Belly breathing is calming, relaxing and good for your health. In yesterday’s blog I talked about becoming aware of the breath without trying to change it. Today we will focus on probably the simplest and most natural of breathing exercises: breathing deep into your belly.
If you have ever watched a baby breathing, you will noticed his or her belly gently rise and fall with each breath. Babies naturally breathe using the diaphragm muscle. But as we get older we often breathe shallowly into the upper part of our lungs, over-using our upper chest and neck muscles[i]. This can contribute to stress, anxiety and many health problems. Breathing as you breathed as a baby can help you relax and feel better[ii].
What is the Diaphragm?
No I’m not talking about a contraceptive! Your diaphragm muscle is a big dome-shaped sheet of muscle attached to your spine and lower ribs. It is a bit like a parachute in shape. It divides your chest from your abdomen, and it is your primary breathing muscle. The diaphragm is also involved in changing the pressure in your abdomen to help you wee, poo and vomit. It helps prevent acid reflux too. So it is pretty important to keep it healthy[iii].
The diaphragm moves down when we breathe in. This expands the space in the chest and creates a vacuum to bring air into the lungs. The diaphragm moves up again when we breathe out, relaxing back to its resting position and helping push the air out.
Diaphragmatic Breathing and Belly Breathing
In reality we use our diaphragm to breathe all the time. But by deliberately focusing on breathing “into” the belly we can use the diaphragm more than usual. Obviously your lungs don’t really go down into your belly, but when you breathe deeply into the bottom of the lungs, the diaphragm presses down on the abdominal organs. This makes your belly swell a little as your breathe in. Then when you exhale, the belly relaxes and flattens as the diaphragm rises.
The terms “diaphragmatic breathing” and “belly breathing” are often used interchangeably.
The Vagus Nerve
Remember the vagus nerve? It’s a key component of your parasympathetic nervous system, which gets you into a calm and restful state. The vagus nerve passes right through your diaphragm. When you breathe deeply into your belly, the vagus nerve helps your body slow down and relax. Doing this regularly can help reduce or prevent lots of serious health conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and sepsis. It also greatly improves the strength of your immune system[iv].
Belly Breathing is Easy and Makes You Feel Good
Belly breathing is one of the simplest breath exercises you can do. It is often practised at Yoga classes, but you can easily do it at home too. Here’s how.
Today’s Calming Practice: Belly Breathing
- You might like to set a timer on your phone for, say, ten minutes before you begin.
- You need to lie down for this one. Get yourself comfortable lying on a firm surface. Lie on your back. A yoga mat or rug on the floor is ideal.
- Pop a blanket over you, if you like.
- You can put a small cushion under your head if you like. Make sure your neck is comfortable.
- You might also like to put a bolster, cushion or support under your knees. This can help your lower back relax.
- Close your eyes, and place both hands gently on your belly.
- Breathe in and out through your nose, if you can.
- Gradually deepen your breaths, so that you can feel your belly rise under your hands as you breathe in. Imagine your breath going right down into your belly.
- Notice how your belly softens and sinks back down again as you breathe out.
- Let your breaths be as long or short as feels good. Focus on sending each breath deep down into the belly.
- If you like you can count as you breathe in and out. For example you might like to count 1-2-3-4 as you breathe in and then 1-2-3-4 again as you breathe out. This can help you stay focused.
- If you feel you want to pause between breathing in and breathing out, do so. Let any pause between the breaths arise naturally. Don’t force it.
- You may well find your breathing naturally slows down as you breathe into your belly. Just allow this to happen. Don’t force anything.
- Keep breathing into your belly for five to ten minutes. Then let your breathing return to a natural breath and relax.
- Rest for another minute or two before getting up. Notice how you feel now.
- Enjoy the rest of your day. This is also great to do before bedtime as it helps you relax before sleep.
Thanks for reading this blog post. I am writing a series of 31 blogs every day this August. I plan to publish them later in the year as a book entitled, ‘Finding Your Calm Space – 31 Ways to Find Calm in a Crazy World’.
I’m Karen. I am a Yoga teacher, Reflexologist and busy mum of seven. I live with my family in Billericay, Essex, UK. In the past I have worked as a Midwife, Health Visitor, Baby Signing teacher and Tax Inspector. I love getting outdoors, swimming in the sea, walking and writing. Helping people relax is one of the things I do best.
You can learn more about my Yoga classes and Reflexology at my website www.thecalmspace.co.uk