Sunday, August 1, 2021

Belly Breathing vs. Diaphragmatic Breathing: What is the Difference?


Although belly breathing is usually equated to diaphragmatic breathing, offering a long list of benefits, there are some limitations to it that are rarely known.  Belly breathing can actually be detrimental in some aspects and it does not necessarily engage the diaphragm to its full extent. 

Diaphragmatic breathing, on the other side, is not only the foundation for meditation and pranayama practices but is also crucial for our mental and physical health and even for physical performance.  So let's discover what is the difference between belly breathing and diaphragmatic breathing and which one is best.


The benefits of diaphragmatic breathing


I think it is a bit misleading to talk about the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing as if this was some sort of therapy or a new way to breathe.  Diaphragmatic breathing is simply the natural way to breathe.  

What we actually do when we learn how to breathe using the diaphragm is that we unlearn erroneous and unhealthy breathing habits.  

By unlearning these unhealthy breathing habits we remove the cause of innumerable issues that affect our mental and physical health. 

That being clarified, once our diaphragmatic breathing is established we can experience innumerable benefits.  

This study published by NCBI suggests that diaphragmatic breathing increases sustain attention, reduces negative emotions, and reduces cortisol levels.  

Some other websites such as Healthline, Medical News Today, Cleveland Clinic, and Physiopedia, suggest a long list of benefits.

  • reduced stress and anxiety
  • induces a state of relaxation
  • lower heart rate and blood pressure
  • better able to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder
  • better able to handle stressful situations 
  • improved sleep
  • improved blood circulation 
  • improves the stability of core muscles
  • slows down the breathing rate 

Although all these websites talk only about belly breathing when they mention diaphragmatic breathing, with a couple of exceptions I think all these benefits can be attributed to both types of breathing.  I will discuss this more in detail below. 


Unhealthy breathing habits


We all know how to breathe diaphragmatically from the moment when we are born.  Unfortunately, with time, stress, life challenges, and traumatic events start affecting our breathing patterns.  

We might start breathing through our mouths, erratically, rapidly, and shallowly.  We will talk about this in a future blog.

Other unhealthy breathings habits that we develop are related to the muscles and body parts we engage during the breathing process.  These are usually labeled clavicular breathing, chest breathing, and paradoxical breathing.

These forms of breathing affect our nervous system making us more susceptible to anxiety and stress.  They shorten our lifespan.  They affect our immune system, causing inflammation.  They affect the quality of sleep.  They affect our mental clarity and physical performance and so much more.

Luckily, with a bit of practice, by learning how to engage the diaphragm properly using belly breathing and diaphragmatic breathing, we can reverse all these negative effects.  


What is clavicular breathing


You'll know that you are doing clavicular breathing when you notice the shoulders moving up and down with each breath.

It's the most inefficient and harmful way to breathe.  It uses only the top part of the lungs and it forces us to increase our breathing rate. It provides little oxygenation and creates tension in the neck and shoulders.

I think clavicular breathing should be avoided at all costs, even while exercising. That's why I disagree with this passage from Science of Breath: a Practical Guide (It's still an excellent book though. I would recommend you to read it).

“The third type of inhalation, clavicular, is only significant when the maximum amount of air is needed, for example, during vigorous exercise. [...] Clavicular breathing only comes into play when the body’s oxygen demands are great.”

For your convenience, I'm adding Amazon Affiliate links to every book quote.  If you buy an item through these links you'd be supporting me to continue sharing free content like this, via a small commission, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!

I'm not a professional athlete but in my experience, if you breathe through your nose and diaphragmatically there is NEVER the need to engage the clavicular region for breathing.  

Even if I train to my peak intensity, for instance when running uphill as fast as I can or when doing numerous burpees, I never have to use clavicular breathing and/or mouth breathing.  

If you feel the need to breathe lifting the clavicles or through your mouth when exercising, that means that you are not using the diaphragm properly and that you have gone way beyond your capacity.  

In that case, I think it is better to reduce the intensity of your workout.  

