Chest Breathing vs Diaphragmatic Breathing Copy

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There is some false information being passed around these days: the idea that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to breathe. That certain movements of the body indicate “correct” or “proper” breathing, and that unless your body is moving in a certain way, you aren’t actually breathing properly (ie using your diaphragm to breathe).

In reality, the diaphragm is engaged with every single breath you take, deep or shallow, consciously or unconsciously, through the mouth or the nose (Kaminoff, 2006).

The way someone’s body moves when they breathe can be as a result of many different factors like the individual’s body type, shape, orientation (are they sitting, standing, lying down?), health, and more. There is not a single “correct” way to breathe that will be effective in all of the possible scenarios above (Kaneko & Horie, 2012; Vieira et al., 2014). In fact, telling people there are correct and incorrect body movements for good breathing could lead to bad breathing habits in some individuals, and could even lead to more harm than good.

This is a quote from “Light on Pranayama” by B. K. S. Iyengar, one of the world’s most renowned Yoga and Pranayama teachers:

“Respiration may be classified into four types:

1. High or clavicular breathing, where the relevant muscles in the neck mainly activate the top parts of the lungs.

2. Intercostal or mid-breathing, where only the central parts of the lungs are activated.

3. Low or diaphragmatic breathing, where the lower portions of the lungs are activated chiefly, while the top and central portions remain less active.

4. Total or Pranayamic breathing, where the entire lungs are used to their fullest capacity”

(Iyengar, 1981, p. 21).

Iyengar speaks about activating parts of the lungs. This is often misinterpreted to mean the literal activation of the upper, mid, and lower lobes of the lungs. What Iyengar is really referring to is the way your lungs follow the movements of the ribcage and diaphragmatic muscles.

Basically, it’s a confusion between “air” and “breath”, which are two different things. Air is the gas that we inhale and exhale. Breath is the experience of inhaling and exhaling.

Air moves in and out of the lungs via the bronchial tree. This pathway is totally unaffected by the shape and movements of your ribs and muscles. Air will flow regardless.

In Pranayama and breathwork exercises, we intentionally and consciously create shape changes in our chest, ribs, abdomen, and back. It’s often called “belly” or “diaphragmatic” breathing. These movements have many beneficial effects, but it really has nothing to do with air flow in the lungs.

When we refer to chest breathing vs diaphragmatic breathing, what we are typically referring to is inefficient, shallow, mostly unconscious breathing, probably with poor posture, vs conscious, intentional, deeper, more mindful breathing with focus on the movements of our body.

The goal of Pranayama, breathwork, and SOMA Breath practices are to “untrain” your system from habitual and useless restrictions. One of the first things to let go of in this process is the idea that there is one right way to breathe.

Our breathing mechanisms should be able to respond freely and appropriately to the demands we place on it in the huge array of positions, activities, and scenarios that make up our day-to day life.

Breathwork and Pranayama is gaining so much popularity now, so this is our opportunity to provide people with accurate and useful information about the breath.

Chest Breathing

As babies, our breathing is smooth and relaxed. Over the years, our breathing changes in response to environmental stressors such as noise, pollution, temperature, and experiences (Rifkin, n. d.). It is a normal adaptive response that happens unconsciously; it is actually designed to help us. However, if we don’t regularly practice deep, “diaphragmatic” breathing as well, chest breathing can become detrimental to our health in the long run.

Stress causes shallow breathing, and shallow breathing causes stress. Stress responses are meant to be beneficial. There are loads of times when a bit of stress is beneficial for us. The adrenaline rush we get before speaking in public is one example.

However, if stress becomes chronic (which it often does today), it can lead to a build up of problems. If your body releases too much adrenaline too often, it can lead to adrenal fatigue (Head & Kelly, 2009). The processes designed to boost immune function, can start to suppress immune function (Dhabhar & McEwen, 1999), and stress can speed up cellular ageing (Epel et al., 2004).

The long term effects of shallow chest breathing keeps the stress response cycle looping in on itself. It can lead to anxiety, poor memory and poor cognitive functioning, decreased energy levels, changes in metabolism, muscle tension, and altered heart rate and blood pressure (Bordoni et al., 2018).

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is guided during Yoga and Pranayama for a number of positive health benefits. This type of belly breathing is a useful technique to learn and incorporate into your daily life.

Slow diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to reduce stress not only over the long-term, but almost instantly (Zaccaro et al., 2018). Other benefits include: