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.
Great article to breathe through Shannon! I myself was reading it with a mug of Breathe Easy tea.
I myself have been skeptical of cues to balloon one’s belly and have slowly started to weed it out of my teaching language. This is because of a few insights I’ve felt over the previous two years.
1- when I practice gentle meditation on the breath using Mindfulness techniques I am aware of how I can fully use my body without over straining it. Why was I not putting that to use in my asana practice as well?
2- taking a 6 week vocal workshop with Tara Mackenzie really demonstrated how to breathe with a strong core placing emphasis on moving the rib cage up and down rather than the belly in and out. This has also helped me out immensely with my vocal projection.
3-I have a few teachers in my life who have been on a path teaching asana for some time now but they have a different language when it comes to breath- “Breathe easily, without over straining. Expand without pushing.” The more I tune into their language and how it affects my body the more I start to follow in their footsteps with my own cues.
4- When studying me own body I actually find my breathing hampered when my focus is on the belly going in and out- even though the belly region does show the movement of breath when I even breathe in tiny amounts. It has helped immensely for me to instead focus on my ribs expanding up and out so there is room for my lungs to fill thereby utilizing the potential of my diaphragm. When I breathe with genuine kindness towards my insides I find I do not force the belly out nearly as much at all. I also sense my posture to be much stronger when I focus on the movement of ribs.
Thanks for posting a ‘controversial’ article for all us to read and contemplate! Keep questioning!
Maxine – I love that you had discovered new things about the breathing that suits you and not just from yoga! So cool.
Hi Shannon, I finally read this piece about belly breathing. I’m really happy to hear how we are all allowing ourselves to integrate new information and challenge old ways of doing things! It good to see that I’m not alone. 🙂
During my last yoga therapy training the teacher threw us a curve ball! She introduced to us The Buteyko technique of breathing in less air, keeping belly quiet, moving the ribs. We all went WHAT???? But it was tremendous! I practiced it every afternoon as a sitting practice, during the training and it left me even more energetic.
And so, I too, rarely mention belly breathing in my classes now and have students focus more on the movement of the rib cage (and T.A) with the breath rather than belly breathing. However for reverse breathers focusing on the belly breathing may still be a good first step in establishing a better breathing pattern- I’m sorting all that out too. I need a few more reverse breathers to test it out. lol
I’ve been studying Dr. Stuart McGill’s approach to back pain: and so the yoga way I learned about strengthening the core is also being challenged. I’m not quite ready to teach it yet, as I’m still practicing and I did find that many of my students seemed to benefit from the yoga way of strengthening the inner core none-the -less. So not quite ready to give it all up.
So grateful that you had the courage to bring this up Shannon!
I get a bit confused with the term belly breathing, I was taught in my YTT how to breathe always with lungs and diaphragm , we also were taught how to release your diaphragm by one of our teachers , who is an osteophat …. since there is so many ways of pranayama … I will be interested on learning what will belly breathing concept will be …. since it can be confusing:/
It is confusing Espe I agree. So many yoga cues from my teachers and myself included full belly breath. I would be keen to learn the diaphragm release technique. Share if you feel led!
This is the part which makes me go “hmmm?”: “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.” I get it that breathing deeply presses the diaphragm — and the pelvic floor — downward, but I wonder to what extent a full breath actually puts enough significant pressure on pelvic organs to make it problematic. My initial thought is that a deep, full breath is far more beneficial to the body (especially the nervous system) than shallow breath limited to the upper ribcage (i.e., the type of breath most people sadly use on a regular basis). Often times a true full breath causes the belly to expand due to the downward movement of the diaphragm.
I’d be very curious to hear more viewpoints from medical experts regarding the physiology at work here. All of the comments are food for thought!
Thanks for bringing up an important topic and helping us all question what we say and teach. So important to continue learning and exploring! Namaste.
Thanks for your thoughts and questions on this Hillary! I know exactly how you feel as I was sitting with the same thought – that a full breath meant that the belly expanded. I am digging further now. I have a podcast interview on Monday and plan on finding others who can offer insight. Keep me posted on your own journey with this.
Very interesting! I have been to a pelvic floor physiotherapist after giving birth to my second baby, and she emphasized breathing as a whole – using the ribs and the diaphragm letting breath gentle. And I have been using words to encourage that with my students. Doing yoga with my kids I noticed when I tried to teach them “belly” breathing – they no longer had any movement in their ribs. Watching my adult students, it wasn’t as extreme, but again it was a much more forced breath – mostly in belly… so I abandoned the “belly” talk and focused more on whole body breathing – feeling the breath moving through the ribs, feel how the diaphragm moves, how the pelvic floor moves – just bringing focus to these areas, rather than a forced breath. I have noticed that when I pay attention to each part of my breath, I can marvel at how amazing my body is – everything working together so harmoniously to draw the breath in and release it – how cool is that. Thanks for sharing Shannon – and everyone else. I can’t wait to hear more!
