Table of contents
- What is the belly?
- How is the belly involved in breathing?
- If you’re not belly breathing – where or how do you breathe?
- Why should you belly-breathe?
- What makes you switch from belly breathing to chest breathing?
- Can you voluntarily promote belly breathing?
- How can you practise belly breathing?
- Why is it important to build awareness around your breathing pattern?
- How to fit conscious breathing practice into your day?
- Why is it important to be kind to yourself?
There is no such thing as belly breathing!
The belly can’t breathe – the lungs breathe.
Why are you always told then, to ‘belly-breathe’ or ‘breathe into your belly’?
What is the belly?
Let’s take a quick anatomy 101 to refresh our knowledge.
The belly – more formally called the abdomen – is the area between the chest and the lower part of the torso or beginning of the pelvis. This body space, the belly, houses all the digestive organs (stomach, small & large intestines, pancreas, liver and gallbladder), as well as the spleen and kidneys.
How is the belly involved in breathing?
Your main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, forms the upper surface of the belly. This huge muscle separates the chest area (housing the lungs and heart) from the belly area.
The diaphragm works like a piston – when it contracts it pushes down on the belly, displacing the organs outwards. This creates space for the lungs to expand, drawing in air from the outside to fill the void.
So, to recap, inhaling means the diaphragm pushes the belly out as the lungs inflate, and when the diaphragm relaxes, its movement upwards allows the belly’s contents to return to their usual place.
This gives the appearance that the belly is filling and unfilling with air when, in reality, the belly is merely moving in and out with every breath. This is belly breathing.
If you’re not belly breathing – where or how do you breathe?
Your diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle. You also have accessory breathing muscles in the chest, shoulders and neck.
If your body perceives you are in danger (something communicated through your five senses) then your body switches into survival mode. This is governed by the autonomous nervous system, and the fright or flight branch (sympathetic branch) prepares the body for escape. Your breathing is affected and you’ll start breathing more rapidly using the accessory breathing muscles in your chest, shoulders and neck. This is known as ‘chest breathing’, or ‘top breathing’.
If your mind is creating anxious thought loops, then your body also switches into survival mode. Your brain cannot tell the difference between a ‘perceived immediate threat’ or ‘an anticipated threat’, to quote Dr Rick Hanson PhD in his book Buddha Brain. Which explains why anxiety triggers a stress response in your body.
Why should you belly-breathe?
It’s not a question of why – this is how you were designed to breathe. This is how you were born breathing. Ever held a tiny baby in your arms? You can always see their belly rise and fall with every breath.
Belly breathing allows the lungs to fully inflate, for oxygen to be absorbed through the alveoli (small sacks in the lungs – that if spread out would cover the surface of a tennis court) and for carbon dioxide to be passed into the lungs for exhalation.
When you breathe deeply into your lower lungs you stimulate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system. This signals your brain that you are safe – this is called ‘rest & digest’ mode.
What makes you switch from belly breathing to chest breathing?
Unless you are doing sport, which requires exertion and for the body to switch to mouth and chest breathing, you should be breathing through our nose into our belly 24 hours a day.
Your body automatically switches to chest breathing, with a faster rate and more shallow breaths, when you are fearful or anxious. Sometimes, if the stress doesn’t ease, you can remain stuck in this upper-chest breathing mode which puts the whole body under pressure.
There are other reasons we switch to mouth/chest breathing such as allergies, a cold, or physical damage such as a broken nose.
Can you voluntarily promote belly breathing?
The breath is the only part of the autonomous nervous system that you can control. Most of the time you are breathing involuntarily – probably a good thing as some of us might forget to breathe. You can also breathe voluntarily – or consciously – where you control how fast and how deep you breathe.
At any time, you can bring your awareness to your breath and check in with how you are breathing. Oftentimes, after a stressful event, you may find you are not breathing deeply into your lungs and that your belly is not being displaced.
How can you practise belly breathing?
To practise belly breathing , I like to put on a song rather than use a timer with an alarm. Follow the instructions below and notice how you feel in your body.
Find a two-minute or longer song.
Lie on your bed or sit on a chair.
Relax your belly area.
Place a hand on your belly so you can track the belly’s rise and fall.
Take in a deep breath through your nose, letting the air slowly enter your lower lungs.
Feel your hand rise on your belly.
Exhale slowly either through your nose or through pursed lips (as if you’re going to whistle).
Feel your belly returning to its normal position.
Continue breathing in this slow, deliberate way for two to five minutes or until the end of the song.
If you’d like to practice this technique with my guidance, I invite you to join one of my Norfolk yoga retreats, or join me from your home or office by using my How to Use Breath to Find Calm at Your Desk recording.
Why is it important to build awareness around your breathing pattern?
The foundation of changing any habit is increasing awareness around the area where you want to make changes. This applies to breathing as well. Take a few moments, several times a day, to check in with your breathing.
- Are you breathing through your nose?
- Are you breathing through your mouth?
- Is your belly moving in and out with each breath?
- Is your chest moving up and down with each breath?
- How shallow or deep are your breaths?
- How fast or slow are your breaths?
How to fit conscious breathing practice into your day?
Practice is key to improving in any area. The more you practice slow, deep belly breathing, the more you are able to tap into the calming feeling it provides. I always try to add new habits to existing ones.
- Why not do a minute of deep, slow belly breathing while you wait for the kettle to boil?
- Could you try doing a couple of minutes of belly breathing on your commute (in the train, bus, car)?
- Could you stay in your chair after lunch and tack on a couple of minutes of conscious belly breathing?
- Could you watch your duvet rising and falling when you’ve just woken up? (I did this one for months when I was retraining my breathing).
I leave you to dream up times in your day – I call these ‘the cracks in my day’ – where you could slip in some conscious breathing.
Why is it important to be kind to yourself?
Don’t get anxious if you can’t do it properly at first – or at all. That would be defeating the point of using conscious breathing to relax. Take it slowly. The point is to build awareness around how you’re breathing and to return to belly breathing if you get stressed.
If you’re struggling to do it on your own, going to a yoga class or even working with a physiotherapist could be the extra attention you need.
Remember, you breathe for life and vitality as much as air. Breath is a wonderful tool that you can use to find calm, clarity, energy and motivation.
Go ahead and give it a try it, it’s free!
NOTE: I would recommend that people with COPD or asthma should not try breathing techniques without seeking professional or medical help first.
P.S. If you are looking for ways to destress, download my Six Ways to Destress, Create Headspace & Reconnect to Self guide.