Written by John Immel,
What is Belly Breathing?Belly breathing is a type of breathing technique (pranayama) where you inhale slowly and deeply, directing the air downwards into your belly. It is also known as abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. The chest remains relatively still while the belly expands and the diaphragm pushes downward on the inhale. You'll feel a sensation that you're belly is sticking out when you take a breath in.
Why Belly Breathe?Belly breathing is an essential tool to calm your body and refresh the mind by practicing a few moments of conscious stillness each day. It provides you with an opportunity to check in with your body, even just for a few minutes, to see if you are holding stress and tension that needs to be released. Belly breathing brings your mind to a resting point, after which you can return to the activities of the day with a fresh perspective and a new generosity.
Belly breathing is a simple technique to master, but the benefits are broad. Best of all, it costs nothing, and you can practice anywhere and at anytime you feel the need. Belly breathing benefits all three doshas, Vata, Pitta and Kapha. It has a particular affinity for Vata which is known as the 'lead dosha'. Pitta and Kapha are immobile and remain stagnant without the movement quality of Vata. Therefore, with any imbalance, it is beneficial to balance Vata. Vata is also the quickest doshas to go out of balance so needs regular and routine attention. Belly breathing is known to calm your nerves in stressful situations, remedy sluggish digestion, relieve abdominal heaviness and relax abdominal muscles. All of these benefits are fundamental to balancing Vata.
Relaxes Muscles & the MindWhen it comes to relaxing, you may already know how to rest a pair of weary feet or a sore back, but how about your chest and abdominal muscles? Probably not. This area is often neglected, even though they can carry a great deal of tension from your day. Adults, as a result of stress and fast paced living, generally tend to breathe into their chest, rather than their belly. This locks up the diaphragm, a large muscle separating your lungs from your abdominal cavity. Tension in the diaphragm can make your breath shallow, and your whole body anxious and tense. Throughout the day, as stress builds, so does abdominal tension. Belly breathing releases the diaphragm and the muscles of the belly, leaving you feeling loose and comfortable.
Not only does belly breathing relax your muscles, it has a soothing effect on the mind. By breathing consciously, your nervous system switches from the sympathetic (fight or flight mode) to parasympathetic (rest and digest). In fight or flight mode, adrenaline flows and the stress hormone cortisol soars. Deep breathing sends a signal to the brain to enter rest and digest mode, which produces a state of equilibrium in the body, reduces stress, irritability and emotional instability. If these are issues you struggle with on a daily basis, take a look at Joyful Belly's audio presentation, Protect your Body from Stress & Anxiety.
Belly breathing also refreshes the mind, improves concentration and allows you to enter a more contemplative state. It gives your mind a well deserved break from daily challenges. This calming effect on the nervous system also supports deep, uninterrupted sleep, leaving you feeling energized in the mornings.
Benefits DigestionBelly breathing, as the name would lead you to believe, benefits the belly in a myriad of ways. Particularly, it stimulates your all important digestive strength (agni). The movement of the diaphragm exudes a downward force on the stomach. This pressure massages and tones the muscles and organs of the abdomen, particularly the stomach, intestines and liver. It encourages movement of the stomach muscles, helping churn food and mix it with digestive enzymes nicely. It also stimulates movement in the intestines, called peristalsis.
As previously mentioned, belly breathing switches your nervous system to rest and digest mode. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated in this mode, blood flow to digestive organs increases, more saliva is produced along with an increase in the release of digestive enzymes. This means your body is a prime position to digest, absorb and assimilate nutrients.
In Ayurveda, the breath (or prana) is the air that kindles the fire of digestion. The basic laws of chemistry teach us that combustion cannot occur without oxygen. Take the fire in your home as an example. It is obvious to see it will not ignite without proper airflow. The same is true in your body. Your digestive system needs sufficient oxygen to metabolize food into energy. Belly breathing increases this flow and, in turn, kindles the fire in your belly (agni).
Improves Circulation & OxygenationBelly breathing improves the quality of blood by flooding it with fresh, rich oxygen. This type of breathing encourages the air you inhale to reach the lower lobes of the lungs, not just the upper portion. This means you are accessing and utilizing your lungs to their full capacity. In this way, belly breathing influences the activity of every cell in the body by supplying it with sufficient oxygen. It also has a stimulating effect on lymphatic flow and flushes out stagnant lymph in the digestive tract.
Deepens & Evens the BreathWhen was the last time you were stressed out or rushing around and thought to yourself - how is my breathing right now? If the answer is never, that is completely understandable. Most people rush through the day without giving their breathing a second thought, even though it is absolutely essential to life.
