Diaphragmatic Breathing: What It Is, Benefits, Exercises & More

Stories
December 8, 2021

Breathing is something many people take for granted. Despite being born breathing with the diaphragm, people tend to switch to shallow breathing over time. This can lead to increased levels of stress and other harmful effects. Fortunately, you can teach yourself to breathe deeply with your diaphragm again and gradually improve your wellness.

If you’re ready to improve your breathing, this guide will teach you all about diaphragmatic breathing by taking you through all of the following topics:

  • An overview of diaphragmatic breathing
  • Importance of diaphragmatic breathing: 12 deep breathing benefits you should know about
  • 8 deep breathing exercises and techniques you should try
  • 7 resources to learn more about diaphragmatic breathing & its benefits

We’ll start by covering the basics of deep breathing before we get into how to do it.

If you’re wanting to learn more about advanced breathwork techniques, check out our guide to Holotropic Breathwork.

An overview of diaphragmatic breathing

Before you can take advantage of everything belly breathing has to offer, you need to fully understand what it is and why it’s important. This section will cover the fundamentals of deep belly breathing.

What diaphragmatic breathing?

If you’re asking “what is diaphragmatic breathing?” or “what is belly breathing?”, you’re actually asking the same question. Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing or abdominal breathing, refers to any and all deep breathing exercises that involve the use of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. This is considered to be the proper way to breathe; however, many people lose this ability over time and have to consciously work to correct their breathing patterns.

Making use of this type of breathing is really beneficial for your physical and mental health, as diaphragmatic breathing and the parasympathetic nervous system are closely linked. When you encounter situations where you’re under stress, your autonomic nervous system takes over and activates a fight-or-flight response. By making use of deep breathing, you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you to complete the stress cycle and informs your body that you’re safe. This allows all of your body’s subsystems to return to their normal functions.

This also explains how diaphragmatic breathing and the vagus nerve are linked. Your autonomic nervous system can send signals through the vagus nerve to your heart, lungs, and digestive tract when under stress, which disrupts their natural state of functioning. Practicing deep breathing regularly helps to calm these signals and allow everything to function as it should.

Belly breathing vs. chest breathing: what’s the difference?

When it comes to belly breathing vs. chest breathing, one is much healthier than the other. Diaphragmatic/belly/abdominal breathing is what allows your body to know it’s safe, which helps everything from your heart rate to your digestive system to function at healthy rates. Chest breathing, also known as thoracic breathing or shallow breathing, is when you only breathe a small amount of air at a rapid speed. This causes your body to remain in a state of stress, which leads to your body’s subsystems functioning improperly.

Long-term chest breathing can lead to many health difficulties, including hyperventilation, illness, and mental health concerns. This is why it’s important to practice breathwork regularly and consciously work to establish proper breathing patterns.

How to do diaphragmatic breathing

If you’re wondering how to do diaphragmatic breathing, you have many options to help you practice. Establishing a breathwork practice is a great way to regularly deep breathe and improve your health and wellness. You can learn different techniques, like the ones we’ll outline later in this article, and schedule time in your day to practice them. 

If you require some assistance, there are plenty of breathwork apps that will guide you through deep breathing sessions. You can also choose to take a course or workshop.

Importance of diaphragmatic breathing: 12 deep breathing benefits you should know about

Establishing a regular breathwork practice is really important, as deep breathing benefits your physical and mental health in many different ways. If you’ve been wondering what diaphragmatic breathing is good for, here are some diaphragmatic breathing benefits that are important to know.

1. Reduces stress and anxiety

A woman breathing in a field while holding palo santo

Many have asked: “Does diaphragmatic breathing help anxiety?” As it turns out, many people have begun practicing diaphragmatic breathing for anxiety and stress. There are many different deep breathing exercises for anxiety that can be used as a direct way of triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps the body exit fight-or-flight mode and promotes relaxation. By slowly deep breathing, you can tell your body that you're safe, which allows you to complete your stress cycles and become calm.

A 2018 study answered “how does diaphragmatic breathing reduce stress?” by successfully demonstrating the link between breath control and psychophysiology. Diaphragmatic breathing directly affects the autonomic nervous system, which gives the body permission to relax. Participants who regularly practiced diaphragmatic breathing saw positive changes to their levels of anxiety, as they were better able to relax.

2. Helps improve speech and stuttering

A woman deep breathing with her hand on her chest

A little-known benefit of diaphragmatic breathing is its ability to act as an aid in speech therapy. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing exercises for speech therapy and diaphragmatic breathing for stuttering regularly has helped many improve various speech impediments. This is because these exercises promote relaxation and oxygen intake. They have also helped people improve their communication skills overall.

