In times of stress, we’re often told to “just take a deep breath.” Does it actually help? Sure, maybe for a minute, but the calm is unlikely to last much longer. Why not?
Anxious humans typically breathe with their shoulders, clavicle, and upper ribs. Such shallow, quick breathing activates the fight-or-flight nervous system and prepares muscles for action. And while it’s good for our bodies to employ this kind of breath as a response to a physical stimulus (like exercise), it creates unnatural stress when we’re trying to deal with modern situations (like getting stuck in traffic).
Tell someone in an agitated state to “take a deep breath” and you’ll likely see their chest puff up like a seagull in mating season. How do we train our reflexes to find deep and relaxing breaths?
Through education, yoga, and body awareness, that’s how! Here, we explain.
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Diaphragmatic Breathing Defined
The opposite of throaty, anxious breathing is diaphragmatic breathing (also known as belly breathing, deep breathing, or abdominal breathing). It involves relaxing the belly on the inhale, filling the lungs completely, and allowing the natural and gentle core contraction on the exhale. Watch a baby breathing and you’ll get the idea; it’s actually the way our diaphragm, core muscles, ribs, and lungs are built.
Belly breathing increases the oxygen saturation in our bodies. By deepening the inhales and exhales, we decrease the respiration frequency and saturate our body with oxygen. Oxygen tells our brain and muscles that they are safe.(1)
Does Diaphragmatic Breathing Have Health Benefits?
Absolutely! Abdominal breathing is used as mind-body training for dealing with stress and psychosomatic conditions (i.e., physical and emotional maladies triggered by external events).(2) Here are a few specific ways that belly breathing can make you feel better, inside and out.
Decreased Stress And Anxiety
Diaphragmatic breathing causes a physical relaxation response. This creates a logical thinking pattern and lessens the amount of cortisol (the “stress hormone”).(3)
Entering into labor before a baby is an extremely scary situation. And yet, mothers who practiced abdominal breathing during pre-term labor experienced less anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing is actually used as a nursing intervention, akin to the administration of low-level sedatives!(4)
Chronic Pain Reduction
Chronic pain is a fascinating beast, as it’s often difficult to peg on a single physical issue. Many scientists and physical therapists believe that pain is experienced from a psychosomatic perspective: it’s more emotional than physical. Chronic pain may be a reflection of the person’s psychological fear of a recurrence of a painful moment. The body sends a pain sensation because it’s afraid of the original painful incident happening again. For instance, the site of a broken rib may hurt years later as a physical expression of fear that another accident.
Yoga and breathwork help. One study analyzed participants with chronic low-back pain on a seven-day yoga retreat. The retreat focused largely on yoga breathing techniques. After the retreat ended, every participant reported less anxiety and depression related to their back pain. Many reported a reduction in actually back pain symptoms, as well.(5)
The breathwork might not have completely eliminated chronic pain, but it made them better at coping with it and elevated their overall perception of health.
Breathing Fun Fact:
Diaphragmatic breathing helped participants suffering from motion sickness in a virtual reality simulation.(6) So breathe with your belly next time you get carsick!
Stabilization Of Blood Pressure
Heart rate variability causes unhealthy fluctuations in blood pressure. Participants with blood pressure problems who were given slow abdominal breathing techniques showed a reduction in heart rate variability.(7)
Moreover, slowing down breaths per minute with belly breathing practices reduced chronic shortness of breath (dyspnea) for the participants in one study.
Regular belly breathing practice can shorten your recovery time and improve your workout performance. This was shown in a study of patients with chronic shortness and breath and in studies of older adults.(8)
One of the most interesting aspects of abdominal breathing is its ability to “massage the stomach.” Deep breathing helps people deal with gastrointestinal stress by reducing abdominal pain, urgency, bloating, and constipation.(9)
But belly breathing massages more than the intestines: it’s basically a nervous system massage, too! Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. In a parasympathetic state, our body is filled with “chill” hormones that help us to “rest-and-digest” (versus flee or fight). When we breathe deeply, our body knows that it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. I.e., it’s time to digest whatever we’ve hunted and gathered!
