Abdominal Breathing

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In day to day life, we don’t put as much thought into our breathing as we ought to. This is because breathing is an automatic process that works without conscious intervention when we are asleep, anesthetized, or awake.  

Perhaps without noticing it,  we tend to breath more with the upper cavity of our chest. Take a deep breath right now.  What moved as you inhaled and exhaled?  If you noticed your chest and shoulders rising without your belly moving out then you are relying on the upper portion of your lungs.  In this week's instructional video, we demonstrate a diaphragmatic breathing exercise.  This is also referred to as abdominal breathing or belly breathing. 

This exercise, which can be done anytime and anywhere, focuses on expanding the lungs as much as possible, which in turn expands the abdomen, rib cage, and creates a lot of internal movement.  Air is drawn to the lower parts of your lungs, which causes the diaphragm to contract and expand.  As the diaphragm is expanding downward, it stimulates the vagus nerve. This helps get our body and mind into a state of rest/digest and out of fight/flight.  When you activate your body's relaxation response, you benefit by reducing stress, anxiety, anger, and inflammation.

With this breathing exercise, focus on the movement of your belly.  It will press out as you inhale and draw in as you exhale.  Think of your lungs like a round balloon. When blowing up a balloon, it doesn’t just expand in one section. To assist with this exercise, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. The hand on your belly ought to move more than the hand on your chest.  As your belly hand rises and lowers, think of the air filling the lower cavity of your lungs and expanding your belly.  We want to expand like a round balloon, filling all parts of our lungs and abdominal area.   

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This exercise can be done sitting up, either on a chair or in a seated yoga posture, or while laying down, either in your bed or on your yoga mat.  Do what is most comfortable for you and accessible for your body type and activity level. 

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Advantages of this breathing exercise include:

  • Better supply of oxygen
    • the bottom third of the lungs is where about two thirds of the gas exchange takes place, so oxygenation is more efficient when you use the diaphragm
  • Stress reduction
    • Diaphragmatic breathing rebalances the autonomic nervous system, reducing heart rate and breathing rate and changing from sympathetic fight or flight to parasympathetic calm and relax
    • Less tension and tightness in the neck and shoulders as the muscles here can relax
  • Increase lung capacity
    • Most of us are predominantly shallow breathers, especially when we are under stress. This breathing pattern deprives us from oxygen, which overloads the nervous and cardiovascular systems. We become more stressed, flaccid, and find ourselves increasingly out of breath. When we consciously exercise the diaphragm, it can stretch further down towards the belly, which gives the lungs more space to expand. That is why professional singers, actors, speakers, athletes, even teachers practice this diaphragmatic breathing regularly in order it to become habitual.
  • Organ stimulation
    • Diaphragmatic breathing gently “massages” or moves the abdominal organs, aiding digestion and helping lymphatic drainage; much of the lymphatic system is located just below the diaphragm
    • The diaphragm contributes to good posture and core muscle strength, so needs to work properly. In fact overdeveloped abs and sucking the stomach in can hinder proper movement of the diaphragm, and promote upper chest breathing

We suggest that you make time every day to practice diaphragmatic breathing as part of a yoga or mindfulness routine.

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Patrick Fisher