A review article from 2000 collected various resources to help demonstrate diaphragmatic breathing's ability to help improve speech. Variations of this breathwork technique have been shown to help reduce stuttering and increase speech rate. This validates deep breathing as a helpful aid in speech therapy.

3. Improves digestion

A woman sitting cross-legged with headphones on

Diaphragmatic breathing and digestion are more closely linked than you might think. This is due to the effect deep breathing has on stress levels and circulation. Relaxation helps to calm the digestive system and relieve stress-induced indigestion symptoms. Meanwhile, its ability to increase blood circulation helps organs to function properly.

A 2017 article written by Eric Peper, a Professor of Holistic Health at San Francisco University, demonstrated that diaphragmatic breathing can be used to help heal irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). He refers to studies that proved that diaphragmatic breathing's ability to relax the body contributed to the relief of some of the most severe symptoms of IBS. This is due to the way the body functions once a relaxed state is achieved.

4. Strengthens lungs

Stronger lungs and increased lung capacity are part of the top benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. Since it involves the use of your diaphragm and abdominal muscles, it allows you to properly use those muscles and improve your breathing. Many medical professionals recommend deep breathing for treating a wide variety of respiratory conditions, including COPD and asthma.

A study published in 2011 proved that deep breathing for short amounts of time benefitted the lung health of volunteers. After practicing 2-minute, 5-minute, and 10-minute exercises, the volunteers demonstrated positive changes in forced vital capacity and inspiratory flow rate. This was enough to demonstrate that diaphragmatic breathing for any length of time can help strengthen lungs.

5. Lowers heart rate and blood pressure

A woman lying on a yoga mat with her hand on her chest

Belly breathing is also able to lower both heart rate and blood pressure due to its direct connection with stress. By reducing your stress levels and allowing your body to relax, your heart rate will slow and your blood pressure will drop.

A 2017 study found that a deep breathing exercise called resonant breathing was able to lower heart rate variability (HRV) and blood pressure. Participants who completed the exercise were proven to have improved HRV and lower blood pressure during periods of stress. This demonstrates the physiological effects diaphragmatic breathing has on the body.

6. Helps manage symptoms of depression

A group of women smiling while huddled together

Those living with depression can also greatly benefit from diaphragmatic breathing. When people breathe slowly and deeply, they are able to reduce their stress and stabilize their mood. These improvements to thoughts and feelings can help many to remain positive while managing their symptoms of depression.

A 2019 review focusing on abdominal breathing's impact on stress found that it could also reduce depression. One of the studies mentioned found that participants saw an improvement in both depression and anxiety as a result of the stress reduction resulting from the breathing exercises. This proves the correlation between deep breathing and reduction in symptoms of depression.

7. Helps manage symptoms of PTSD

A woman splashing water

This type of breathing can also assist with symptoms of PTSD. In the same way that it's effective at reducing anxiety, deep breathing exercises can also help promote calm and relaxation when faced with PTSD-related symptoms. Breathwork is a great aid that can be used in addition to therapy when helping those struggling to cope.

A 2014 study found that SKY Breathwork, a type of diaphragmatic breathing yoga or pranayama, was successful in helping veterans manage their PTSD symptoms. Veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq who were part of the study's active group saw a reduction in their PTSD scores, anxiety, and breathing rates while those in the control group did not. This suggests that breathwork can be used to successfully manage PTSD symptoms, and makes it one of the top benefits of diaphragmatic breathing in yoga.

8. Improves core muscle stability

A reflection in water of a person stretching

If you want to improve your core muscle stability, abdominal breathing can be incredibly helpful. These types of exercises can help keep you relaxed and maintain proper functions throughout your body, which contributes to the stability of your core muscles. Practicing regularly helps to keep you physically calm and keep your body functioning as it should.

A 2012 article detailed how diaphragmatic breathing is important for core muscle stability. Core muscle stability can be compromised when any subsystem is negatively impacted, including the nervous system. Since deep breathing helps to calm the nervous system, it helps maintain good physical condition for ideal core muscle stability.

9. Improves endurance

A man in the sand holding a sheet in the air

Athletes wanting to improve their endurance should also turn to diaphragmatic breathing. Deep breathing exercises help people to need less oxygen during physical activities. By practicing this regularly, athletes can improve their performance and power through the difficult parts of sports and other strenuous tasks.

