Diaphragm Breathing

Singers, cyclists, yoga practitioners, scuba divers and marathon runners know that breathing properly is a baseline to good health, fitness and performance. Its no coincidence that they all use diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragm Breathing is breathing deep into the lungs by contracting your diaphragm muscles instead of breathing shallowly by flexing your rib cage.

When you breathe, your diaphragm naturally moves down because your lungs are expanding and so take up more space. You can see this more clearly when you read with a book resting on your belly.

When you do diaphragm breathing you deliberately push your belly as far out as you can to make more space for your diaphragm to move down, expanding the lungs even more. It permits deeper breaths and improved oxygenation.

Other benefits of this breath technique are that it strengthens the diaphragm and lungs, decrease the effort used in breathing by slowing your breathing rate, use less energy to breathe, and lowers oxygen demand. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that it is a great way to trigger the body and minds relaxation response.

How to Do It

How do you do diaphragm breathing? It’s simple. Lie down on a bed or couch or anywhere you feel comfortable, and put your hand lightly atop your belly. Breathe in and out naturally. You will see from your hand that your belly is rising up and down.

Now make believe you are yawning. Go ahead and yawn; the diaphragm unsurprisingly expands and contracts. If you now lay your hand on your belly a few times you should be able get the feel of it. Once you have it, you don’t need to do this fake yawning, and will do it naturally.

Breathe slowly and deeply, inhaling and exhaling to the maximum. Also, hold after the inhalation and exhalation for a few seconds, just long enough that you feel comfortable.

Although this exercise may be simple, it is difficult to do in a correct manner. Doing it correctly means that all of your awareness is focused on your breathing. This may require substantial practice. When you first begin to practice it is likely that your mind will become distracted from time to time away from your breathing.

Distractions like noises may come from the outside environment or thoughts from your inside. When you become aware of the fact that you have been distracted, just try to refocus your attention on to your breathing.

Each time a mental or physical distraction occurs, keep refocusing your mind on your breathing. Do not try to force distractions from your mind. It won’t work.

Also, it is unreasonable to expect that when you first begin you will be able to totally eliminate awareness of pain from your mind. This requires much practice. In fact, the only way you can expect significant benefits is to practice this exercise at least two times each day. You may also notice changes in your breathing. As you practice the exercise, your breathing should automatically become slower, deeper, and more regular.

One way to become more focused on your breath so that you will be able to do this technique correctly is to breath in through your nose and breath out through your mouth. You can also count to 8 slowly after each in or out breath in order to do this.

Contraindications

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients have an altered pattern of respiratory muscle use. The rib cage inspiratory muscles generate more pressure than the diaphragm. Expiratory muscles are also involved. Diaphragmatic breathing is used to reverse altered pattern of respiratory muscle recruitment in COPD patients during pulmonary rehabilitation therapy.

Although diaphragmatic breathing and techniques have been used to improve breathing function at rest and during exercise in persons with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sit has been shown to increase the work of breathing, and dyspnea in some persons. It is most likely not helpful and possibly harmful in people with severe hyperinflation or poor diaphragmatic movement during inhalation.

Vitacca M, Clini E, Bianchi M, Ambrosino N. Acute effects of deep diaphragmatic breathing in COPD patients with chronic respiratory insufficiency.
Eur Respir J 1998; 11:408-15

Gosselink RA, Wagenaar RC, Rijswijk H, Sargeant AJ, Decramer ML. Diaphragmatic breathing decreases the efficiency of breathing in patients with COPD.
Am J Respir Crit Care Med 1995;151:436-42

Image: Thermal Vision Research, Wellcome Images