for more on that), where we feel calmer, more relaxed, and more willing to be socially engaged.
What are the benefits of Belly Breathing?
There are several. Some of the more notable benefits are listed here.
1. You can do it anywhere, any time.
OK, so I don’t recommend doing this when driving or operating machinery, or anything that requires your full attention.
However, you don’t need to be in full yoga regalia, in a studio, or surrounded by incense and candles to do this, though go right ahead if that feels right for you. Sometimes it is nice to ritualize these practices, but just know that it’s not necessary.
I often will be found belly breathing on the train to work, right before my yoga practice, or even just before bed. I will MOST DEFINITELY be found belly-breathing in the loo after bickering (or full-blown arguing) with someone.
2. It doesn’t require any equipment
Just you, a hand or two, and somewhere to be left to your own devices. You might not even need to use your hands – that is personal preference. Really, all you need is yourself and a clear non-runny nose.
3. It helps to bring you into a relaxed, parasympathetic nervous state.
Constant daily pressures from work, family demands, and what-if thinking can serve to keep us in fight-or-flight mode, which has detrimental effects on our mental and physical states over time. This type of breathing activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System, responsible for rest-and-digest states where our heart rate is lowered, digestion is stimulated, and blood pressure is lowered (Elkaim, 2022). It helps to regulate the harmonious relationship between the Sympathetic Nervous System and Parasympathetic Nervous System, keeping us in our Window of Tolerance (Lutz, 2021).
4. It strengthens the lungs
As we focus on the breath and on expanding the belly out on the inhale, we ultimately are endeavoring to increase the amount of air we take into our lungs compared to how we breathe autonomously. This will have the benefit of strengthening the lung muscles as they adapt to hold more air, and increasing our lung capacity over time, allowing us to autonomously take deeper and slower breaths.
There are many more benefits to belly breathing ( I highly recommend checking out Yuri Elkaim’s blog post here to learn more). But, what about the contraindications?
According to this post by Tummee, several factors do need to be taken into account when considering a belly breathing practice. These include, but are not limited to:
Having had heart surgery or are recovering from heart issues
Having sustained an injury to the rib cage, spine, collar bone, neck, or head, or having severe osteoporosis
Having a history of acute asthma or tuberculosis
Finding this type of breathing to be suffocating
As with any physical practice, do always check with a trusted healthcare practitioner before attempting Belly Breathing. In order for you to reap the benefits, you need to get clear on if this is suitable for you, and it will only be a qualified medical professional who can help you to discern that.
How do I do Belly Breathing?
So, now that we are clear on some of the benefits and contraindications, and that you have hopefully gotten the all-clear from a qualified and trusted medical professional to go ahead, how do we actually do it?
Follow the instructions below to find out!
Find a seated position that suits you best. If you are completely new to this, I recommend trying this a few times while lying down, face up, with your knees bent, and resting in on each other. Otherwise, come to a comfortable seated position on the floor or on a chair. If you are on the floor, check that your knees are below the line of your hip bones. If not, elevate your hips by sitting up on a blanket or cushion, and support your knees by placing a cushion or rolled-up blanket (or yoga blocks if you have them) underneath your knees.
Place one hand on your belly, or two. If this doesn’t feel right for you, it’s OK to have your hands down by your sides or resting in your lap, depending on your position.
Close your eyes, or not. This is totally up to you – whatever feels right and safe for you.
Begin by closing the lips and breathing in and out through the nose. Feel the airflow in and out of your nostrils.
On the next inhale, focus on expanding the belly out as you continue to inhale. Try to keep the chest still. When you’ve inhaled as far as you feel comfortable, begin the exhale.
As you exhale, keep the lips closed and feel the belly slowly retract back.
Repeat this for a few rounds, maybe no more than five times if this is your first attempt. Just observe, without judgment, how you feel. What is happening in your mind? What is happening in your body? What is happening emotionally? If your answer to these questions is “nothing much”, don’t worry – that is totally normal. This takes practice. Let it be and try again tomorrow.
And that’s it. If you’d like a quick guide on how to get set up for a safe and sustainable home yoga practice, that includes a belly-breathing page, fill in your info below and my Home Yoga Prep for Beginners will be winging its way to your inbox.
Next up, we will be looking at 3-Part Breath or Dirga Pranayama.
Until then, keep practicing, if it is right for you to do so, and check out my Instagram for more useful tidbits about all things yoga.
Hi, I'm Ellie Smith. I'm passionate about sharing how the practices and principles of yoga can enhance our public speaking presence. Whether you're a university student, new or returning professional, or simply want to boost your confidence behind the mic, I'm here to help guide you on your yoga journey so you can go from the pose to the podium with ease.