Belly Breathing Isn't Always Best

I've lost track of the times I've heard or read people telling me to breathe into my belly like a baby, that this is the only correct way to breathe.

It's not, you know.

There are many ways to breathe and all can have their uses.

Breathing into your belly can be useful for certain purposes - like slowing down the breath and relaxing - but there are a few beliefs people hold about belly breathing that are just plain misinformed.

Two that I find particularly irksome:



1. Belly breathing is diaphragmatic breathing and chest breathing is not.

Actually, unless your diaphragm is paralysed - in which case you would be on a respirator - you are using your diaphragm to breathe. Where the shape change shows up just has to do with which body parts you are stabilising as you breathe.

  • Belly breathing requires you to stabilise your ribcage to direct more movement into your belly.
  • Chest breathing requires you to stabilise your belly to direct more movement into your chest.

Breath is three-dimensional shape change and where it happens depends a great deal on our acquired habits. But make no mistake, all unassisted breathing is diaphragmatic breathing.

2. We should try to breathe like babies.

Babies are structurally different to adults and they are actually working very hard for each breath.

Until they are born and take their first breath, babies don’t NEED to get their oxygen via breath, it comes from their mothers via their umbilical cords. 

Once they are breathing, despite having higher metabolisms -and therefore higher oxygen needs - than grownups, babies aren’t yet completely adapted to being air-breathing creatures.

For example, 

  • their tongues are relatively bigger and more prone to blocking their airways.
  • their nervous systems are not yet fully in control of their breathing (so it can get a bit wonky).
  • the cartilage around their bronchial tubes is still soft and prone to collapse, 
  • their lungs have lower volume than adults.
  • their diaphragms and other respiratory muscles have lower endurance and aren’t as efficient. Their muscles and nervous system haven’t been trained for the task of breathing yet. 

To put it in simple yoga terms:

In infant respiratory systems, the forces of sthira -stability -and sukha - ease - are reversed: their lung tissue is stiff, and their ribcages are floppy. What makes it easy for an adult to breathe are the qualities of sukha - flexibility - in the lungs and sthira - stability - in the ribcage, giving adult lungs something to elastically recoil against on exhale. 

So don't breathe like a baby if you are a grownup, okay?