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Abdominal or Diaphragmatic Breathing:
The Foundation of Healthy Breathing

          Breathing exercises are the most basic, and most frequently used of all the techniques on this site – they’re easy to learn, easy to do, and you can do them anywhere, anytime. They are also the best preparation for learning any of the other techniques as well.  And if there’s something in your life you’d like to change – whatever it may be – you’ll find that having a few breathing techniques at your fingertips will be a tremendous help.

          Of all the breathing exercises, diaphragmatic breathing is the most essential.  And it’s not really a technique – it’s simply the natural and healthy way to breathe.  It’s the way babies breathe.  And it’s the way we all breathed before we started holding in our tummies in order to look good, before we started using chairs that encourage us to slouch, and before we got so stressed out that our tense muscles started interfering with our natural way of breathing. 

Benefits of Diaphragmatic or Abdominal Breathing

          Here are just a few of the benefits you’ll get when you re-learn how to breathe properly:

  • You’ll have more energy:  Diaphragmatic breathing requires less effort, so you’ll have more  energy available for other purposes.
     
  • You’ll feel calmer:  Chronic chest breathing over-activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which raises your stress level, blood pressure, and can lead to a host of other stress-related problems. Abdominal breathing, in contrast, is relaxing and restorative, and helps to rebalance your nervous system.  

  • You’ll have healthier organs: Each time you take an abdominal breath, your internal organs get a massage. This helps your digestion, and generally helps to keep your organs healthy.

  • Your aging process will be slower:  Abdominal breathing is far more efficient than chest breathing. When you breathe with your chest, your lungs and heart have to work harder to deliver oxygen to the cells of your body.  This creates more wear and tear for your organs and speeds up the aging process.

 A Quick Self-Test

       Here’s a little test you can do to give you some idea of how efficiently you’re breathing:   Just sit quietly for one minute and count how many breaths you take during that time period.

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       When you’re sitting quietly, a healthy breathing rate is considered to be 10-12 breaths per minute. But if you’re using your chest muscles to breathe, you’ll need to take more breaths than that in order to get enough oxygen.

       The average number of breaths for most people when they’re sitting is 15-20 breaths per minute.  This is actually a low-level state of chronic hyperventilation. In its more extreme form, hyperventilation can cause symptoms like numbness, headache, dizziness, and chest pain.

       But once you’re in the habit of “remembering to breathe” – that is, when you've taken some time to strengthen your MPFC and you’re more centered, more of the time, in an inner core of calm, ease, and contentment, your average number of breaths per minute may get as low as 4 or 5. 


Understanding Abdominal Breathing

          In order to understand what’s happening in your body when you practice abdominal breathing, it helps to understand a little bit about how your body is designed to breathe.  

        The muscle most responsible for your breathing is the “diaphragm.”   The diaphragm is a  dome-shaped muscle that separates your chest cavity (which houses your heart, ribs, and lungs) from your abdominal cavity (which houses your stomach, gallbladder, liver, kidneys, and intestines).   When your diaphragm is relaxed, the arch of its dome curves upward into the chest cavity.

Inhalation

          Each time you inhale, your diaphragm contracts, flattening its dome downward toward the abdomen.  As it flattens, it leaves more space in the chest cavity, allowing the lungs to inflate with air.  

          At the same time, as the dome flattens toward the abdomen, it presses down on the abdominal organs.  This pushes the organs out against the wall of your belly, and you can feel your belly bulging slightly outward.

Exhalation

          When you exhale, the reverse happens.  Your diaphragm relaxes, arching back up into the chest cavity.  This compresses your lungs, causing them to deflate like balloons.  At the same time, there’s now more space for your abdominal organs and your belly flattens.

Abdominal Breathing and the ANS

          Each time you inhale properly, you activate your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – the part of your autonomic nervous system (ANS) that increases your energy and your heart rate.  Each time you exhale properly, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – the part of your ANS that relaxes you, slows your heart rate, and reduces your blood pressure.

          So when you breathe correctly, your SNS and PNS are equally activated, one after the other. That’s why diaphragmatic breathing is such an effective means of balancing your ANS.

Practicing Abdominal Breathing

Audio Instructions

If you'd like to listen to an audio that guides you through the process of learning abdominal breathing, click below:

Written Instructions

             For learning purposes, it’s best to be flat on your back with your knees bent and the bottoms of your feet touching the floor.  Also for learning purposes, it’s helpful to pause momentarily after each inhalation and at the end of each exhalation.

  • Place your hands on your belly 
  • Inhale... and as you exhale, use your hands to gently push down on your belly
  • Hold your breath for a brief moment still pressing down with your hands on your belly
  • Then inhale letting your belly inflate like a balloon, pushing out against your hands 
  • Hold your breath for a brief moment
  • Now exhale fully, pushing down on the belly
  • Repeat a few more times

          Now, keeping your hands on your belly, do the same thing without holding your breath after each inhalation and exhalation. 

  • Exhale, pushing down on the belly
  • Inhale, letting the belly expand
  • Exhale, pushing down on the belly
  • Inhale, letting the belly expand
  • Exhale, pushing down on the belly
  • Inhale, letting the belly expand
  • Now remove your hands and just continue abdominal breathing for about a minute

          It can be very helpful to pause now and then, in the midst of your activities, to take 3 or 4 slow, deep abdominal breaths.  Doing this repeatedly throughout the day will help to retrain your body and gradually undo the habit of breathing with your chest.  It will also help you to stay more relaxed and alert throughout the day.

Using Abdominal Breathing to Strengthen Your MPFC

          In addition to reaping its many physical benefits, you can use the practice of diaphragmatic breathing to directly strengthen your MPFC.  

          One of the many functions of the MPFC is to help you be aware of your body.  So any time you direct your attention to your breath to check whether you’ve been holding in your belly, you’re activating your MPFC.  And the more you activate it, the stronger it gets.

          Another function of the MPFC is self-regulation.  So anytime you notice that you’ve been chest breathing and choose to shift to abdominal breathing, you’re practicing self-regulation.  You’ve not only balanced your ANS, you’ve also activated your MPFC. 



          Just calmly focusing your attention on the process of diaphragmatic breathing can bring about a deep sense of inner peace and balance. And at the same time, you’ll be doing wonderful things for your heart, lungs, abdominal organs, and your whole body!

Effortless Breathing


         Ideally, breathing exercises should done with a minimal amount of effort.  If you’re feeling tense or being too “effortful” when doing a breathing exercise, you may actually be creating more tension, which will make it harder for you to breathe.  So in order to get the full benefit of the breathing exercise, think of it as a relaxing and enjoyable experience. (One reason we’ve created the breathing videos with calming images and relaxing music is to help create that sense of ease and relaxation.)

       

        Rather than thinking of breathing exercises as just one more item on your to do list, try doing them when you really want to relax or have more energy.  And let it be fun. Experiment with incorporating ocean breathing, spinal breathing, and other breathing exercises into your life in ways that are specially tailored to your needs and circumstances.