A 2013 study found that deep breathing exercises could help improve athletic performance. Those who participated in the study experienced improvements in their endurance during physical activity, and developed stronger inspiratory muscles. This allowed them to perform better when engaged in sports.

10. Improves sleep

A closeup of a woman lying on the grass

Those needing to improve their sleeping habits can also turn to deep breathing. These exercises allow people to better relax, which contributes to them becoming sleepy in the evening and staying asleep once they're in bed. They have also been recommended to help with insomnia.

A 2020 study found that diaphragmatic breathing was able to help nurses improve their sleep quality during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the nurses involved in the study saw improvements in many areas, including their sleep quality and duration, reduction in sleep disturbances, and reduction in overall anxiety. The results help to solidify deep breathing exercises as an effective aid for improving sleep.

11. Reduces oxygen demand

A group of people in a circle with their arms raised

Belly breathing is also a great way to reduce oxygen demand. Those with a higher oxygen demand could be at risk of hyperventilation. By practicing deep breathing regularly, people are able to tell their bodies to relax and adjust to a lower breathing rate.

A 2018 study determined that deep breathing could lead to less respiratory muscle oxygen consumption. This was done by measuring oxygen consumption in those practicing diaphragmatic breathing and those engaged in thoracic breathing. The results backed the idea that deep breathing helps to reduce oxygen demand.

12. Improves focus

A closeup of a hand creating rings in water

If you're struggling to pay attention, belly breathing can also help you regain focus. Many distractions are rooted in stress and anxiety, which are easily resolved with deep breathing exercises. By becoming more relaxed, your focus becomes sharper and you can pay more attention to the task at hand, instead of whatever might be contributing to stress at that moment.

A 2017 study determined that deep breathing could be used to help improve attention spans. The results appear to demonstrate that diaphragmatic breathing's impact on the nervous system allows individuals to relax and dedicate more of their attention to the task at hand. Participants of the study demonstrated improvement in cognitive performance after completing the exercises.

8 deep breathing exercises and techniques you should try

Relearning how to do deep breathing can be overwhelming for those who’ve never done any sort of breathwork. Luckily, there are plenty of deep breathing exercises that are easy to learn and practice. Below are some of the top diaphragmatic breathing exercises to help breathe better.

1. Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly or abdominal breathing, is actually a breathwork exercise itself. The diaphragmatic breathing technique is arguably the easiest to learn, and can be done anywhere and anytime for as long as you wish. Chief among its benefits is its ability to help you relearn a proper breathing pattern.

How to do it:

  1. Get into a comfortable position, either sitting up or lying down.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  3. Slowly inhale, feeling your stomach rise as you do.
  4. Exhale slowly, feeling your stomach fall. Try to keep your chest still throughout.
  5. Repeat these steps as many times as desired.

Try it now: Watch this 3-minute instructional video on diaphragmatic breathing.

2. 4-7-8 breathing

4-7-8 breathing is another belly breathing exercise that is easy to learn, as the instructions are right in the name. The three numbers represent the number of seconds you inhale, hold, and exhale your breath. It’s one of the most popular deep breathing techniques due to the many physical and mental benefits that can be gained by practicing it.

How to do it:

  1. Get into a comfortable position.
  2. Deeply inhale for over a count of 4 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds.
  4. Slowly exhale for over a count of 8 seconds.
  5. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

Try it now: Follow this 4-minute guided breathing exercise.

3. Box breathing

Box breathing – also known as square breathing, 4-4-4-4 breathing, or sama vritti – is a breathwork technique that focuses on breathing at equal intervals. This exercise is considered to be a step up from another exercise called equal breathing. The main difference is that box breathing includes pauses between inhales and exhales, while equal breathing does not. It’s just as easy to learn as the diaphragmatic breathing technique, and offers the same benefits.

How to do it:

  1. Get into a comfortable position.
  2. Take a deep breath in over a count of 4 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for a count of 4 seconds.
  4. Slowly breathe out over a count of 4 seconds.
  5. Hold your breath again for a count of 4 seconds.
  6. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

Try it now: Follow this 6-minute guided breathing exercise.

4. Breath focus technique

The breath focus technique combines mental visuals with deep breathing for the purpose of relaxation. Part of the technique involves choosing a mental image, word, or phrase to help achieve a state of calm. A single session is composed of multiple parts that help to relieve stress and anxiety while practicing mindfulness.

