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How to Breathe From Your Diaphragm

Posted by Fred Tracy May 3rd, 2011 21 Comments

smoke rings

Learning to breathe from your diaphragm is one of those rare opportunities in life where you can get huge gains out of a relatively small time investment. If you don’t know already, diaphragmatic breathing simply means that you’re using your diaphragm to pull in air, as opposed to your chest and shoulders. This means that instead of those shoulders rising when you take in a deep breath, your abdomen will expand and you’ll actually get more air.

In an odd twist of fate, most people don’t actually breathe properly. The stresses of modern society have a lot to do with this. Other contributing factors might be tight clothes and the tight tummy fetish that so many of us have. That keeps our stomachs sucked in and our air supply shallow! Worse yet, many people have no idea how to even access their diaphragm, or what it is.  Fear not, however, because you can always go back to breathing with your diaphragm, even if it feels like you’ve forgotten. Nothing is more natural!

And it’s not anything fancy. In fact, all mammals breathe with their diaphragm. Have you ever seen a dog breathing while lying on its side? You can see their stomach move in and out. Their shoulders don’t move at all.

Even we as humans start out breathing with our diaphragms. If you’ve ever seen a baby lying around breathing, then you know that’s true. In fact, because their bones are still squishy and not fully formed, it almost looks like their entire torso is breathing for them! We aren’t going to go that far, but I am going to teach you what exactly proper diaphragmatic breathing is in this article, and some exercises to make it a habit.

Just in case you aren’t convinced, here’s a list of reasons why this method beats shallow breathing hands down.

  • You get more air per breath
  • Better vocal support and tonality
  • Better vocal projection
  • Reduces stress and chest pain
  • It’s the way all mammals naturally breathe
  • The best breathing method for meditation
  • It encourages (and actually requires) good posture
  • It just feels right

The first thing we’re going to do is ensure you can actually take in air into your diaphragm. If you haven’t used it in awhile, it may be a little difficult.

Learn How to Breathe Properly

You may still be wondering if you breathe from your diaphragm or not. The best way to tell is to watch your body while you breathe. Go stand in front of a mirror and take a deep breath. What moved? Your shoulders and chest, or your stomach? If your stomach was the only thing that moved, then you’ve either received vocal training of some sort of you’re one of the rare individuals who retains proper breathing past childhood.

For all the rest of you, move on to the next section. ;)

Breathing From the Diaphragm

The way I learned to access my diaphragm was by laying down, so that’s what we’re going to do here. You’ll need a book, a bare tummy, and a sense of humor for this one.

Lay down on the ground, preferably away from others so they don’t make fun of you, and place a book on your stomach. The object of this game is to get that thing to move, steadily rising and falling with each breath. And don’t just use your stomach muscles to move it. I did that at first and it’s definitely cheating.

You’re going to use your diaphragm muscle to pull in the air. If you want a nice little visual picture, check out the link above at wikipedia and give it a shot. If you’re more hands on, then dig your fingers right under your rib cage and cough. That’s your diaphragm you feel kicking out at you.

You want the book to move in rhythm with your breathing. Take in deep breaths through your nose, and imagine that the air is being pulled down just below your sternum (breast bone). If you don’t get it right away, keep doing it. Remember, your shoulders shouldn’t move at all. My chest moves a little when I do this, but it’s mostly all stomach.

Now get up, and start breathing. Chances are you’ve already reverted back to your normal style. That’s ok – we’re just starting here. Your goal is to make this way of breathing into a way of life.

Don’t Revert to Old Breathing Techniques

Getting this technique down is usually pretty easy, but forming the habit is hard. I find that I still haven’t quite made it a habit yet. One of the best things you can do to ensure you’re breathing right throughout the day is to set up what I like to call a conditioning anchor. I actually just made that up, but it sounds pretty cool. I wonder if there’s an term that’s already established for what I’m talking about.

Some really good anchors for this particular exercise would be a mirror and a telephone. You’re going to condition yourself to check your breathing every time you pass a mirror or pick up the phone. Even if you feel like you’re conscious enough of your breathing right now, go ahead and pass by a mirror a few times and take a deep breath. Make sure your shoulders aren’t expanding, but your stomach is.

Before you know it, you’ll have set up the anchor, much like Pavlov’s dogs.  Now you’ll find yourself unconsciously checking your breathing several times a day, which will help make it a habit that much faster. The coolest part about this way of learning is that it’s relatively passive. You don’t have to do a whole lot of work. Just walk by the mirror and answer the phone to a better way of life!

I hope this has been helpful to you. Even if you aren’t a professional singer or speaker, we could all gain some benefit from learning to become more conscious of our breathing, and nothing feels better than a nice deep breath from the diaphragm.

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21 Responses so far.

  1. David says:

    Great article, I like the anchor idea, I’m going to try it.

    • Fred Tracy says:

      The anchor idea works for everything. It’s simple stimulus and response conditioning. For awhile there I had trained myself so well to dissipate stress that I once had a dream of people arguing around me, and I suddenly become so present and everything became lucid for a moment, and it’s like this wave of peaceful energy emanated out of me in the dream, waking me up in the process.