Thanks for these thoughts Amanda. I am so excited to hear that you took what you learned, watched and experienced and then learned more from that.
I started to think about mula bandha in a whole new way during a workshop by Bo Forbes a few years ago. She illuminated the connection between the pelvic floor and the diaphram during breathing, as you have here in your wonderful chart. After a pelvic floor physiotherapist taught me the hypopressive technique, I noticed an improvement in my own pelvic health. Not a day goes by without some sort of pelvic floor practice, but putting it all together with a gentler belly breath, makes so much sense. I think I will start to shift the focus somewhat from the belly to the ribcage in my own yoga classes. Thank you so much for this information and the reminder that often, less is more.
Mary – I am curious to learn more about what you learned about mula bandha as I was doing a bit of research on it and kegels and the relationship both had with pelvic floor. Let me know how the breath in the ribs feels in your own practice and how it goes when teaching it.
awesome insight Shannon !!!
this reminds me of the ” J breath/pushing” for pushing babies down the birth canal while in their second stage of labour ! 🙂 as a student midwife a mama taught me about this technique… my trainer was skeptical because “you have to hold your breath to push….”because thats what the medical text books say! if the breath and the pelvic floor are connected, then “J breathing/pushing” would actually work quite well for some mamas ! especially for those who already do breath practices and are connected to their bodies.
since reading your article, i have been spending a lot of time focusing on my pelvic floor while breathing….your right, its actually doing a lot down there, even if it seems quite subtle.
i see how we would have called it belly breathing… the belly is doing something during all of that breathing. but the belly its just the in between stuff! with each breath we massage our organs, probably all of them get a little love as the diaphragm and pelvic floor work together to draw in and expel our breath.
loving all these deeper awareness:)
thank you for sharing shannon!
Thank you for bringing the discussion of birthing and pushing and breath into this Christine. I just recently learned to encourage women to continue with breath during birthing. It was taught to hold, but now pelvic floor physios are saying this isn’t as helpful to birth or the pelvic floor health.
It makes total sense to use the J breathing with pushing.
Thanks for sharing your own personal inquiry with the breath also. That is really where we all need to take the things we learn – to our mat and into our own bodies.
Thanks for sharing Christine – this gave me flashbacks to Alex’s birth – the nurse kept telling me to hold my breath – and I just ignored her – but felt annoyed!! With Thea the midwives were great and encouraged me to breath through it as they could see it was helping me:) It has never felt good to hold my breath (must be why I’m not a very good swimmer:P )
I love how you followed what worked for your body Amanda.
Thanks so much for this clear and helpful discussion. I am just now creating my first little workshop aimed at exploring and enhancing pelvic floor health. I really appreciate your willingness to be so honest in your questioning and exploration. As I have been shifting my awareness of breath I am also seeing shifts in my students’ breath in letting go of effort/strain and welcoming in the intention of allowing oneself to be “breathed”. I am also noticing a difference in settling and releasing into savasana. I teach many students who are new to yoga and quite a few who smoke heavily. Focussing on hypopressive breath may also be more inclusive and easier for new students to access awareness of breath. Thanks again!
Becky it warms my heart that you are sharing some pelvic health awareness in your yoga classes. I just heard this week that your adult classes are fantastic. I really like your wording of “letting go of effort/strain”.
“What we call ’I’ is just a swinging door, which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.” ~Shunryu Suzuki
Oh, dear, and I have my 2 cents to add to this. In my most recent yoga therapy training Robin Rothenberg threw us a curve ball and introduced us to the Buteyko breathing method of breathing less. No rib cage or belly breath stuff. Since I’ve been practicing it, I sleep so much better, have more energy and is a great pick me up and expansive.Just goes to show that there are many different perspectives to explore on this topic and no right (or wrong) ones.
Here is what she wrote:
Pranayama Redefined: Breathing Less to Live More
The ancient yoga masters instructed us to conserve our prana so our mind would be clear and our energy vibrant. Linking breath to prana they discovered the secret to health through a process of reduction and subtlety. Yet, our modern day yoga classes have us noisily respiring at huge volumes that expend prana and may in fact be detrimentally affecting our health! Robin has spent the past eighteen months investigating the link between the original teachings of pranayama and respiration as she has come to understand it through the Buteyko breathing method.
In this two part webinar, Robin Rothenberg will illuminate us about the process she has undergone and the basis for her conclusion that when it comes to breathing: less is literally more. She will also address the physiology of breath reduction as it impacts CO2 and O2 levels and its value in addressing chronic stress syndromes such as HBP, IBS, asthma, COPD, headaches, anxiety & chronic fatigue. This webinar will invite you to reexamine your current pranayama practice – and may literally transform every breath you take!
Thanks for your feedback on this Joanne! I actually just heard about the Buteyko breathing method and I have set up an interview for The Connected Yoga Teacher Podcast on the topic.
I think it is great that everyone is sharing their unique experiences with breath here. So glad for the questioning and exploration. It has taught me a lot!