Diaphragmatic Breathing: 5 Exercises and 8 Yoga Postures to Breathe More Efficiently

Practices to maximise the benefits of your breath.


The diaphragm is essential for our respiratory system. Its principal function is to increase and decrease the volume of the thoracic cavity. While other muscles are involved in inhalation and exhalation, the diaphragm is the main respiratory muscle.

Diaphragmatic breathing involves enhancing the action of the diaphragm and minimizing the action of the ribcage and, when practiced correctly, makes our breathing more efficient.

Also known as abdominal breathing, it is the most natural and effective way to breathe. However, poor posture, restrictive clothing and stress which can lead to tension or hyperventilation impede this process.

Yoga breathwork and postures help us raise awareness of the action of the diaphragm, to improve its function and increase its efficiency. Through consciousness and practice, we can make diaphragmatic breathing a part of our daily life to restore efficient respiration, thus improving our physical and mental well-being.

Read on to discover

a computer image of a diaphragm in the body

How the diaphragm works

Situated within the ribcage, this large flat muscle forms a dome separating the lungs from the abdominal cavity.

The terms diaphragmatic breathing and abdominal, or “belly”, breathing are used interchangeably because the mechanism of the diaphragm directly impacts the abdomen and its contents.

During inhalation the diaphragm moves downwards, pushing the abdominal organs down and outward. During exhalation the diaphragm moves upwards, pulling the abdominal contents inwards.

In fact, it is the contraction of the diaphragm that triggers inhalation. When this respiratory muscle contracts, its central tendon is pulled down, increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity. This generates negative intrapleural pressure and the need for an inhalation.

However, the descent of the central tendon can be stopped by different forces leading the diaphragm to execute its other function of elevating the ribs.

When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes to ascend, the lungs and ribcage are compressed and air is released through the nose and mouth.

Health benefits of diaphragmatic breathing

The breath is the most vital process of the body. It influences the activity of every cell and brain performance meaning that breathing is intimately linked with all aspects of human experience.  

Movement of the diaphragm is a reliable indication that the lower lobes of the lungs are being utilized. As opposed to chest breathing, when diaphragmatic breathing is practiced correctly, we can experience many physiological benefits:

  • equal expansion of the alveoli in the lungs
  • more effective lymphatic drainage from the basal parts of the lungs
  • the liver, stomach, intestines and other abdominal muscles are massaged
  • improved cardiac functions improve
  • increase blood supply to the heart
  • increased oxygenation of the blood
  • improved circulation
  • reduce heart rate and blood pressure

In addition to improving physiological functions and quality of life, diaphragmatic breathing may have a positive influence on our life span.

Dedicated rishis studied the breath rates of different animals in nature and concluded that the animals that breathe more slowly such as elephants and tortoises have longer life spans, whereas animals with a fast breath rate including birds and rabbits live fewer years.

From a physiological perspective, this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that the respiration process is directly linked to heart health. Slow, deep breathing facilitated by the action of the diaphragm helps to keep the heart stronger.

At the psycho-emotional level, enhancing our body-mind connection through breath awareness increases our ability to self-regulate thoughts and emotions and improve mental health. Additionally, the deep, controlled breathing associated with the diaphragm helps to regulate the nervous system (activating the parasympathetic nervous system) and reduce stress hormone cortisol which can ease symptoms of anxiety disorders.

At a spiritual level, it is thought that deep breathing increases the absorption of prana to enhance vitality and overall well-being.

a man lying on a yoga mat in bound angle pose with a hand on his stomach and another on his chest

5 Yoga practices that develop diaphragmatic breathing

Most people breathe inefficiently, using only a small proportion of their lung capacity. This leads to shallow breathing, which deprives the body of oxygen and – at a spiritual level – of prana.

The following breathing techniques help us to understand how to breathe efficiently while raising awareness of diaphragmatic breathing and the whole respiratory process. Although breathing is an autonomous process regulated by the involuntary, or autonomic, nervous system, these pranayama exercises teach us how to take conscious control of the breath.

When you first try these diaphragmatic breathing exercises, you’ll notice and feel the effect of the diaphragm in action rather than the diaphragm itself, namely the rising and falling of the abdomen, although sensitivity can develop with regular practice.

1. Diaphragmatic (abdominal or “belly”) breathing

  • Lie in Savasana and relax the whole body. Let your breathing pattern rest easy.
  • Place one hand on your abdomen just above the navel and the other hand on your chest.
  • First, just observe the natural ebb and flow of your breath without modifying it.
  • Next, visualize that you are breathing in and out directly through the navel, keeping the abdomen relaxed. Feel how the hand on the abdomen moves up and down while the hand on the chest stays relatively still.
  • Without moving the chest or shoulders, continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Inhale deeply to push out the abdomen as far as is comfortable without expanding the ribcage. Notice how the diaphragm contracts to move downward.
  • As you exhale, notice how the belly relaxes. At the end of the exhalation, squeeze the abdominal muscles by pulling the navel towards the spine.

Repeat the conscious inhalation and exhalation for a few minutes. Relax any effort and restore your natural breathing rhythm.

2. Yogic breathing

This breathing technique combines diaphragmatic breathing with expansion of the ribcage to maximize movement of the thoracic cavity, increasing its volume and oxygen intake.

  • Find a comfortable sitting position or lie in Savasana. Relax the whole body.
  • Inhale deeply to fully expand the abdomen, slowing the inhalation right down so that it can barely be heard.
  • When the abdomen is fully expanded, breathe into the chest to expand the ribcage upward and outward.
  • Continue inhaling towards the upper lungs (near the neck), until the shoulders and collarbone move up slightly. You may feel some tension in the neck muscles.
  • To exhale, relax the lower neck and upper chest. Then let the diaphragm push upward towards the chest.
  • Without exerting force, pull the navel towards the spine to empty the lungs.