But if you are using diaphragmatic breathing from the beginning of your workout, your capacity will be increased and you will NOT feel the need for clavicular breathing at all.  

Believe me, there is plenty of space for oxygen in the bottom part of the lungs.

The only moment that I can think of when it is necessary to use clavicular breathing is when practicing the complete breath (full yogic breathing), or when training for apnea.  

When practicing yogic breathing the idea is to keep the elasticity of the lungs by filling them up to their full capacity, from time to time.

Divers on the other side, need to maximize their full lung capacity.  So they need to breathe into every corner of their lungs to increase the amount of air they can breathe and hold.

And since it takes time to fill up the lungs completely to reach the clavicular region, these breathing exercises are usually performed slowly and always starting from bottom to top.

So if you engage the clavicular region for breathing when working out, this means not only that you are breathing too fast, but that you have started with chest breathing instead of diaphragmatic breathing.


What is chest breathing and paradoxical breathing


In chest breathing, also called thoracic breathing, the upper chest lifts and drops with each breath.  It usually goes hand in hand with paradoxical breathing. 

For the chest to expand and lift during the inhalation the belly must move in, and for the chest to relax during the exhalation the belly must move out.  This movement of the belly is called paradoxical breathing as it is the opposite of what the natural movement should be.

Chest breathing stimulates the stress response.  It is perhaps a necessary way to breathe when we need to “fight or flight” to escape a life-threatening situation.  But it is unnecessary at every other time.  

Breathing with the chest repeatedly and long term is taxing for our nervous system which will lead to health issues, and it's also an inefficient way to breathe.

“Chest breathing fills the middle and upper portion of the lungs with air but is not as efficient with the lower portion. When the body is upright, however, most of the blood is in the lower, gravity-dependent areas, so air is not mixed as thoroughly with blood if breathing is done by expanding the ribs. 

Chest breathing also requires more work to accomplish the same blood/gas mixing than does slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Since more work is required, more oxygen is needed, resulting in one’s taking more frequent breaths. Finally, more blood needs to circulate through the lungs, requiring more work from the heart.” 

Patrick McKeown, in his book The Oxygen Advantage, says:

“The fast upper-chest breathing of people who chronically hyperventilate does not take advantage of the lower parts of the lungs, limiting the amount of oxygen that can be transferred to the blood and resulting in a greater loss of CO2. Not only this, but upper-chest breathing activates the fight-or-flight response, which raises stress levels and produces even heavier breathing.”––Patrick McKeown. The Oxygen Advantage.

Now, I do think it is perfectly fine to engage the chest when we do intense physical exercise since the demand for oxygen and expulsion of CO2 increases.  

But in my opinion, this should happen only after the diaphragmatic movement is complete.  

In other words, the breath should always start at the bottom part of the lungs by engaging the diaphragm properly.  When you do this you'll notice that you'll rarely need to engage the chest, and if you do it will only be a partial activation.

It is also natural to engage the rib cage while assuming different body postures, for instance when practicing hatha yoga.   

You can test this out. 

Lift the arms sideways with straight elbows on an inhalation until you bring the palms of the hands together above the head.  You will notice that this movement will naturally engage the whole ribcage, and that is perfectly fine.

One of the purposes of yoga postures is to mobilize and expand the ribcage, and therefore the lungs so that we are able to take deeper breaths.

The problem with chest breathing and clavicular breathing is when they are performed unconsciously, continuously, and for a long period of time.


The difference between belly and diaphragmatic breathing


Although all major medical sites such Healthline, Medical News Today, Cleveland Clinic, Mayoclinic, and Harvard Medical School equate diaphragmatic breathing to belly breathing, I'll make a distinction between them in this blog. 

The reason is that, contrary to what this Medical News Today article says, in belly breathing the lungs are not filled more efficiently since the side and back body are not properly activated.  

In other words, the difference between belly breathing and diaphragmatic breathing is that diaphragmatic breathing allows for even deeper breaths than belly breathing by engaging the side and back body.

This will be made more clear once you read the diaphragmatic breathing section below.

