Buteyko Breathing, Abdominal or Diaphragmatic?

Written by: Janet Winter, U.K. - Level 3 Buteyko Educator

First Published in an earlier version of Breath Notes

I recently noted that some Buteyko practitioners talk about abdominal (belly) breathing and some talk about diaphragmatic breathing. So I was asked to explain the difference! I am sure that we are all in agreement that the predominantly chest breathing pattern with which many of our clients start off needs to be discouraged, and relaxed breathing—low and slow—promoted.

But when it comes to belly or diaphragm, belly breathing could be rather unrelaxed, holding the rib cage stiff and pumping in and out of the abdomen. I am a relative newcomer as I have only been a Buteyko practitioner for a couple of years, and some of you are breathing experts, but I thought I would just share 2 descriptions of good breathing that I have found very useful.

The first is from a British choir master, as seen on TV http://www.garethmalone.com/sing/tips (click on the “breathing” tab) and is very short and sweet. For getting air into the bottom of the lungs for good singing his tip is: “Imagine you have a rubber ring around your waist (your diaphragm). The trick is to try and push the imaginary rubber ring outwards with your body.”

This seemed to explain what we want simply and clearly, I always tell this now to my clients. The rib cage has to expand and the diaphragm must contract if you follow these instructions.

The second is from an excellent site from an Alexander Technique teacher, (Philip Pawley, died January 2012) also in the UK. I know that some AT teachers call abdominal breathing “abominable breathing!” This one goes into lots of interesting detail. I often recommend to my clients that they look into AT to learn more about breathing, after they have learned initial control, and increased their control pause with Buteyko.

There are three main kinds of breathing:

  •  Chest Breathing
  •  Belly Breathing (unsupported diaphragm)
  •  Diaphragmatic Breathing (properly supported)

Chest Breathing

Breathing with the upper chest is the most effortful and least productive of the three. The chest and neck muscles lift the breast-bone and upper ribs. As the breast-bone comes up, it also comes forward.

This inflates the upper lobes of the lungs. Because they are small, only a small volume of air is drawn in. This means rapid, short breaths. The effort involved is considerable. It is also a drag on the head, neck and shoulders so that these have to be braced in order to provide an Archimedean point from which the upper chest can be lifted.

This type of breathing is characteristic of anyone who is struggling for breath.

The Diaphragm

When the dome-shaped diaphragm muscle tightens to draw air into the lungs, it flattens. This can happen in one of two ways:

  1. the top of the dome comes down but its edges are fixed, (un-supported diaphragmatic breathing)
  2. the dome also lifts the ribs as its edges come up. (supported diaphragmatic breathing)

Belly Breathing (unsupported diaphragm)

This is usual but not very effective. The lower ribs don’t move much. This is for two reasons. Firstly, because the diaphragm isn’t lifting them. Secondly, because over-tight muscles are stopping the ribs from moving. Instead, the top of the dome, moving down, creates space for the lungs to expand into.

This method of breathing also pushes down on the abdominal organs. They have to go somewhere. As a result, they end up bellying out in front — a characteristic of unsupported diaphragmatic breathing. The fact that many people breathe in this way is the main reason why a ‘beer-belly’, or ‘middle-aged spread’, is so frequent even in people who are not over-weight, don’t drink beer and are not yet middle-aged!

This piston-like action is often believed to be the proper action of the diaphragm. In fact, it’s only one part of the story. The best use of the diaphragm is only possible when it is getting its proper support, as we shall now see.

Diaphragmatic Breathing (properly supported)

The dome-shaped diaphragm muscle is attached by its edges to the lowest ribs, the costal arch, the base of the breast-bone and (at the back) to the front of the lumbar spine.

Superior view of cross-section of diaphragm, the main muscle of breathingIn supported diaphragmatic breathing, because the abdominal organs are supported in place, the top of the diaphragm cannot come down as much as it does in unsupported diaphragmatic breathing. (We will look later at what provides this support).

This support provides the “Archimedean point” enabling the diaphragm to lift the lower ribs. (These lower ribs are the ones which join together in front to form the costal arch instead of attaching directly to the breast-bone).

The way these ribs are jointed to the spine means that, as they come up, they must also come out sideways (not forwards as the upper ribs do). To picture the movement of one of these ribs, imagine starting to lift the handle of a bucket from its rest position, where it lies against the side of the bucket; imagine lifting it up-and-out sideways. The movement of the rib is just like this. The result of all the lower ribs moving together in this way is a big sideways expansion: an expansion of one’s back just as much as it is an expansion of one’s lower chest. This inflates the large lower lobes of the lungs very considerably.

Since a very large volume of air flows in and out of the lungs, one naturally breathes much more slowly this way. This all makes for effortless breathing. Another advantage is that, while upper chest breathing creates a downward drag on the head and neck, this support for the diaphragm actually acts as a hydraulic lift, buoying one up and greatly reducing the effort of maintaining an erect posture.

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