Repeat 5-10 times and build up to a 10-minute daily practice.

Ensure that each stage of the process is carried out in one continuous inhalation and exhalation without pauses or breaks in the flow of air.

a woman sitting cross legged on a yoga mat practicing diaphragmatic breathing

3. Makarasana (Crocodile pose) with diaphragmatic breathing

  • Lie face down with the legs separated as wide as a yoga mat, turning the heels in and toes out to the sides.
  • Place one hand on top of the other, palms down, at the centre-top of the mat.
  • Push down with your hands to lift the chest off the mat and rest your forehead on top of your hands, maintaining a hollow space between the floor and the upper chest. Adjust the position of your elbows so that only the lower ribs are touching the floor.
  • Allow the abdomen and back to relax.
  • In this variant of Makarasana, breathe slowly and deeply noticing how the breath pushes your belly into the floor to expand the lower back and send the lower ribs outwards. Try to perceive the movement of the diaphragm as you inhale and exhale.

The position of the arms limits the movement in the chest and ribcage and lying face down allows the abdomen to relax which facilitates the action of the diaphragm.

4. Tadagi Mudra (barrelled abdomen technique)

This technique tones the abdominal organs and stretches the diaphragm.

  • Sit in Dandasana with your feet slightly separated, keeping your legs straight.
  • Relax your whole body.
  • Lean forward to grasp your big toes with your thumbs, index and middle fingers.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply, expanding your abdomen fully
  • Hold the breath in the lungs (Antara Kumbakha) for a few moments without straining.
  • Exhale slowly to relax the abdomen.

Repeat up to 10 times.

5. Bhastrika pranayama (Bellows breath)

This pranayama practice involves rapid and rhythmic movement of the diaphragm to increase the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs.

  • Find a comfortable seated posture, with your hands resting on the knees and your spine upright.
  • Close your eyes and relax your whole body.
  • Inhale deeply and breathe out forcefully, without straining, through the nose by contracting the abdominal muscles.
  • Immediately after, fully expand the abdominal muscles to generate a forceful inhalation, again without straining.
  • Try to accentuate the movement of the abdomen, expanding it outward with the inhalation and pulling it inward with the exhalation.

Take 10 breaths in this way then rest. Practice up to 5 rounds.  

8 Yoga postures that raise awareness of diaphragmatic breathing

Discover how these yoga poses help increase awareness of the action of the diaphragm and the effects of diaphragmatic breathing on the whole respiratory system, on your body and your mind.

1. Gomukasana (Cow Face Pose)

an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing a cow face pose

This gentle back bend facilitates deep breathing by opening the chest area.

At the physical level, it increases awareness of the breath and at the spiritual level, it turns focus towards the heart chakra.

Gomukasana helps to improve posture and reduce tension or anxiety which contributes to effective breathing.

2. Saral Bhujangasana (Easy Cobra/Sphinx)

an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing baby cobra pose

This pose brings physical awareness to the breath. In easy Cobra, or Sphinx pose, the abdomen is pressed against the floor preventing the breath from reaching the lower belly and this contact allows us to feel the movement of the diaphragm.

3. Urdhva Mukha (Upward Facing Dog)

an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing upward facing dog pose

Upward Facing Dog stretches the chest muscles and expands the thoracic cavity, helping the lungs to gain elasticity.

The lengthening of the spine helps to improve posture and stretches the abdominal muscles to improve their functioning and facilitate diaphragmatic breathing.

4. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

annotated image of a woman doing chair pose

Raising the arms overhead in Chair Pose, lifts the thorax and the diaphragm which draws attention to the action in this area. It also helps to massage the heart and tone the abdominal organs.

5. Matsyasana (Fish Pose)

an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing fish Pose

Arching the back in Fish Pose stretches the abdominal muscles and encourages deep breathing.

At a physical level, awareness is drawn to the abdomen and chest, and on the breath while spiritual awareness is on the heart chakra and solar plexus chakra around the navel.

6. Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)

an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing bow pose

Dhanurasana stretches the abdomen and chest muscles, making it beneficial for respiratory disorders.

Try practicing Makarasana with diaphragmatic breathing before lifting into this backbend to draw attention to the action of the diaphragm in contact with the floor.

7. Chakrasana (Wheel Pose)

an annotated image of a man doing wheel pose

Wheel pose fully expands the chest, massaging the heart and lifting the diaphragm. It is beneficial for the whole respiratory system. Physical awareness is on the chest and abdomen while the spiritual focus is drawn to Manipura chakra.

8. Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)

an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing reclined bound angle Pose

This relaxation technique requires minimal physical effort to maintain the posture, allowing you to direct your full attention to your breathing.

In Supta Baddha Konasana, the chest opens up to maximize the thoracic capacity. This expansion can be increased by taking the arms overhead to touch the floor, either outstretched with hands to each side or with the forearms crossed.

This posture can become even more restorative, by creating a slope with bolsters and blocks to lie upon. This helps to completely relax the chest muscles and encourage belly breathing. You can fully embrace your diaphragmatic breathing by placing your hands on the belly in this position to feel the rise and fall of the abdomen.

Learn more about how to practice Bhastrika pranayama and deep breathing, and box breathing to strengthen your diaphragm.

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Yoga teacher from the UK based in Madrid. Combining the ancient wisdom of Yoga with modern health sciences (physiotherapy, osteopathy) and holistic health. Hatha-Vinyasa and restorative classes in English and Spanish. Trained in India and Madrid (400 hours) // FisiOm // Yoga for Hormonal Health

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