I learned about this difference for the first time from my teachers at the Himalayan Yoga Tradition in India.  This distinction is rarely made even in the most popular yoga books though.

Author H. David Coulter does make a distinction in his book Anatomy of Hatha Yoga (Amazon.com).  

Sometimes he refers to belly breathing as abdomino-diaphragmatic breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing as thoraco-diaphragmatic breathing.  This is because both forms of breathing do engage the diaphragm, although differently.

Iyengar Yoga teacher, Roger Cole, in this article published in Yoga Journal, calls them diaphragmatic belly breathing and diaphragmatic ribcage breathing.

“But if performed properly, it [diaphragmatic rib cage breathing] is calming and much more powerful for strengthening the diaphragm, deepening the inhalation, stretching the lungs, and more effectively aerating all parts of the lungs.”

For simplicity, just like my teachers, in this blog I'll refer to them as belly breathing and diaphragmatic breathing.  Now, let's explore in detail what are the characteristics of each of these two forms of breathing.


What is belly or abdominal breathing


In belly breathing, also called abdominal breathing, the belly moves in and out with each breath while the chest and shoulders remain relaxed and still.  

On the exhalation, as the diaphragm relaxes assuming its dome-like shape, the abdomen moves in.  

On the inhalation, as the diaphragm descends pushing down the abdominal organs, the abdomen moves out.

This is a very good form of breathing and a huge step forward from chest breathing and clavicular breathing.  

It easily induces a state of relaxation as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, and therefore the relaxation response, massaging the vagus nerve.

“By utilizing the natural benefits of abdominal breathing you will improve the quality of your blood flow, increase delivery of oxygen to working muscles, and reduce the symptoms of anxiety associated with overbreathing.”––Patrick McKeown, The Oxygen Advantage

This is why belly or abdominal breathing is an excellent antidote to anxiety and stress.  And the best of all is that it is very easy to practice.  You can do it while laying down on your back or while sitting on a chair.

If you want to test how it works you could try this free guided meditation where we focus on belly breathing for stress and anxiety relief.

Belly breathing is also a much more efficient way to breathe compared to chest or clavicular breathing since it uses the lower portion of the lungs. 

“Abdominal breathing is more efficient simply because of the shape of the lungs. Since they are narrow at the top and wider at the bottom, the amount of blood flow in the lower lobes of the lungs is greater than in the upper lobes.”––Patrick McKeown. The Oxygen Advantage.

That being said, there are some limitations to belly breathing.


The limitations of belly breathing


Mental Dullness


In my opinion, one of the issues with belly breathing is that although it is deeply relaxing it is also conducive to falling asleep.

Well, this is great if that's what you are trying to do. 

Whenever I'm having trouble falling asleep I practice abdominal breathing for a couple of minutes while laying down on my bed.  It works wonders.  

But if the work you do requires concentration and mental clarity, belly breathing might not be the best way to breathe.

This is especially the case when practicing meditation or pranayama.  You don't want to fall asleep during your practice but rather remain fully alert and awake.

I definitely agree with what Gregor Maehle says in his book Pranayama the Breath of Yoga:

“However, during pranayama and meditation it [exclusive abdominal breathing] is not helpful, as it makes the mind too tamasic – dull and torpid. It keeps the prana low down in the abdomen, whereas the yogi seeks to transport prana up to the higher energy centres (chakras).”

David Coulter in Anatomy of Hatha Yoga says

“Abdominal breathing, or abdomino-diaphragmatic breathing, brings your attention to the lower abdomen. If you sit with it for a while in meditation you will be relaxed, but your attention will be drawn to the pelvis and the base of the torso. It is a good technique for beginners, but in the long run it results in a depressed, overly relaxed sensation.”

This is why the sitting posture is really important when practicing meditation and pranayama.  To be able to engage properly the diaphragm it is necessary to keep the spine straight and upright.  

You can read more about the importance of the posture in my previous blogs:



Physical weakness


Another issue that I find with too much belly breathing is that you lose the activation of the lower abdomen.  If the lower abdomen is constantly relaxed this could have negative consequences on your health.  

