Rethinking “Yogic” and “Diaphragmatic” Breathing

By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | January 13, 2023

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people sitting with their hands on their abdomens

I’ve heard many yoga teachers refer to “Yogic Breathing” as  “Diaphragmatic Breathing.”

But these terms are problematic. First, the yoga tradition offers many different ways of breathing – utilizing some conscious control over the diaphragm to breathe in more deeply in just one of a broad spectrum of practices. And secondly, you can’t not breathe diaphragmatically.

The diaphragm is the primary muscle of inhalation and you can’t breathe in (at least on your own) without it. It also plays a significant, though passive, role in exhalation. Without the diaphragm, you really can’t do any kind of breathing, regardless of pranayama techniques because technically, all breathing is diaphragmatic breathing.

Whenever I talk about this, I get pushback about how most people are “chest breathers” so they need to learn to use their diaphragm to breathe more deeply. But air comes into the lungs which are in the chest, not the belly, so everyone is technically a “chest breather.” And even when you breathe shallowly, you still have to use your diaphragm. Then there’s the issue that if air is going into your belly, you are probably in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

So it’s not so much about people needing to learn to breathe into their belly, it’s more about people learning that they can take conscious control of their breath. Most people don’t think about their breath very often, if at all. And sure, some newbies do well with a little instruction to breathe more deeply. But many people struggle figuring out how to use their respiratory musculature in any sort of specific way – it doesn’t come easily. I’ve worked with loads of people over the years who find it very difficult. For some people, it can be better to start not with specific techniques, but with learning that they are breathing, that there are sensations associated with it, and that if they want to, they can begin to learn how change how they’re breathing.  

flowers arranged like lungs

Lots of people have shallow, intrinsic breathing patterns – and they have little conscious control over these patterns because they are used to breathing via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). For all of us, our brainstems breathe for us below the level of consciousness most of the time. This is sometimes called “neurogenic breathing” or the “neuropneumonic control of respiration.” Autonomic signals that are foundational for survival come from particular areas of the medulla oblongata in the brain stem. These breathing pathways begin to be laid down before birth and may be deeply influenced by early childhood experiences.

Sometimes people with Post Traumatic Stress or developmental trauma have unconsciously adopted a shallow breathing pattern as a way to suppress sensations and feelings that arise from excessive, repeated activation of the fight or flight response. Bodies flooded with chronic stress and dysregulation may adopt shallow breathing as a defense mechanism. Your breath is your biography. Then a well meaning yoga teacher comes along and tells you that you need to breathe into your belly.

That seemingly harmless instruction can mess with a pattern laid down decades earlier to ensure survival – which can be a trigger, and incredibly dysregulating because you’ve just assaulted the survival instinct. So then people decide that yoga is not for them, because “yogic breathing” doesn’t make them feel better at all. In fact, it does just the opposite.

people sitting with their hands on their abdomens

Belly breathing isn’t the right answer for everyone. Some people may need a combination of some kind of somatically oriented psychotherapy – perhaps over time – and long term yoga practice in order to begin to unravel dysfunctional neuropneumonic patterns. For some, any amount of even paying attention to their breath can be incredibly emotionally dysregulating.

Which doesn’t mean that practicing yoga isn’t useful (particularly if they like it). But, for people who don’t like paying attention to their breath, or who feel uncomfortable with it, it’s okay to make it optional. And then, when they’re ready (usually because they’ve started to get used to noticing some sensations in their bodies) rather than starting with a specific technique, it may be useful to teach breath awareness – and I mean really teaching it. If folks can start to explore some of the interesting stuff that happens when they breathe, in a safe environment, and stay regulated, it may help them to begin to become aware of their patterns so that they can start to use other techniques to change them.

Here are a few cues that you might wish to try out for yourself or to share with students. You don’t have to do them in any particular order, and you don’t have to use them all at once.  

As you inhale:

  • Notice how your rib cage moves
  • Notice how your collar bones move
  • Notice your side ribs moving out to the sides, like bucket handles lifting up and away from the bucket.
  • Notice how your upper back moves
  • Notice what happens in your low back
  • Notice what happens in your arm pits
  • Notice what happens to your belly
  • Notice how your arms and legs move
  • Notice the 3 regions of your torso (upper, middle, lower)
  • Notice if you can soften your throat and jaw and shoulders
  • Notice the coolness of the breath
  • Notice the flow of the breath, does it stagger anywhere?

As you exhale:

  • Notice what softens
  • Notice how your shoulders change
  • Notice what happens in your chest
  • Notice what happens in your upper back
  • Notice what happens in your lower back
  • Notice what happens to your lower ribs
  • Notice what happens to your throat
  • Notice what soften in your arms and legs
  • Notice what happens in your belly
  • Notice what happens to your face
  • Notices the warmth of the breath
  • Notice the flow out of the breath, does it stagger anywhere?

You can play with these while lying down, sitting up, lying on your stomach, standing, in child’s pose and more.

a woman practicing savasana

These practices can help you develop greater interoceptive awareness of your breath, which then can begin to, over time, translate into a deeper sense of agency over your breathing.

After feeling comfortable with these (and by “comfortable” I mean that they feel good, you feel curious about them, you don’t feel agitated or bored), then you can start to manipulate and change your breath. You can start to work with the diaphragm, and the secondary muscles and explore different techniques, and how they affect the nervous system.  

Ultimately this leads to a greater capacity to change your breath when you need to because of difficult situations or health issues. Greater agency with the breath can lead to greater capacity to influence the ANS as well as mental emotional states.

And this, IMHO, is what most folks need from their breath.

I would love to hear which interoceptive breathing cues that you like to use. Please leave a comment.

 

I’ll be speaking at The Power of Meditation Conference which starts January 16. It’s free. Check it out here.

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