      That’s a more abstract example. I also use it to use my peripheral vision in intersections for example. See intersection > become aware of periphery. Easy!

      • David says:

        Yea, its a simple concept, just have to stay conscious to make it work!

        Also, have you ever heard of bhastrika? It is a yoga breathing exercise that is supposed to help with vocal problems/sore throats. I’ve been doing it for a while and after reading this I think I know why it works. When you do it, it makes your shoulders really tired and even sore the next day. This makes you breath with your diaphragm instead of your shoulders because they are tired or sore.

        Its like you get all of the shoulder movement out of your system in a couple of intense minutes so you don’t use it to breath the rest of the day.

        • Fred Tracy says:

          Thanks interesting. It seems like it would make sense, especially if we’re really busy and don’t have time to consciously monitor our breathing. Actually making it so that you literally can’t use lazy breathing would provoke an interesting choice. Either breathe from the diaphragm, or not at all. I think most people would choose the former. :D

          Nice approach, I’ll have to look that one up.

          • David says:

            Ya look it up. You are supposed to take big breaths using your chest as you throw your hands in the air. Then when you breath out your bring your hands to your chest. You are supposed to do 20-30 breaths in a row and then take a break. During the break you take long slow breaths using your diaphragm.

  2. Sean says:

    Awesome Fred, Love it!

    If you watch a newborn baby, they breathe from their belly. Then as we grow older, we lose this important ability.

    It’s sad, but it can definitely made a huge difference in your life if you stick with it! :)

  3. Interesting article. I’ve been getting into singing lately. Not training or anything, just testing. I don’t know too much about singing, but every time I hear how to improve with it, it’s about breathing.

    • Fred Tracy says:

      Yeah. I’m not expert at singing either, but there’s basically two parts. Singing the appropriate pitches and other more “mechanical” things, and having a good sound and paying attention to little dynamics. Breathing properly is one of those things that will give you the most bang for your buck in the tonality department, and it’s essential for projecting too.

      Interesting about the singing, let me know if you do some projects. :)

  4. Really interesting post, Fred. I never realized I was breathing wrong but as soon as I read my shoulders and chest shouldn’t be moving I knew I was doing it wrong. Thanks for the great info.

    • Fred Tracy says:

      Haha it’s so weird to even have the idea of “breathing wrong” yet most of us do it. Small changes make big gains in the long run!

  5. Great post Fred,

    I used to sing, and I remember as a child, my vocal trainer would make me lie down on a table, put a book on my stomach, place a trash can on top of that and then make me demonstrate my proper breathing technique by seeing if the items moved. I thought it was a bit of overkill at the time, but it’s really served me well. :)

    Breathing dissipates and softens energy. There have been countless times when I was doing major energy work, so much so that it became a bit uncomfortable and I was able to instantly soften the experience just by concentrating on my breathing.

    Well done!


    • Fred Tracy says:

      If a professional vocal trainer used the same technique I’ve described here, I’m glad I suggested it!

      Diaphragmatic breathing has become more and more a habit for me, so much so that when I don’t use it, something feels “wrong.”

      I was laying down with a laptop on my stomach just yesterday, and I found that if I moved my tummy to breathe it would push the laptop up so I couldn’t see. So basically I had to use shallow breathing. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I realized how unnatural breathing from my chest actually felt. It’s so tense, like there isn’t enough room in there for all that air.

      Thanks for the comment, I’m glad I found your blog by the way.


  6. Fred,
    This is super important! I try to remember to breathe from my diaphragm but I usually forget after a while. I do it when I meditate consistently though. We can feel so much calmer if we gain control of our breathing. It’s so simple yet as you point out it isn’t done. Thank you for writing about this important topic.

  7. Anna says:

    I’ve had vocal training, so the process comes easily to me. However, I stopped singing nearly five years ago, I’m not in the habit like I used to be. I’m going to try meditating, as well as a crapload of other ideas/suggestions on here, and get back into proper breathing (corset costume notwithstanding).

    Also, I went through the archives (all the way back, tonight) and I must say, your writing has really improved since you started. Great work!

    • Fred Tracy says:

      Ah, so you’re already a pro at this breathing thing. If you already know how to do it, it will come back for you in no time.

      Definitely definitely try meditating. It’s just really awesome. I actually didn’t discover it until fairly recently, and it’s a real life changer. It’s not some esoteric weird eastern concept like I thought it was. It’s actually backed by science!

      Also, thank you! That really means a lot to me. I hope you stick around and keep commenting. :)

  8. Excellent stuff.
    Right breathing is very important as oxygen is the force that drives our life.

  9. sunil says:

    hi fred!
    it really works for me……..it’s terrible that we forget our breathe but thanx after so long now m felling happiest………..

  10. Andrew says:

    I literally feel like everything just slowed down to the way it’s supposed to be. I think I used to do this unconsciously, but I went through a very stressful time and I pretty much lost it. I’ve been noticing in the past couple of weeks that I haven’t been able to get any air into my diaphragm at all, so I did a quick search and look what I found! Thank you so so much, I feel certain that this will change my life.

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