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Why Belly Breathing's Not All It's Cracked up to Be

Many people have been told they're breathing wrong. They've been told they're not using their diaphragm. Further, they've been told that diaphragmatic breathing involves pushing out the stomach on the inhale. This is generally cued as "breathing into your belly." But if the lungs are in the ribcage, which they most certainly are, how can we possibly breathe into our bellies? What exactly is going on with belly breathing and is it the "right" way to breathe? Is it possible that belly breathing is doing more harm than good? First, let's briefly go over some anatomy and look at the mechanics, as well as the consequences, of belly breathing. Finally, we'll go over a better way to breathe.

Your diaphragm is a muscle that attaches around the entire border of the ribcage. In its relaxed state, during exhale, it forms a dome going up into the ribcage. Above it are the lungs, which are relatively empty and small during exhale. Below the diaphragm are your internal organs. In order to fill the lungs, the diaphragm must contract, and when it does so it descends. Think of a sail or a drum head tightening on a frame. The frame in this case is the border of your ribcage. As the diaphragm descends, the lungs, which are effectively attached to the diaphragm,[1]are stretched downward. Pressure inside the lungs lowers, and air flows in to equalize the pressure. You can think about the piston action in a bike pump. When you pull the handle up, it creates a near-vacuum, and air rushes in, which you then expel into the bike tire. (That’s where the similarity ends, though. Don’t take this analogy too far.) During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes, rising back up into the ribcage. The elasticity of the lungs and, depending on the force of the exhale, some degree of muscular involvement, expel most of the air inside. Then the whole process starts over.

Since, during the breath cycle, air only ever enters the lungs, and the lungs remain in the ribcage during the whole cycle, it is not possible to “fill the belly with breath.” The visible movement of the abdomen during belly breathing is, in fact, the result of the internal organs being displaced, which is, in fact, evidence that the diaphragm is working. So it is not wrong to say that belly breathing is diaphragmatic breathing, and for someone who is in flight or fight, whose inhalation strategy might include, for instance, lifting up the whole ribcage with the neck and shoulders, this will certainly allow for a deeper, slower breath cycle, which allows people to relax. This is likely why this style of breathing is used in meditation and yoga. However, in order to allow the viscera to shift forward, the abdominal muscles must release, and therein lies the problem. The diaphragm attaches to the inside border of the ribcage. Your internal abdominal muscles attach just on the other side of this border. When they are active, they hold the ribcage in its proper shape, which, in turn, keeps the diaphragm in its proper position. The external obliques, which wrap around much of the ribcage, are also prime contributors to ribcage shape. (The rectus abdominus, or six-pack abs, don’t have a lot to do with this in most cases.) Point being that if these abdominal are inactive, the border of the ribcage will begin to flare out, which flattens out the diaphragm[2]. This means that the diaphragm cannot get in its position of full exhalation and is ultimately not allowed to move as much air. It’s important to remember that in order for gas exchange to take place, air must move out just as much as it moves in. Another consequence of belly breathing is that your ribcage ceases to expand. Your ribs are mobile, and should move freely, rotating outward while you breathe. Your sternum (breastbone) should swing outward on the inhale like a pump handle. If your ribs do not move freely, this can affect how the shoulder blades sit on the ribcage, which can cause pain around the shoulder blade and in the shoulder joint itself. Further, your abdominal muscles connect your ribcage toyour pelvis. Good abdominal tone throughout the day will help keep your pelvis in a good position. Lack of abdominal involvement contributes to anterior pelvic tilt, which I call Daisy-Duck-butt. Imagine that your pelvis is a bucket of water. With anterior pelvic tilt, you’d be pouring water out the front. It’s even possible for just one half of your pelvis to be positioned like this. This pelvic position can contribute to tight hamstrings, low back pain, hip pain, limited mobility in the squat, pelvic floor issues, incontinence… The list goes on.

But I’m also not advocating that you simply inhale into your chest. So what’s the optimal way to breathe, then? Look at the diagram above. See how the chest and the stomach move outward equallyon the inhale? This is what you should strive for. The ribcage is not rising up towards the head, but it is expanding. You should see the sternum swing out on the inhale and come back down on the exhale. You should feel your ribs expanding out to the sides and even in the back. You may even feel some movement in the pelvic floor and the abdominals should remain somewhat active throughout the whole breath cycle. If this is difficult for you to do, you may be stuck overlying on accessory muscles to breathe, rather than letting your diaphragm do a lot of the work. There are several dysfunctional breathing patterns, and so I although I’d love to give you an exercise to help you fix your breathing, this article can’t assess you and prescribe you the correct exercise to change your diaphragmatic position and change the way you breathe and live. The best solution is to schedule an assessment, but in the meantime, the best advice I can give you is to address and reduce emotional stress and to practice exhaling very slowly. You can set a timer and try to exhale more slowly each time, see if you can exhale for 10 full seconds, for four breaths in a row. By the time you achieve this, you should feel significantly better. If you'd like to talk to me about retraining your breathing to reduce or even resolve pain, lessen anxiety, and receive any of the other myriad benefits of a healthy breath, please email me to schedule a complimentary call. I’d love to talk through whatever’s going on with your body and see if we can get you moving better, breathing better, and, most importantly, feeling better. Until next time, N This article has been written with the layperson in mind, and I have simplified and pruned accordingly. If you are a fitness, health or bodywork professional, I highly recommend taking the course Postural Respiration with the Postural Restoration Institute and following this up with the videos on breathing mechanics on the IFAST University website. These resources have completely changed the way I see the body and work with clients.

[1]The lungs are not, in fact, directly attached to the diaphragm but instead float in very thin vacuumsinside the pleural cavity.

[2]The ribcage can also be distorted by overactivation of the external obliques, but I’m focusing here on the potential fallout from belly breathing. For more on this, check out Zac Cupples’ and Bill Hartman’s work on infrasternal angles.

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