Which Is Better for You? Chest Breath Vs Belly Breath

Discover the best breathing technique for your health: Chest vs. Belly Breathing. Learn how each method impacts your well-being and overall health.

Which Is Better for You? Chest Breath Vs Belly Breath

In order to understand the difference between Chest Breath vs Belly Breath, it is important to understand the concept of Pranayama and breathing. 

Pranayama refers to the Breathing practices which are an important part of yoga. If you’re a regular practitioner of yoga then you’re guaranteed to hear the teacher instructing students to control their breath in different ways and some are more complicated than others. The most common sentences that you might have heard while practicing yoga might be “breathe into your belly” and “breathe into your ribs”, for us Chest Breath  vs Belly Breath. 

As a beginner in Yoga, you might feel confused when differentiating between the two techniques and may not get the clear explanations about how to do such breathing during class. This confusion often leads us to think: How to do so? How can air move into my belly? 

The answer to this question is very easy, which is to understand the basics of Pranayama. 

Once you have understood the basic facts of breathing it becomes easier to understand these breathing techniques. Though it can become very confusing if you don’t understand it from someone professional. Now we’ll explain more about these basic differences between the Chest Breath and Belly Breath. 

The Breath Is Both Physiological And Experiential

To get started, it’s helpful to differentiate between the two ways that we can evaluate the concept of breathing.

  1. The breath as a physiological process.

  2. The breath as something we experience.

There may be times when these viewpoints may or may not align that can lead to confusion.

Let’s take this common instruction for example: “Breathe into your belly.”

From an observational perspective, this phrase is very sensible and sounds very intuitive. If we look at our daily way of breathing then most of us can feel the abdomen rising and going back while we breathe. Focusing on keeping the breath down into the belly can help some individuals breathe more deeply and smoothly. And this is something which we generally encourage in yoga, also being the reason for regular use of this phrase by the teachers. 

But on the other hand if we see from an anatomical point of view,  the instruction “breathe into your belly” may look a bit misleading and lead to confusion in your mind. 

The Difference Between Air & Breath

One important thing which we generally miss out on is the concept of air and of breath. Air is invisible and gaseous substance that moves in and out of the lungs through the bronchial tree during breathing. While breath, according to Leslie Kaminoff, “can mean any type of movement . . . that helps the process of respiration.”

And even though the air doesn’t move into the belly when we breathe, the breath does. This just goes to show how important precision of language is while teaching.

Hopefully, that cleared some confusion for you. Now the questions arises, why exactly does the belly move when we breathe? To answer this question, let’s look at the diagram of diaphragm to understand it more anatomically. 

Anatomy Of The Diaphragm

The principal muscle of breathing is the diaphragm. It is shaped like a parachute or jellyfish and sits below the lungs. Diaphragm is tucked under the rib cage and it divides the torso into the thoracic and abdominal cavities.

diaphragm-origin-insertion

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The outer edge of the diaphragm attaches to the sternum, the base of the rib cage and the front of the lower (lumbar) spine. Together, these points of connection are referred to as the muscle’s origin.

At the top of the diaphragm is a flat surface called the central tendon, made of non-contractile fibrous tissue. This means that it does not contract on its own like a muscle. It can move but only when the muscle fibers that attach to it contract. The central tendon is referred to as the diaphragm’s insertion.

The Diaphragm Contracts while Inhaling And Relaxes while Exhaling

When the diaphragm contracts, it changes the shape to help in increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity. This increase in volume results in a decrease in pressure within the cavity. This decrease of pressure causes air to flow into the lungs. This is called inhaling.

When the diaphragm relaxes, the lung tissues and thoracic cavity get back to their original shape and volume and release the air out of the lungs. This is called exhaling.

In a relaxed breathing (for example, when we sleep), the exhale is passive — meaning it occurs because muscles relax. That is not always the case when we change or control our breathing while performing physical activities or pranayama (yogic breathing) techniques.

The Movement Of The Diaphragm

The muscle fibers of the diaphragm are primarily oriented vertically (up and down).

diaphragm-muscle-fibers

This means that when it contracts by shortening its fibers, it pulls the central tendon and the base of the rib cage toward each other. The diaphragm starts to flatten itself out. 

The movement of the breath is directed around the torso based on which part of the diaphragm is stabilized and which part is left free to move. This is the basic distinction between a “chest breath” and a “belly breath” that we are trying to learn here. 

Chest Breath: The Central Tendon Is Stable And The Rib Cage Is Mobile

When the diaphragm contracts, the central tendon is held in place and the ribs are free to move while the base of the rib cage is lifted towards the central tendon. This causes the rib cage and thoracic cavity to expand to the sides, front and back. This is the process which explains the “chest breath.”

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Belly Breath: The Rib Cage Is Stable And The Central Tendon Is Mobile

When the rib cage is held in place and the central tendon is free to move, the central tendon is pulled downward toward the base of the rib cage while the diaphragm contracts. This presses down on the abdominal cavity.

belly-breath-illustration

We’ve already observed that the thoracic cavity changes in shape and in volume during the process of breathing, and that is how air is drawn in and expelled out of the lungs. However, The abdominal cavity only changes in shape during breathing.

Leslie Kaminoff compares the abdominal cavity to a water balloon to explain this point. When you press one end, the other end bulges. The shape of the abdominal cavity changes and the contents are shifted around but the volume always stays the same. 

(Note that the abdominal cavity can change in volume in other ways not associated with breathing, like when you eat a lot or in case of pregnancy in women.)

The organs are generally pushed out of the way and the belly bulges like a water balloon when the diaphragm presses down on the abdominal cavity in order to make room for the thoracic cavity and thus helping the lungs to expand.  This is called as a “belly breath.”

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Every Breath Is A Diaphragmatic Breath

if you are able to understand the diaphragm as a muscle that can be stabilized on one end and allowed to move on the other side, the “why” behind chest breath vs belly breath becomes pretty clear.

It’s important to note that the examples mentioned above are the two extremes. They can happen independently or they can both happen at the same time according to different matters. It depends on the activity of two group of muscles called the accessory muscles of respiration and the postural stabilization muscles in the torso.

One important thing that we would like to put light on is that the diaphragm is always in work when we breathe, both in Chest Breath vs Belly Breath. You might also hear belly breathing referred to as “diaphragmatic breathing” which means that you’re not using your diaphragm if you breathe into your ribs, but in fact every breath is a diaphragmatic breath. One’s breathing pattern might be efficient or inefficient, but it always involves the contraction (while inhaling) and relaxation (while exhaling) of the diaphragm.

Summary

As per our study and explanation above for this comparison between Chest Breath vs Belly Breath we understood that The diaphragm’s main function is to draw air into the lungs by increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity. There are two ways how Diaphragm do it: 

  1. The diaphragm lifts the base of the rib cage and sternum, expanding the rib cage to the front, sides and back, creating a “chest breath.”

  2. The diaphragm pushes downward on the abdominal cavity, which bulges forward, creating a “belly breath.”

This was an overview on the topic of Chest Breath vs Belly Breath, for more such informative blogs please refer to these links. 

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