BreathingThe breath is the first step in most mind-body relaxation skills. Deeper breathing is one of the classic paths to balancing the brain and body. It is the most portable stress reduction skill. You can take it anywhere. Certain breathing practices can restore peace and give us a pause that allows the “wise owl” part of our brain to take charge, preventing overreactions that hurt health and relationships.

The benefits of taking a belly-breathing breath break include:

  • Clearing the mind;
  • Fooling the brain into thinking we’re relaxed;
  • Helping our wise mind get in charge rather than letting the stressed “reptilian” or “hot reactor” part of the brain call the shots;
  • Neutralizing or toning down strong emotions;
  • Setting the stage for calmness;
  • Oxygenating blood, which may enhance alertness and performance; and
  • Exercising the diaphragm in a manner similar to laughter.

If you’ve ever watched a baby breathe, they’re doing a version of belly breathing. You see their abdomen going up and down. For most adults, when we’re not paying attention, our breathing is often shallow and involves just the upper part of the chest. By taking deeper breaths, the brain thinks we’re relaxed and is able to quiet the cascade of stress-promoting hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and relax tense muscles so the blood pressure and stress hormones fall. For some people this can also help lower insulin resistance and blood sugar if practiced several times a day. Regular practice helps us be more in tune and in the moment, so we can make moment-to-moment relationship interaction and mindful food choices. These benefits are available with three or more breathing breaks in the day.

How to belly breathe
Relax the belly and start to breathe in by filling the belly. As you continue to breathe, move the air up to fill the middle and then upper parts of the lungs with breath. Exhale completely. This breath is also sometimes called three-part breath or complete breath.  By filling the belly, mid-chest and then upper chest with air you’re expanding the lung capacity. You can then reverse: exhale from the upper chest, mid-chest, then belly. Fully bring your belly area in toward the spine as you exhale completely. This may set you up for success on the next inhale. After two or three complete cycles of breathing in and out, return to normal breathing. Congratulate yourself for even one practice.

Remember, the important thing is to breathe more deeply some of the time. How you do that is not so important. If this method doesn’t feel good or natural, just breathe a little more deeply, as best you can.
My favorite way to practice belly breathing is lying down – it’s just easier. You can picture the belly filling then moving to mid-chest and upper chest as a wave rolling in then rolling out. My engineer husband prefers to use three-part breath when driving in frustrating traffic conditions.

The more regularly you practice belly breathing the more trained you’ll be, so that when you find yourself under stress, you’ll only have to start an intentional deeper belly breath and the body will “remember” to relax.

Cynthia Cinmayi Moore is an integral yoga, cardiac yoga trained registered dietitian and integrative health coach who works at the University of Virginia.