Finally, people who struggle with reflux diseases benefit greatly from belly breathing. Humans actually have 2 diaphragms: one at the base of the lungs and one at the base of the throat. The diaphragm at the base of the throat can become incompetent, causing digestion reflux. One study used a diaphragm breathing exercise to treat people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). And it worked!(10)
Smarter And More Attentive
Deep breathing increases cognition and focus. Participants in one study who were given a “breathing intervention” demonstrated increased sustained attention.(11)
Burnout has many symptoms, two of which are the inability to make decisions and decreased attention. But deep breathing exercises can help: a study of burned-out mental health professionals revealed that just one day of breathwork resulted in a better outlook on their lives and jobs.(12)
Becoming more mindful is one of the greatest benefits of breathing exercises. When we’re mindful, we’re in tune with our emotions and physical responses. And, we’re more sure of our role in the world. We’re more attentive, alert, and oriented. Meditative breathwork has been shown to increase mindfulness in participants.(13, 14)
Whether you struggle to fall asleep or to stay asleep, diaphragmatic breathing can help. Clinically it’s been proven to help people with disordered sleep fall asleep.(15) More commonly, many people choose to do their yoga or calming breath practices in the evening, before bed, as a way of cleansing the day’s toxic stressors and preparing the body for rest.
Pranayama: The Yoga Of Breath
The physical practice of asana, the movements in a yoga practice, is just one aspect of yoga. In fact, the breathwork conducted before, during, and after yoga sessions is the biggest reason why yoga “works.”
Pranayama is any number of yogic breathing techniques that stimulate the nervous system and create mind-body synchronicity. Most yoga practices start with some sort of focused pranayama at the beginning. Then, the yogi uses nasal breathing (ujjayi) during the practice, sometimes linking one movement with one breath (vinyasa). During the final resting pose (savasana), yogis are usually encouraged to breathe diaphragmatically, often through their nose and out their mouth.
Evidence gathered from yoga practitioners confirms a reduction in sympathetic nervous system activity (“fight-or-flight”) and an increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity (“rest-and-digest”).(16, 17)
The Kriya Yoga Study
One of the most oft-cited yoga and breath studies involved a specific type of yoga: Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, better known as just Kriya yoga. In fact, the Sanskrit term kriya actually refers to a variety of sanctioned “cleansing practices,” from washing one’s body to intensive physical exercises. One of the most frequently-employed kriya is the pranayama of kapalabhati breath, or bellows breath. This challenging breathwork involves forcibly exhaling the breath at a higher frequency than the inhale, for a total of 60 repetitions, while sitting in a cross-legged position with the hands pressed to the knees. The study found that people who practiced this style of breath experienced less stress, anxiety, and depression. It also helped people deal with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.(18)
Bellows breath is unique in that it actually creates a high-intensity situation in the nervous system. The practitioner learns how to stay mentally calm when breath rapidity increases. And, they learn what stress REALLY feels like. This can make other “normal” stressors seem less intense.
Kapalabhati is physically and emotionally triggering. Only practice with a trained professional.
Just Do Yoga
The thing is, many people struggle to sit and down and meditate, especially in very tense moments. And it’s difficult to carve time out “rest time” in a day full of tasks. Have you ever tried “just sit and breathe” in front of a pile of dirty dishes? Us, either.
That’s where yoga comes in. For many, the physical movements in the yoga practice help re-focus from incessant thinking. The act of being physical and connected to movement can help release psychosomatic tension. And it makes it feel like we’re “doing something,” which is what our fight-or-flight hormones desire. Since every yoga movement and flow is guided by breath, practitioners often begin breathing more calmly without realizing it.
Yoga doesn’t inherently call for abdominal breathing, but it does use interesting breathing techniques to make the yogi more aware of the breath and its power. Using yoga and other breath techniques is the first step to creating a naturally deep breath cycle.
