Belly Love – Letting it all hang out!
Its time for some belly love!
Embracing our bellies can help us to breathe better. I know that might sound weird, because what do our bellies have to do with breathing. Stick with me here. Have you ever heard of belly breathing? How about diaphragmatic breathing? There are tons of health and relaxation benefits associated with this type of breathing, from improved mood and energy to enhanced relaxation…and who doesn’t like feeling good?
If you want to try a short belly – or – diaphragmatic breathing exercise with me right now, keep on reading!
The reason that the belly moves as we inhale and exhale has to do with a very important muscle for breathing… our diaphragm! The diaphragm is a large sheet of muscle that is located just beneath the ribcage. It’s not only at the front side of the body, but runs all the way through the body from front to back and from side to side. The diaphragm separates the torso into the chest above and the abdomen below. It is also the main muscle used in a full healthy breathing pattern!
As we inhale, our diaphragm pulls downward, changing the pressure in the ribcage so that air is drawn into the lungs. As we exhale, the diaphragm draws back up to assist in pressing air out of the ribcage. When the diaphragm draws down as we breathe in, our abdominal organs have to go somewhere to let the diaphragm move fully… that is why the belly relaxes outward as we breathe in. As we exhale, the diaphragm draws back upward and our belly can draw in and up back toward the spine.
When we’re thinking about contracting the abdominal muscles to pull the belly back toward the spine, the action is a flattening and broadening of the belly on the exhale as it draws gently in and up. We are using the deep abdominal muscles (particularly the transversus abdominis) to help us perform a full and active exhale. When we exhale fully, we are clearing out as much stale air from the lungs as possible, making room for fresh oxygen rich air.
Sometimes, people develop a reverse breathing pattern, where they are “sucking it in” on the inhale and letting the belly drop on the exhale. Sometimes there really isn’t much movement happening in the belly at all and the abs are constantly kept in a guarded state of contraction. Neither of these options are natural or particularly effective breath patterns. They are developed through cultural influence and the idea of “sucking in the gut”.
This is where it becomes important to get comfortable with the idea of letting our belly soften. Many of us hold our belly in all the time to appear more slender and fit. While it is important to be able to contract our abdominal muscles quickly, strongly and effectively for many different activities, it is just as important to learn how to relax them.
Any patterns of chronic holding, contraction and shortening don’t serve our bodies well. This contributes to maladaptive energetic holding patterns as well as to physical tightness and imbalances. A strong muscle isn’t one that is always tightly clenched… A strong muscle is one that can alternate between relaxed and contracted in a coordinated way.
If you think about this same sort of chronic holding pattern with a muscle like your bicep, keeping the bicep constantly in a state of contraction really doesn’t allow for any functional use of that muscle. You need to be able to have that full range from contracted to relaxed in order for that muscle to be functionally useful and effective.
Breathing fully and allowing the belly and the diaphragm to go through their full ranges of motion will gently massage the abdominal organs, allowing them to release waste products and draw in fresh oxygen from the blood. A supple belly, responsive, soft and strong, is what will serve us the best in our breath practice and in life.
Let’s try this diaphragmatic or belly breathing now. Allow your eyes to close if that helps you focus on your breath… well maybe let them close after you read what you will be doing 😉
Place your hands on your belly and as you inhale, feel your breath moving in and down to fill your hands.
As you breathe out, feel your belly draw in and up, toward your spine and away from your hands.
Allow yourself to take five more full breaths like that.
When you feel ready, gently blink your eyes open. Think about where you were feeling the breath moving in your body that time.
If you are someone who is used to holding the belly in and tight, this may feel really challenging. With practice it gets easier to draw the breath deeper and deeper into your body and the movement of your belly in and out will become more smooth, free and easy. Practice connecting with deep breathing and allowing your belly to move. Start with three breath check-ins per day of at least 10 breaths each. Be open to noticing any changes or feelings that arise as part of this experience.
If you live in Minnesota, and would like to get more in depth with learning about your breath, I will be offering a workshop about mindful breathing at the Mississippi Market Co-op on West 7th St. in St. Paul next Thursday, April 23 from 6-8pm. For more information, or to buy tickets, please click here