Belly Breathing Vs Chest Breathing | Why Your Yoga Teacher Tells You To ‘Breathe Into Your Belly’

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As soon as you start building a consistent yoga routine, you’ll recognize the importance of breathwork.

Oxygen provides fuel for the muscles, and breathing controls how you deliver that fuel. Therefore, it’s super important that you make an effort to breathe in the right way.

This is why yoga teachers love to tell their students how they should be breathing. And one instruction you may have heard plenty of times is “Breathe into your belly.”

While this is a common comment made during yoga classes, it’s also crucial to recognize that you can’t always take a blanket approach. No 2 students and no 2 human bodies are the same, after all. We’ll bear this in mind as we guide you through today’s content.

In this article, we’ll give you a helpful guide to breathwork in yoga, focusing on these key areas:

  • What Is Belly Breathing?
  • What Is Chest Breathing?
  • Belly Breathing Vs Chest Breathing: The Key Differences
  • How To Practice Belly Breathing
  • Why Your Yoga Teacher Tells You To ‘Breathe Into Your Belly’

Let’s explore how breathwork can be used to enhance your both yoga practice and your everyday life.

a picture of yoga gear- a mat a bolster, blocks

What Is Belly Breathing?

Before we properly dive into the uses and benefits of belly breathing, we should note that there are a few different terms people use for this type of breathwork.

Belly breathing can also be referred to as “diaphragmatic breathing” or “abdominal breathing”.

All 3 of these terms refer to breathing that moves the belly — although the term “diaphragmatic breathing” is actually a bit misleading, because the diaphragm is used in all forms of breathing. But more on that later.

The diaphragm is a muscle located between the thoracic cavity (chest) and the abdominal cavity. In belly breathing, the diaphragm is activated, and its dome descends into the abdomen and pushes the belly forward.

It’s worth noting that belly breathing is a technique, not an area of storage. Your lungs are above your belly, so when you practice belly breathing, oxygen doesn’t actually go into that area of the body, it simply pushes it out by engaging the diaphragm.

a science diagram showing the diaphragm

Identifying a belly breathe is pretty simple — you’ll see your belly bulge during this action. It can be incorporated easily into yoga and mindfulness practices; however, belly breathing can also be useful in other circumstances.

Some people use this technique to help get more oxygen into their lungs when they feel short of breath, whether this is caused by asthma, anxiety, or something totally different.

Shortly, we’ll explain how to practice belly breathing in these kinds of moments. But first, we’re going to take a little dive into chest breathing and how it differs from the belly breathe.

What Is Chest Breathing?

Chest breathing, which is also known as “thoracic breathing” moves the rib cage, as opposed to the belly. This technique refers to breaths from the top lobes of the lungs, which are usually short and quick, as opposed to long and deep.

The diaphragm is still active in chest breathing, but its dome doesn’t descend very far. Essentially, it’s a form of shallow breathing that doesn’t fully engage the lungs.

It’s perfectly fine to practice chest breathing sometimes, but it’s important to understand why belly breathing is the preferred technique for many yogis and wellness advocates.

a woman meditating and breathing

These are the main problems with chest breathing:

#1. It often triggers muscle posturing, which can lead to bodily tension and pain, and sometimes even headaches.

#2. It’s inefficient and more labor-intensive than belly breathing, because it requires faster breathing.

#3. Completion of exhale can sometimes be difficult with chest breathing, leading to breathlessness.

Now, just because chest breathing has certain disadvantages, doesn’t mean that belly breathing is always the superior strategy. Breathwork always depends on the individual and the intentions they have for their practice.

Let’s spend some time comparing the key differences between belly breathing and chest breathing.

Belly Breathing Vs Chest Breathing: The Key Differences

We’ve touched on why yoga teachers might often encourage their students to practice belly breathing, but it’s worth fleshing out the differences between these techniques in more detail.

Here are the key differences between belly breathing and chest breathing.

two men meditating together in tank tops

#1. Shallow Vs Deep

While chest breaths tend to be short and quick, belly breaths are slow and deep, with inhalations and exhalations taking longer and delivering more oxygen to the bloodstream.

