The Belly Breathing Technique
What is it about?
Breathing is the most vital act we do. Most of the time it works as an unconscious mechanism that changes in pattern and rhythm depending on our emotional and physical state, such as when we are happy, excited, stressed, scared, or panting with exhaustion.
In particular, stressful situations can generate a “fight-or-flight” response: the body prepares to confront or avoid danger by increasing heart and lung functions. This stress response becomes a problem when it starts to manifest itself in less threatening, day-to-day events such as a presentation to give, a deadline to meet, a gathering to attend…
In the long run, it can have severe consequences on our health, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, low immune system, anxiety and even depression.
But we can take control of our breathing at any moment and consciously change the way we breathe and how it affects our bodies and mind. Enters belly breathing, a technique developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson and that is at the core of many health practices such as Yoga, meditation or progressive muscle relaxation.
Chest breathing vs. belly breathing
Most of us breathe with our chest (chest and shoulders rise when breathing in). This shallow type of breathing brings less oxygenated air in our lungs. In stressful situations, it causes us to feel short of breath and anxious.
Belly breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing is breathing done by using the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle located under the lungs. When you breathe deeply, your diaphragm contracts and moves downwards into your abdomen, making more space for air that fills your lungs completely, making your belly rise.
Why belly breathe
Belly breathing has many beneficial effects on our body:
- It increases lung capacity by stretching the diaphragm, giving the lungs more space to expand.
- It increases oxygen delivery to the cells and stimulates the blood flow, enhancing the nourishment of the brain and muscles, leading to a boost in energy levels. Professional singers, actors, speakers, athletes even teachers practice belly breathing and make it part of their warm-up routines.
- It massages the internal organs as the diaphragm moves up and down, aiding digestion.
- It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing heart rate and blood pressure, resulting in a feeling of relaxation. Over time, it can help prevent stroke and lower risks of cerebral aneurysm.
- It reduces tension in the shoulders and neck as the muscles relax.
Belly Breathing exercise
The following exercise is designed to help you strengthen your diaphragm muscles, make you breathe more efficiently, and bring you into a state of relaxation:
- Lie on your back on a bed or a flat surface with your knees slightly bent (you can place a pillow under your head for more comfort and under your knees to support your legs).
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage, on your stomach.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
- As you breathe out, allow the abdomen to fall naturally.
Practice this exercise for 5-10 minutes about 3-4 times per day.
Gradually increase the effort you put by placing a small weight on the stomach, such as a book.
As you gain experience, fit sessions into your daily life, while sitting at your desk, waiting in line, before an important meeting or interview, or any other stressful situation where it could help. Practice as much as you can. This may tire you at first but with time, belly breathing will become automatic and you will feel more relaxed and energized every day.
Pro-tip: combine belly breathing with power-posing to reduce stress and boost your confidence before speaking in public.
Lie on your back, on a bed or a flat surface, with your knees slightly bent
Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage, on your stomach
Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand
As you breathe out, allow the abdomen to fall naturally
Repeat for 5-10 minutes about 3-4 times per day
Increase oxygen exchange
Boost energy levels
Feel more relaxed
Stimulate your brain and muscles
Increase lung capacity
Belly breathe 2 minutes every morning for 1 week
Belly breathe 5 minutes every morning for 2 week
Belly breathe 10 minutes every morning for 1 week