I learned about all of the benefits of belly breathing in the yoga classes and teacher trainings that I took (over the last 20 years). I then went on to teach (for 10+ years now) all of the benefits of belly breathing to the students and teachers I was working with.
I wrote an article promoting belly breathing for pelvic health. I have “invested” in belly breathing in my own body and in my teaching.
The pelvic floor physiotherapists that I have studied with also use belly breathing.
In one workshop I began to question all of it.
No More Ballooning my Belly
Trista Zinn, who teaches the Hypopressive Technique opened the questioning of belly breathing for everyone.
It wasn’t a new concept here in our house. My partner, Shawn (also a yoga teacher), had told me of his yoga teachers that questioned the theory of belly breathing versus lateral rib cage breathing. My attention was triggered when the pelvic floor piece was added with Trista’s talk.
Trista was hesitant at first, to expand on the topic of belly breathing. She said that a lot of yoga teachers take offence when told that belly breathing isn’t for everyone, but the points she made – made sense!
I am hesitant to write this blog post because I am still researching, but feel it is important to share where I am at — so we call all learn. Please feel free to “challenge” me on this and add your thoughts and questions.
What happens with the diaphragm, rib cage, lungs and pelvic floor when we take a breath?
Here is what I do know at this point:
The diaphragm and pelvic floor move together with each breath that you take. On the inhale they move down and on the exhale they move up.
We can’t actually breathe air into the belly. It goes into the lungs. The expansion at the belly happens as lungs fill and the diaphragm moves down, pressing the organs into the abdominal cavity.
Moving the rib cage is healthy and helps us to breathe. We can’t move the lungs. To expand the lungs we need to move the rib cage and diaphragm. This is also the way that to “strengthen” the diaphragm. See this video by Leslie Kaminoff to hear more.
Pressure on the pelvic floor can cause pelvic floor dysfunction. Take pregnancy for example. We now know that 50% of women who have been pregnant will experience some degree of pelvic organ prolapse (many won’t even know). It is because of the pressure from baby and the amniotic fluid.
Belly breathing adds pressure to the pelvic floor. The more air you take in – the more the organs are pressing down on your pelvic floor. This could cause pelvic floor dysfunction or add insult to injury.
We are all doing diaphragmatic breathing (unless paralyzed in some way). Some yoga traditions will talk about belly breathing as diaphragmatic breathing or correct breathing. All breathing uses the diaphragm, so these statement are confusing and lead to the assumption that belly breathing is the only way to breathe and the only way to use the diaphragm.
More isn’t better and we are each unique. Yoga is good for you. Yoga for 12 hours a day isn’t better for you and may actually be damaging. Mula Bandha (root lock) can help to strengthen the pelvic floor. Mula Bandha held continuously for an entire class can cause constipation and hypertensive (too tight) pelvic floor.
Pressure on the inner unit (core) will go to the weakest place – this could be the spine (causing back pain), the abdomen (causing hernias) or the pelvic floor (causing pelvic floor dysfunction). Pelvic floor physios advise against crunches for this reason. This is why it is important to strengthen the inner unit in a healthy way.
Seeing a pelvic floor physiotherapist will give you knowledge about what will increase your pelvic floor health in terms of breath and movement. Combine that with a yoga teacher who is focused on pelvic health – you have a dream team!
I am doing my best with what I know now. I am not dwelling on all the belly breathing that I have taught in the past. Also, I am not ignoring the new information in front of me because it bumps up against my previous knowledge.
My conclusions so far on belly breathing:
So for now I am not teaching belly breathing and I am not doing it with my own yoga practice. I am getting students to focus on the movement of the rib cage with each breath. I am researching more and eager to share as I go and to hear from others.
The biggest learning so far was in how I felt after a weekend of learning the Hypopressive Technique. I felt like I could breathe more. My spine felt more aligned and my posture improved. I have integrated it into my at-home practice and I am offering it to students who have consulted with a pelvic floor physiotherapist.