Attending to Our Bodies

The What, Why, When, Where and How of Diaphragmatic Breathing

As I have worked with clients over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to clarify many misconceptions about diaphragmatic breathing. Following are some of the more frequently asked questions, along with my responses.

Question 1: What is diaphragmatic breathing?

Answer: Diaphragmatic breathing—also known as abdominal or belly breathing—is a way of breathing that optimizes the use of the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle, situated beneath the lungs, that separates the chest cavity—where the heart and lungs reside—from the abdominal cavity—where the stomach, liver, intestines, and other organs reside (see Figure 1).

Diaphram - KAPIT, WYNN; ELSON, LAWRENCE M., THE ANATOMY COLORING BOOK, 3rd, ©2002. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, New York. Figure 1

KAPIT, WYNN; ELSON, LAWRENCE M., THE ANATOMY COLORING BOOK, 3rd, ©2002. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., New York, New York.

Question 2: Why should I breathe diaphragmatically?

Answer: Let’s face it; modern-day life is stressful. And when we are stressed, our bodies go into “overdrive,” wherein breathing becomes more rapid and shallow, heart rate increases, muscles tense, and blood vessels constrict; these changes are part of the body’s stress—also known as fight-or-flight—response and are meant to be adaptive. When the body is in this state for extended periods of time, however, the body’s resources become depleted and the body begins to break down. Believe it or not, breathing diaphragmatically is one of the easiest and most convenient ways to elicit the body’s relaxation response, bringing the body back into balance.

In order to breathe diaphragmatically, we need to slow down the rate at which we are breathing. And when we make a conscious choice to breathe more slowly, the rest of the body begins to respond in kind; that is, heart rate begins to decrease, muscles begin to relax, and blood vessels begin to dilate, all of which restore equilibrium and promote the healing process.

Question 3: When should I breathe diaphragmatically?

Answer: One of the beauties of diaphragmatic breathing is that you don’t have to take time out of your busy day in order to do it! Think of it this way: you’re going to be breathing anyway, aren’t you? Breathing diaphragmatically takes no more time than breathing in any other manner; all you have to do is remember to do it.

Question 4: Where should I breathe diaphragmatically?

Answer: Another beauty of diaphragmatic breathing is that you can do it virtually anywhere—whether you’re at home, at the office, or anywhere in between—because everything you need in order to breathe diaphragmatically is built in. You don’t need any special equipment. It goes where you go.

Question 5: How do I breathe diaphragmatically?

Answer: Let me begin by reassuring you that your body already knows how to do this. Barring any complications at birth, newborn babies breathe diaphragmatically right from the get-go, which is to say that the ability to breathe diaphragmatically is hardwired; nobody has to teach us how to do it. And, even as adults, we breathe diaphragmatically while we sleep. By following these seven steps, you will be well on your way to breathing diaphragmatically during your waking hours as well:

  1. Pick your position

Whether you choose to sit, stand, or lie down, you can breathe in a way that optimizes the use of your diaphragm. So, go ahead and pick the position that’s most convenient and/or comfortable for you.

  1. Align your spine

Regardless of your position, it’s important to keep your head, neck, and spine aligned; doing so maximizes the air flow into and out of your lungs, keeps your energy flowing, and prevents you from developing muscular kinks.

  1. Banish the belt

In order to breathe diaphragmatically, your abdomen, or belly, literally needs some “breathing room.” Belts (unless they are elasticized), skinny jeans, and other forms of restrictive clothing will prevent you from breathing in a way that’s optimal.

  1. Relax the abs

Now that you’ve banished the belt and scrapped the skinny jeans, it’s time to relax your abdominal muscles; that’s right, let it all hang out. If you’re having a hard time discerning whether or not your abdominal muscles are relaxed, try lying on your back, as doing so will cause your abdominal muscles to relax automatically; you won’t even have to think about it.

  1. Let go of the shoulders

If you’re engaging your neck and shoulder muscles every time you inhale and exhale, as many of us do out of habit, you’re adding a lot of unnecessary tension to those muscles, leading to muscle strain and associated discomfort. Believe it or not, those neck and shoulder muscles have absolutely nothing to do with diaphragmatic breathing. So go ahead and let those muscles go; if you’re having difficulty doing this, try thinking of yourself as a floppy ragdoll. Because floppy ragdolls have no neck or shoulder muscles to engage.

  1. Quiet the mind

Now that you’ve prepared your body to breathe diaphragmatically, it’s time to get the mind on board. I say “quiet the mind” and not “empty the mind,” because attempting to empty the mind for any length of time will be futile (Aristotle wasn’t kidding when he asserted that “nature abhors a vacuum”). Our brains were built to think, so let’s go with the flow and give that brain something calming to think about. You might, for example, imagine that you are sitting on a beautiful beach, walking through an enchanted forest, or relaxing by a cozy fire. Enlisting all of your senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—will help to make this a truly rich experience.

  1. Breathe slowly and lowly

Breathe slowly and quietly, in through the nose and out through the mouth; doing so will allow you to draw your breath more deeply into your lungs, which optimizes the use of your diaphragm. How slow is slow? It depends on your comfort level; for now, choose a pace that’s comfortable for you. And let me emphasize that the breathing is quiet; no one should be able to hear you when you’re breathing diaphragmatically.

Notice how the body responds to the breath as you inhale and exhale; placing one hand on the chest—just over the breastbone—and the other hand on the abdomen—just below the navel—can help you monitor this. As you breathe slowly and lowly, you may begin to notice that your abdomen moves outward as you inhale, and moves back inward as you exhale. No forcing! When done properly, the abdomen will move all by itself, with no effort at all on your part.

The following excerpt, from Dr. Bollé’s relaxation CD, “Warm Regards,” focuses on diaphragmatic breathing:

Click here to purchase Dr. Bollé’s CD, “Warm Regards.”

For more information on the physiology of diaphragmatic breathing, please see: What’s Going on in There? A Behind-the-scenes Look at Diaphragmatic Breathing

Happy breathing!