For instance, if you make a physical effort to lift a heavy object, while you keep the lower abdomen relaxed, it might lead to injuries like a hernia or a slipped disc.  On top of that, you will have less strength to do this physical effort. 

Gregor Maehle says

“Exclusive abdominal breathing weakens your abdominal muscles, which are important stabilizers of the spine. It also makes your abdominal organs distend, your belly protrude and your thorax become rigid; worst of all, it makes your mind tamasic (inert, dull, heavy).”––Gregor Maehle. Pranayama The Breath of Yoga.

This is why one of the benefits all these medical sites suggest as “improves stability of core muscles” does not apply to belly breathing.  It only applies to diaphragmatic breathing as described below.

Writing this reminds me that some people avoid belly breathing because they fear it will make them fat. 

No, belly breathing won't make you fat.  But if the abdomen is constantly fully relaxed it might give that appearance.  In my opinion, a protruding abdomen can be a sign of physical weakness and instability.  

This is not the case with diaphragmatic breathing though.


What is diaphragmatic breathing


In diaphragmatic breathing the upper abdomen, the lower ribs (side body), and the mid-back expand and contract with each breath.  This is a three-dimensional movement, in contrast with abdominal breathing where only the belly expands and contracts.

Since the diaphragm is attached not only to the sternum and lower ribs but also to the spine, when we breathe using this three-dimensional movement, the lower lobs of the lungs are also expanded in all directions

This is a much more efficient way to breathe, even better than abdominal breathing since we use fully the lower lobs of the lungs

The lower lobs of the lungs is the larger part of the lungs, especially towards the back body, and is where there is more concentration of blood due to gravity.  So there is better oxygenation when we breathe diaphragmatically.  

This is why I mentioned before that diaphragmatic breathing allows for even deeper breaths than belly breathing.  

You can test this by yourself.  

Once you start engaging the diaphragm properly to create this three-dimensional movement, you will notice that your breath becomes deeper, longer, and slower without having to engage the chest.  Each breath will feel even more satisfying and joyful.  

This three-dimensional movement is achieved by a slight activation of the lower abdomen.  

Here is a very interesting passage from the book Letters from the Yoga Masters by Marion McConnell related to having a controlled abdomen when practicing pranayama.

“Hari learned from Swami Kuvalayananda that in order to acquire the most oxygen value from your breathing, you must have a controlled abdomen. It may seem that a relaxed, protracted abdomen during inhalation would permit the diaphragm to descend lower and result in a greater expansion of the rib cage and intake of oxygen. 
However, after numerous experiments measuring pressure changes in pranayama, Swami Kuvalayananda and his fellow scientists at Kaivalyadhama Ashram found that “one is able to inhale larger quantities of oxygen when the abdomen is kept controlled than when the abdomen is kept protracted.””

Further, she writes.

“They found that although the diaphragm descends lower with the protracted abdomen, the ribs also become depressed, thus limiting the advantage gained by the lower descent of the diaphragm. The scientists at Kaivalyadhama Ashram recommended this controlled abdomen in all pranayamas except ones like kapalabhati and bhastrika, in which the abdominal muscles are required for the quick, successive exhalations.”

The discussion in this passage makes reference to the practice of the complete breath (full yogic breathing) where the yogi fills up the lung to its maximum capacity.  But this ”controlled abdomen“ is necessary also when inhaling only to a comfortable and natural capacity.

This engagement of the abdomen makes diaphragmatic breathing a bit more active than abdominal breathing yet at the same time relaxing.  This is necessary for meditation and pranayama to be able to remain fully alert and conscious during the whole practice.

In my experience, when we practice meditation, or in our day-to-day life, this activation of the lower abdomen is effortless.  There is no tension at all.  It happens naturally as you bring the awareness to your back body and lower ribs, making sure you are breathing into those places.


Diaphragmatic breathing and physical exercise


When doing physical exercise or when practicing yoga postures, the activation of the abdomen is more deliberate and conscious.  This engagement of the abdomen creates something called Intra Abdominal Pressure.  

