Lawrence E. Kincade, Ph.D., LCSW > Diaphragmatic Breathing


Many...have found it beneficial to breathe in a particular way that involves relaxing the belly.  This is known as diaphragmatic breathing.  It may or may not be the way you are already breathing.  If it isn't, as you become more aware of your breathing pattern by focusing on your belly, you may find yourself breathing more this way naturally because it is slower and deeper than chest breathing, which tends to be rapid and shallow.  If you watch infants breathe, you will see that diaphragmatic breathing is the way we all start out when we are babies.

Diaphragmatic breathing is better described as abdominal or belly breathing, because all respiratory patterns involve the diaphragm.  To visualize this particular way of breathing, it helps to know a little about how your body gets air in and out of your lungs in the first place.

The diaphragm is a large, umbrella-shaped sheet of muscle that is attached all around the lower edges of the rib cage.  It separates the contents of the chest (the heart and lungs and great blood vessels) from the contents of the abdomen (the stomach and liver, intestines, etc.).  When it contracts, it tightens and draws downward because it is anchored all along the rim of the rib cage.  This downward movement increases the volume of the chest cavity, in which the lungs are located on either side of the heart.  The increased volume in the chest produces a decrease in the air pressure in the lungs.  Because of the decreased pressure inside the lungs, air from outside the body, which is at a higher pressure, flows into the lungs to equalize the pressure.  This is the inbreath.

After the diaphragm contracts, it goes through a relaxation.  As the diaphragm muscle relaxes, it gets looser and returns to its original position higher up in the chest, thereby decreasing the volume of the chest cavity.  This increases the pressure in the chest, which forces the air in the lungs out through the nose (and mouth if it is open).  This is the outbreath.  So in all breathing, the air is drawn into the lungs as the diaphragm contracts and lowers and it is expelled as the diaphragm relaxes and comes back up.......

In abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, the idea is to relax your belly as much as you can.  Then, as the breath comes in, the belly expands slightly (on its own) in an outward direction as the diaphragm pushes down on the contents of the abdomen from above.  The diaphragm can go down farther when this happens so the inbreath is a little longer and the lungs fill with a little more air.  Then a little more air is expelled on the outbreath, so that, overall, the full cycle of your breathing will be slower and deeper.

If you are not accustomed to relaxing your belly, you may find your first attempts to breathe in this way to be frustrating and confusing.  But if you persevere without forcing it, it soon comes naturally.  Babies aren't trying to relax their bellies when they breathe!  They are already relaxed.  But once our bodies have developed a certain amount of chronic tension, as can happen as we get older, it can take a while to get the hang of relaxing the belly.  But it is definitely worth paying attention to......

There are two major ways of practicing mindfulness of breathing:

Exercise 1

  1. Assume a comfortable posture lying on your back or sitting.  If you are sitting, keep the spine straight and let your shoulders drop.
  2. Close your eyes if it feels comfortable.
  3. Bring your attention to your belly, feeling it rise or expand gently on the inbreath and fall or recede on the outbreath.
  4. Keep the focus on your breathing, "being with" each inbreath for its full duration and with each outbreath for its full duration, as if you are riding the waves of your own breathing.
  5. Every time you notice that your mind has wandered off the breath, notice what it was that took you away and then gently bring your attention back to your belly and the feeling of the breath coming in and out.
  6. If your mind wanders away from the breath a thousand times, then your "job" is simply to bring it back to the breath every time, no matter what it becomes preoccupied with.
  7. Practice this exercise for fifteen minutes at a convenient time every day, whether you feel like it or not, for one week and see how it feels to incorporate a disciplined meditation practice into your life.  Be aware of how it feels to spend some time each day just being with your breath without having to do anything.

Exercise 2

  1. Tune into your breathing at different times during the day, feeling the belly go through one or two risings and fallings.
  2. Become aware of your thoughts and feelings at these moments, just observing them without judging them or yourself.
  3. At the same time be aware of any changes in the way you are seeing things and feeling about yourself.