How to do it:

  1. Get into a comfortable position, either sitting up or lying down.
  2. Notice the way you naturally breathe, but try not to make any changes to your breathing just yet.
  3. Now, switch between your natural breathing and deep breathing a few times. Notice the different feelings between the two.
  4. Continue to deep breathe for a few more minutes.
  5. Place a hand on your stomach as you exhale. Notice how it rises and falls as you continue to breathe deeply.
  6. Allow yourself to let out a loud sigh as you exhale.
  7. Continue to breathe deeply, and begin to focus on a relaxing image, word, or phrase of your choice.
  8. After a few minutes, picture the air you breathe in as a wave that brings peace and calm into your body.
  9. As you breathe out, imagine any tension and anxiety you have being washed away. 
  10. Continue the pattern in steps 8 and 9 for a few minutes.

Try it now: Follow this 10-minute guided breathing meditation.

5. Lion’s Breath

Lion’s Breath, also referred to as simhasana, is a pranayama breathwork technique that is either practiced on its own or combined with yoga as part of the Lion’s Pose exercise. The technique is well-known for its ability to help improve lung health, but it can offer many other benefits when practiced regularly. While it’s fairly easy to do, it can be considered a more intermediate deep breathing exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Lean forward slightly and place your hands on either your knees or the floor with your fingers spread out as far as possible.
  3. Inhale through your nose.
  4. Open your mouth wide and stick your tongue out, stretching it towards your chin.
  5. Exhale forcefully, making a “ha” sound as you do.
  6. Take a few minutes to breathe as you normally would.
  7. Repeat these steps up to 7 times.
  8. Finish your session with 1 to 3 minutes of deep breathing.

Try it now: Watch this 5-minute Lion’s Breath tutorial and practice session.

6. Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing, also known as nadi shodhana or anulom vilom, is a pranayama technique that focuses on the nose. It is a great deep breathing exercise that helps improve respiratory function and promotes relaxation. This technique has been widely practiced for many years, and remains an extremely popular breathwork exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Raise your right hand to your face and use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
  3. Slowly breathe in through your left nostril.
  4. Use your right ring finger to close your left nostril.
  5. Lift your thumb and slowly breathe out through your right nostril.
  6. Slowly breathe in through your right nostril.
  7. Use your thumb to close your right nostril again.
  8. Lift your ring finger and slowly breathe out through your left nostril.
  9. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

Try it now: Follow our 7-minute guided breathwork session.

7. Pursed lip breathing

Pursed lip breathing is a deep breathing exercise that is widely recommended by medical professionals. It’s usually practiced by those with breathing difficulties in order to help them establish a normal breathing rate. Although popular as a medical aid, anyone can benefit from this exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up in a comfortable position.
  2. Breathe in through your nose.
  3. Purse your lips, pretending as if you’re about to blow air.
  4. Breathe out through your lips.
  5. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

Try it now: Follow this 4-minute mindful breathing exercise.

8. Resonant breathing

Resonant breathing, also referred to as coherent breathing, is a breathwork exercise designed to help you achieve an ideal breathing rate. This exercise is designed to help keep your breaths per minute (BPM) between 5 and 7 as a way of better promoting deep breathing. It’s very similar to the diaphragmatic breathing technique, with the main difference being the emphasis on timed intervals throughout the exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Get into a comfortable position.
  2. Slowly inhale for 5 seconds.
  3. Slowly exhale for 5 seconds.
  4. Continue this as many times as desired.

Try it now: Watch this 11-minute guided breathing meditation.

7 resources to learn more about diaphragmatic breathing & its benefits

We’ve covered a lot on the importance of diaphragmatic breathing, but there is always more to learn to help your understanding of deep diaphragmatic breathing. Here are some additional resources that can help you learn more about diaphragmatic belly breathing:

  1. What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?: A 2018 article from Healthline on the science behind diaphragmatic breathing, including a detailed overview of its benefits.
  2. What to know about diaphragmatic breathing: A 2020 article providing additional information on diaphragmatic breathing and how it benefits those with certain health conditions.
  3. Diaphragmatic Breathing: A 2019 article from Well Said on diaphragmatic breathing and its use in voice therapy.
  4. Diaphragmatic Breathing for GI Patients: An article from University of Michigan Health on how diaphragmatic breathing can help those with gastrointestinal conditions.
  5. How Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises Can Benefit Digestion: A blog post from Probiotics.com detailing how diaphragmatic breathing assists in digestion.
  6. Breathing and Exercise: Strength Training for Your Diaphragm: A 2018 article from Penn Medicine on how diaphragmatic breathing exercises can help improve strength.
  7. How training your diaphragm can help you run longer and faster: A 2019 article from Runner’s World on how diaphragmatic breathing specifically benefits runners.


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