Breathing Exercises, From Yoga And Beyond
The following breathing exercises are a great way to become more observant of your breathing patterns. Some come from yoga, others from mindfulness practices.
After you’ve completed an exercise, sit quietly for a little while longer, breathing into your relaxed belly. You might find that your breath stays more full and relaxed long after your practice is complete!
We recommend doing all of these exercises in a comfortable seated position, potentially propped up with pillows and against a steady surface. Make sure that the space is quiet and that you will not be disturbed. If you feel comfortable doing it, close your eyes.
Background: Box breathing is a classic calming and therapeutic exercise.
How To: Inhale as you count to 4 slowly in your mind. Hold your breath for 4. Exhale to a count of 4. And repeat.
Once you’ve got that down, play with these more advanced box breathing techniques:
- Count to 5, instead of 4
- Add an additional breath-hold at the bottom of the exhale. So: inhale for 4, hold your breath for 4, exhale for 4. And continue.
Shodi nandana or Alternate Nostril Breathing
Background: Alternate nostril breathing is typically used as pranayama before asana.
How To: Place your right thumb on your right nostril. Rest your first and second fingers on the crown of your nose. Hover your ring finger over your left nostril. Inhale through your left nostril. Plug both nostrils and hold your breath. Release your right nostril and exhale through it. Inhale through your right nostril. Plug both nostrils and hold your breath. Exhale through your left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril and continue with the breath cycle. Work on lengthening your breath with each round. Continue as long as you’d like!
Background: Therapists often ask their clients to use their hands to feel how their body moves with breath or to “direct” breath to certain parts of the body.
How to: Tactile breath can be done any way you need. Simply rest your hands on a part of your body that feels stuck, pained, or otherwise calls for your attention. Breath deeply into that space. Here are some common examples:
- Place one hand on your lower belly and one hand on your lower back. Try to move both hands with your breath.
- Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Inhale to the belly, exhale to the heart. (By the way, this is a common breath practice for savasana).
- Place your hands on the front of your ribcage. Feel your fingers and ribs expand and contract with the breath. After some time here, move your hands to the back of your ribs and do the same.
- Place both hands on your belly, relax your belly into your hands, and notice how the belly expands and contracts with breath.
Background: This style of breath is often misunderstood as a “calming” breath. In fact, it is a controlled technique that helps us to become alert and focused.
How To: Close and relax your lips. Relax the back of your throat so that your back teeth are apart. Rest the tip of your tongue on the top of your mouth. Breath only through your nose, drawing breath to the base of the spine and back up.
Background: As one of the most auspicious and classic forms of breathwork, this is a great way to start a yoga session or meditation.
How To: Sitting tall with your spine long, relax the muscles in your abdomen, shoulders, and face. As you inhale, see a white light moving from your nose down your spine. Allow the white light to pool at the base of the spine as your inhale slows. Exhale the white light back up your spine and out the crown of your head, leaving a little bit of the white light inside. Each inhale breath creates more white light at the base of the spine; each exhale gives more back into the world.
Breathwork Volume and Frequency
Now that you’ve got some breathing techniques to practice, the question is: how often should you do them, and for how long?
Only you know the answer to that question! The repetition volume, length, and style of diaphragmatic breathing techniques vary immensely. Many people suggest a short daily practice (five to 20 minutes long). Some studies show results with just one day of focused effort. Some involve months-long interventions, weeks-long online practices, or just one week. Here are a couple of timing examples for reference:
- Study 1: 8 weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction yielded a larger effect on attention than just one month
- Study 2: 30 minutes of breathwork daily with a skilled instructor yields benefits
The good news is that breathwork works, even in small doses.
So start small: look at your schedule and identify the days and times when you might be able to sit and breathe in peace. Start with as many as make sense to you. After you get used to the practice, re-evaluate. Have you noticed changes? Do your mind and body crave more? Should you mix it up, like adding yoga to your practice? This mindful reflection on your breathing is key to bliss! (Or, as they say in yoga, ananda).