This pressure gives stability to the spine and it also helps to generate strength. The more physical effort you make the more you want to increase the intra abdominal pressure. 

Pavel Tsatsouline, an authority on strength training, talks in his book The Naked Warrior about power breathing, a type of breathing that maximizes the intra-abdominal pressure in order to amplify physical strength. 

“As long as the contents of your stomach are compressed—you are power breathing.” 

“Whenever you exert yourself, always start tensing in your lower abdomen. Then send that tension outward to be amplified by the tension of the muscles closer and closer to the periphery.” 

“Think of your brain as a CD player. Think of your muscles as the speakers. Where do you think the amplifier is? In your stomach. Special receptors measure the intra abdominal pressure and act as the “volume control knob.” When the IAP bottoms out, the tension in all your muscles drops off.” 

“On the other hand, when the internal pressure goes up, your nervous system gets more excited and the nerve cells supplying your muscles become superconductors of the commands from your brain. So, by cranking up the IAP volume knob, you will automatically get noticeably stronger —in every muscle in your body and with any exercise!” 


Diaphragmatic breathing and Uddiyana Bandha


This Intra Abdominal Pressure is going to sound very familiar to those who practice ashtanga vinyasa yoga.  

In this yoga method, the practitioner is advised to keep the lower abdomen engaged throughout the practice.  This engagement of the abdomen is called here uddiyana bandha. 

By keeping the abdomen in, combining it with the lift of the pelvic floor, we protect and provide stability to the spine, prevent hernias and generate strength. At the same time we are able to take deeper breaths and remain calm, and centered.

Although I've heard some teachers saying that we should breathe with the chest in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, I believe this is completely incorrect. The last thing that we want to do when we practice yoga is to breathe with the chest (upper chest).  

Besides, there is no need at all to breathe with the chest if you are using the diaphragm properly.  

By keeping the lower abdomen engaged this simply allows for the expansion and contraction of the upper abdomen, mid-back, and lower ribs, which is nothing but the effect of the full diaphragmatic movement.

Even if we fully engage the abdomen, as we require more control and strength, we can still feel the expansion of the lower ribs and back body.

When we breathe in this way, using the bottom part of the lungs, there is no need to engage the upper chest.  You only need to engage the upper chest if you want to take a complete breath.  But that's not necessary at all when practicing yoga.

By the way, in classical hatha yoga, the same term uddiyana bandha refers to a different technique where we firmly suck the abdomen in after a complete exhalation.  It should not be confused with the technique mentioned here.
 

Conclusion:  Diaphragmatic Breathing vs Belly Breathing. 


Both belly breathing and diaphragmatic breathing provide innumerable benefits for our mental and physical health.  

Belly breathing is easy to learn, so it is ideal for beginners and people who are accustomed to chest or clavicular breathing. 

Diaphragmatic breathing, on the other side, requires some practice.  However, it provides even more benefits than belly breathing since it utilizes fully the bottom part of the lungs.  

This is why diaphragmatic breathing is ideal for mental clarity, core stability, endurance, and physical strength. 


How to practice diaphragmatic breathing


In my next blog, I will share with you a sequence of simple breathing exercises that you can use to learn how to breathe using the diaphragm properly.  

I teach this sequence online via Zoom, in a mindful and meditative way, to learn not only how to breathe properly but also to induce a sense of calm and tranquility.  

If you would like to join my online classes you can sign up to my mailing list here so that you can be notified of my weekly schedule.  Once you sign up you'll also be able to download my free meditation e-book.  

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

7 comments:

  1. Wonderful read ��

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  2. Thank you for sharing!

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  3. Excellent blog! So much detail. It has cleared many doubts.
    It's difficult to get such clarity in any book or anywhere else. You have nicely explained different types of breathing and EXACT difference between them!
    Thank you so much Marco for sharing!

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    1. Thanks to you Dhananjay. I'm happy to hear that you've found it so useful. I guess it was worth it all the time I spent working on it 😁

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  4. Thank you, excited to join the pranayama class. We were taught belly breathing, sectional breathing and full yogic breath but this term diaphragmatic breathing is new to me

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