Have you ever watched a baby or young child breathe? If so, you may have noticed their belly expanding and contracting with each breath. Now take a moment to notice your breath. Don't change anything. Just breathe, and notice where you feel movement.
If you are like many adults, you may have felt your breath in your chest. Once a baby yourself, you were adept at belly breathing. However, the burden of chronic stress and tension may have replaced your relaxed, full belly breaths with the more constricted, shallow breathing that we typically experience when we breathe from our chest.
What causes this redirection of breath? When your abdominal muscles are holding tension, your diaphragm is met with resistance when it attempts to do the work of breathing. Consequently, your breathing becomes shallow and high in your chest. When you attempt to breath through your diaphragm, the idea is to relax your belly as much as possible. As you inhale, your belly expands slightly in an outward direction. As you exhale, your belly returns to a normal resting state. Once you are able to breathe through your diaphragm, the full cycle of your breathing will become slower and deeper.
If you aren't accustomed to breathing in this way, it may feel awkward, confusing, or even frustrating in the beginning. If you allow your breath to naturally unfold, without forcing it, it will soon come more naturally (the more you practice, the sooner you will experience the benefits!). Remember, once our bodies become accustomed to carrying a certain amount of tension, it can take a bit of practice to relax the belly, in order to achieve a slower, deeper rhythm.
With practice, diaphragmatic breathing can help you reduce chronic stress and tension, regulate your emotions more effectively, and become more conscious of the relation between your mind and body. If these benefits are consistent with your goals, here are some tips for your practice:
Start by noticing your breathing. Pay attention to where you feel movement. See if you can relax your abdomen and allow your breath to gently unfold without forcing or pushing. Some people find it helpful to do this laying down or in a reclined position. Close your eyes and place one hand on your belly. If your hand is rising during your inhale and falling during your exhale, then you've got it! The movement should not be forced or violent, and it will be slight.
If you want more, you can set an intention for formal breath work, informal breath work, or a combination.
Formal breath work involves something similar to seated meditation, in which the focus of your meditation is your breath. This involves making specific time to stop all activity, find a special posture, and observe your breath for a duration of your choosing. By practicing this way regularly, you will strengthen your ability to keep your attention on your breath for a sustained period of time. This type of practice can lead to improved concentration as the mind becomes more focused and calm and less reactive to both internal and external events.
Informal practice involves directing your attention to your breath from time to time during the day, wherever you are and whatever you are doing. This type of breath work is no less valuable than formal practice, however, it can be easily neglected and is less effective for calming the mind if not combined with a formal practice.
If you are able, try a combination of formal and informal practice. See if you can devote some time each day to a formal practice, no matter how brief, and add informal practice throughout the day (observe your breath for a period of time while you are commuting, walking, sitting in a meeting, preparing a meal, etc.). The formal and informal practices will complement one another, likely enhancing the effects of your practice.
Ready to tap into your inner infant? Just notice, and observe what happens next.
For additional "Just Notice" challenges related to easing the burden of chronic stress and tension: