Chief Instructor: Sifu John C. Loupos - Since 1968

The Importance to Your Health
of Deep Abdominal Breathing

by Sifu John Loupos

The all too common tendency to breathe in a manner that is shallow, or constrained, is one of the great banes of modern man. Habitual shallow chest breathing is a major precursor for cardiovascular problems, as well as a host of other health issues. That this particular problem is so endemic is no coincidence in today’s society. Shallow breathing is both a cause and a reflection of health problems in today’s world.

Probably the most common cause of shallow breathing is a ‘tight gut’. Ironically, flat bellies and tight guts are much sought after in today’s society by men and women alike. Various media relentlessly promote the virtues of a flat belly, and popular approaches to exercise and fitness regularly invoke flat bellies and tight guts as the prevailing measures of their success. Nevertheless, flat guts, and especially the means by which they are achieved, are of dubious value. Flat bellies, in and of themselves, are fine and harmless, but when they are achieved by measures that cause chronic tightness in the muscles of the abdomen (or elsewhere) they become dangerous. Tightness of the gut is actually but one part of a self-fulfilling health risk comprising a neurophysiological cycle, as you shall discover in reading on.

The thoracic diaphragm, which attaches at its base along the inner rim of your lower rib cage, is the primary muscle responsible for controlling your breath. Your diaphragm is shaped like an open umbrella, or mushroom cap, when it is relaxed. The diaphragm causes you to inhale by contracting down flat toward the abdomen to create a vacuum pressure in the lungs, this in much the same manner as a fireplace bellows. The more efficiently your diaphragm is able to contract, the more efficiently air will be drawn into your lungs. But, like a bellows that fails to open all the way, the diaphragm can only draw breath into the lungs in accordance with its freedom to function properly in an unrestricted manner. If the diaphragm can’t contract fully, you can’t breathe fully. Most people, even seasoned athletes, breathe well below 100% efficiency. In fact, the average person uses considerably less than 25% of their actual lung capacity during normal breathing. In cases of chronic respiratory distress, tidal volume29 at 10% or less of total capacity is not at all uncommon.

An important point to grasp is that constrained breathing is but one part of a cyclical problem. As is often the case with cycles, once established there is no clearly identifiable starting point for this pattern. For one person constrained breathing might start with emotional anxiety or depression or stress, while for another it might stem from improper exercise in a quest to develop 6-pack abs. The cultural preoccupation with achieving a flat belly by any means whatsoever certainly doesn’t contribute to healthy breathing. Even factors outsides one’s control, such as environmental pollutants, can trigger or precurse constrained breathing patterns. The thoracic diaphragm, in order to contract down flat, must be able to shift the viscera (organs and such) downward and out of the way to make room for itself as it contracts. This explains why deep abdominal breathing causes your belly to expand forward, despite prevailing social values. A hypothetical trigger for constrained breathing might occur when someone hears upsetting news that creates emotional anxiety. This automatically excites the body’s sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous response with a resultant tightness in the gut. If tightness in the gut muscles ‘lock up’ the viscera the diaphragm has less room to contract. You can easily experience this yourself if you pause here [try this now], to tighten your gut and then try taking in a deep breath. Notice your limited capacity for breath intake. The tightness in your gut creates an actual physical impediment that prevents the diaphragm from contracting down flat to open the lungs fully. Tightness such as this, when chronic, results in habitually short breaths.

Any number of seemingly benign stimuli can elicit a ‘tight gut’ reaction. Imagine the following scenario while you [try this now], press your fingers firmly into your abdomen - you’re driving your car and a ball or a small animal appears suddenly in your path... as you instinctively reach with your foot for the brake pedal feel how your gut tightens automatically. Myriad stressors occurring every day, and repeatedly eliciting a ‘tight gut’ response, can contribute to an habituation of this same response so that tightness in your gut, rather than a relaxed belly, becomes your norm.

The greatest risk of chronic tightness in your gut is that you fall into the habit of breathing shallowly. Meanwhile, and despite the fact that you may be breathing inefficiently, your cardiovascular demands remain constant. Your heart must still pump oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. In compensation for less oxygen being available due to constrained breathing patterns, your body may employ any or all of several compensatory responses. First, red blood cell production may increase in an effort to deliver more oxygen to the capillaries. However, too many additional red blood cells will thicken the blood (polycythemia), eliciting a hyper-ventilatory response, meaning your heart must beat both faster in order to make up for less efficient oxygenation of the blood and harder in order to pump blood that is now more viscous. Shallow breathing, combined with poor oxygenation, in turn raises blood pressure to service the ongoing needs of your body. This is the physiological equivalent of running your car’s engine constantly in the Red-zone, and places the body under tremendous duress. Not unreasonably, the brain’s response to all of this is one of chronic low-level anxiety, which further increases your oxygen demand, and results in possible tendencies toward depression, short temper, impatience, disturbed sleep patterns, digestive difficulties, etc. In addition, shallow breathing undermines the ‘syphoning’ of lymph from the thoracic duct. Last, but not least, constrained breathing can cause fatigue, both mental and physical, as well as reduced stamina. Your brain requires approximately 25% of the oxygen you breathe in. When oxygen becomes less available to the whole body due to constrained breathing patterns the brain experiences the effects of oxygen deprivation as well. Healthy breathers expend approximately 5% of their energy just on the process of breathing. Individuals whose breathing is severely compromised, as with emphysema, may expend up to 50% of their total body energy, day and night, on breathing alone!30  Any or all of these symptoms can then both reflect and/or reinforce your body’s chemical and/or hormonal imbalance causing serotonin levels to decrease and cortisol (a major stress hormone) to increase, further complicating this debilitating cycle. Even just ‘simple’ generalized anxiety perpetuates this cycle by alarming the sympathetic nervous system, thus reinforcing any tendency to breathe shallowly.

What can you do about this and why should you act? Somehow this cycle must be broken in order for the body and all of its systems - cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, digestive, lymphatic, etc. - to stand down and relax to a level of normal healthy functioning. Barring this normality, one may fully expect all the effects of a stressed out system to ensue. It is merely a question of when, and of which part of your system breaks down first under duress - your heart, anxiety level/ mood, vascular function, digestion/elimination, respiratory, or other chronic illness.

You can take steps to interrupt this cycle at any point. The easiest way to enact self-intervention is to learn how to relax your breath so as to breathe fully in an abdominal fashion. The very act of paying attention to how you breathe represents a first step in reversing this debilitating process. A firmly entrenched pattern of shallow breathing will also benefit from participation in Tai Chi or Hanna Somatics, as these both offer useful and direct measures for helping you learn how to breathe in a manner that will make deep abdominal breathing the habit for you that it should be. The Hanna Somatics breathing patterns included in Thomas Hanna’s “Myth of Aging” series are the most effective I have encountered at interrupting this cycle so as to create an internal environment conducive to deep abdominal breathing. By my way of thinking, these particular breathing patterns should serve as a basis for anyone involved in disciplines that emphasize breath work, including Chi Kung (Qigong), yoga, and singing. Tai Chi Chuan (or yoga), when properly practiced, then becomes an excellent means of reinforcing deep breathing patterns on an ongoing basis. Get yourself started today.

Back to Contents