#2. Lung Areas Used

The previous point can be explained by taking a look at the lungs. Chest breathing uses the chest muscles to inflate the lungs by pulling on the rib cage. This causes the chest to expand and contract with each breath.

Meanwhile, belly breathing uses the entire lung capacity, pulling down on the abdominal cavity to fully inflate the lungs.

#3. Carbon Dioxide Release

The larger amount of air intake encouraged by belly breathing also allows you to exhale a greater amount of carbon dioxide. In chest breathing, oxygen/carbon dioxide imbalance can lead to problems such as hyperventilation.

a prebnant woman dressed in white yoga clothes sits on her bed and does a breathing exercise

How To Tell Whether You’re Belly Breathing Vs Chest Breathing

These core belly breathing vs chest breathing distinctions should illustrate why yoga and meditation teachers try to encourage the former technique. Nevertheless, chest breathing is a totally normal part of life, and some of us are more inclined to practice it than others.

Generally speaking, women are more likely to be chest breathers than men, and men are more likely to be belly breathers than women. This is simply due to the different angles of men’s and women’s ribs, an adaptation that allows women to cope better with pregnancy.

The best way to distinguish between these 2 forms of breathing and identify whether you’re typically a chest or stomach breather is to simply observe your body.

One common technique is to lie on your back with your hands on your abdomen. If your hands rise and fall naturally, that means you’re a belly breather. If your hands remain mostly still, you’re a chest breather.

You can also try this out standing or sitting up. If the belly bulges during inhalation, that means you’re taking a belly breath. In chest breathing, on the other hand, the belly remains still or moves inward on inhalation, and the ribs move up or out.

a group of people sitting and meditating together in different coloured t shirts

In order to give you an even better understanding of the differences between these two varieties of breathwork, the next section of this article will take you through exactly how to practice belly breathing.

How To Practice Belly Breathing

Taking a more mindful approach to breathing can have real positive consequences.

Below is a guide to the simple practice of belly breathing. You can use it to help experience moments of calmness, relaxation, and balance.

  • First, sit down in a comfortable chair, with your back straight and your hands on your belly.
  • Close your mouth and breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose.
  • When you inhale, feel your belly fill with air and grow, almost like a balloon.
  • Slowly and gently, blow out all of this air through pursed lips, as though you’re blowing bubbles.
  • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, and focus on your breathing as you do so.
  • Repeat this process for 5 to 10 minutes. This should help you settle down into a regular, calming breathwork pattern. Make sure you keep your hands on your belly, as this helps you focus on the ins and outs of the breath.

It’s as simple as that!

a man outside with trees behind him looks up to the sky and inhales deeply

If you’re ever wondering how belly breathing can help you, try out this easy exercise and notice how it affects you. 

Why Your Yoga Teacher Tells You To ‘Breathe Into Your Belly’

You should now have a better idea of what causes yoga teachers to promote the belly breath in their sessions.

There are a number of advantages that come with transferring your breathwork style from chest breathing to belly breathing. Let’s quickly recap some of the key upsides:

  • More oxygen released into the bloodstream
  • Greater air intake leads to larger amount of carbon dioxide released
  • Reduced chance of hyperventilation
  • Slower, deeper breaths have a more calming, relaxing effect than quick, shallow breaths
  • Engaging the diaphragm and using your entire lung capacity is better for the body and reduces the chance of muscle tensions and headaches
a woman practices breathwork at home

Put simply, these are the core reasons why your yoga instructor tells you to ‘breathe into the belly’.

However, if after reading today’s article and applying some of the exercises we’ve mentioned, you’ve realized you might be a natural chest breather, don’t worry about it!

Chest breathing is totally normal, and we don’t have to practice belly breathing all the time. That being said, knowing how to engage the diaphragm and use the full power of our lungs is super important.

Having this knowledge and making an effort to implement it within practices such as yoga, pilates, and mindful movement meditation can have a positive impact on your physical and mental health.

Interested in finding out other ways to enhance your yogic breathing? Our article, Can The Wim Hof Method Make You A Better Yogi? could be right up your street.

Photo of author
Fred is a London-based writer who works for several health, wellness and fitness sites, with much of his work focusing on mindfulness.

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