If this rings true for you, it is very likely that you are only breathing into the upper lobes of your lungs, limiting your intake of oxygen and not using them to their full potential. This limited, shallow breath is often due to stress or tension. Checking in with your breath throughout the day serves a very important purpose. By training yourself to breathe more fully and deeply, you will strengthen the capacity of your lungs and their ability to remove waste (carbon dioxide).
When to Belly Breathe?Technically, you can practice belly breathing at any time of the day, whether you are sitting in traffic, at your desk, cooking lunch or lying in bed. It is particularly useful to practice whenever you start feeling stressed. The best time to practice is first thing in the morning upon rising. It is ideal to have an empty stomach as it will be harder to deeply inhale with a belly full of food. Also, it can put pressure on the lungs and diaphragm. However, when you have indigestion it can be helpful do gentle belly breathing as long as your stomach isn't overstuffed. It's ideal to try and practice at the same time and in the same place each day, if even for five minutes, to make it a daily habit. Find a clean and quiet space free from drafts. It doesn't have to be fancy - just a corner of your sitting room, or bedroom, or even while working at your desk will do the trick! I try to belly breathe all of the time, or as often as possible. Slowly, it will become a habit.
How to Belly Breathe?You don't need any special equipment or a major time commitment to practice belly breathing. For best results, choose a quiet space (turn all technology off!) and wear loose, comfortable clothing. If you are a beginner, it is best that you follow the practice set out below. After you get the hang of it, feel free to belly breathe anytime you want.
Before you start breathing, find a position that you are comfortable in. Make sure you are sitting upright with your spine erect. If you can sit cross legged, make yourself comfortable with a pillow or cushion. If this position is not possible, sit on a straight backed chair with both feet planted firmly on the ground. Keep your eyes open to stay grounded.
Start by breathing through your nose naturally for a minute, becoming aware of the expansion and contraction of the belly. Place one hand on your belly button and the other on your chest, so you can feel whether you are breathing into the belly or not. Your belly hand should be moving, while you chest hand stays still. If you are in a work meeting or out in public, you can still practice this breathing discreetly. Placing your hands on belly and chest helps, but is not essential.
Once you are settled and belly breathing, start to slow down and slightly increase the length of inhalation and exhalation. Your breath should be regular and smooth, with no choppiness. Feel the expansion of your muscles as you slowly fill your lungs on the inhale, gently pressing the diaphragm downwards. Deepen the relaxation of the abdomen on the inhale, and notice any resistance to relaxing the abdomen. Although you may feel the urge to focus on the air as it moves through your body, we suggest you avoid this practice so your mind stays connected to your body, not the atmosphere.
Gently start to contract the abdomen on the exhale, pulling the belly button back and up towards the spine as you empty your lungs. Repeat this cycle for five minutes, concentrating on the sensations in your abdomen. It should feel natural and comfortable at all times. Once you have mastered this technique, you will see that belly breathing will never be forced, or leave you feeling out of breath.
A Word of Caution About PranayamaWith so much information available on breathing techniques, it can be difficult to know which kinds of breathing practices are helpful, and which are not. Some pranayamas can actually be harmful, including those which are too rapid, as well as those with breath retention. Excessively rapid breathing can lead to hyperventilation. Instead, belly breathing is a gentle practice and the perfect way to work with your breath.
On a physical level, your appetite for breathing is connected to your deepest instinct to live. Breath retention, can disconnect you from that instinct. This can be observed as a suppression of natural urges from an Ayurvedic perspective. Breath retention can detach a person from their natural impulse to breathe the source of life itself - oxygen. Ayurveda encourages a cautious outlook on any practice that may suppress natural urges, especially the breath, as this can weaken other healthy instincts as well,
While belly breathing balances Vata dosha and calms the nervous system, suppression of natural urges in other breathing exercises can have the opposite effect. In these cases, if a Vata aggravation occurs, one may experience feelings of anxiety and confusion. Excessive attention to the breath can lead a person to an excess of clear quality, an imbalance of ether element, and a sense that one is disconnected from reality. Belly breathing is a gentle, grounded way to get the benefits of yoga's breathing techniques, without the side effect of increased ether element.
Those with circulatory and respiratory conditions, impaired diaphragm or any major health concerns should refrain from practicing belly breathing until they have clarification from their health care provider. Check with your medical doctor before starting making and changes to your health and wellness routine. For best results, practice with a qualified expert.
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.
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(5.00 out of 5 stars) 1 review, 42 likes
Thank you for your in-depth article about belly breathing. This is the same exercise that my pulmonary Doctor had suggested to me, to strengthen my lungs. I have been practicing this method for about 2 yrs. with good results. Your detailed explanation really helps me understand much better.