Healthy breathing is both deep and full. How we breathe has a fundamental impact on the stress response—deeper, fuller breaths lead to a happier, calmer you. Deep breathing requires breathing diaphragmatically. How can we learn diaphragmatic breathing? With a little breath training.

Healthy breathing is both deep and full.

We are familiar with weight training for all kinds of muscles, but most of us have never thought about strengthening the main muscle we use for breathing, the diaphragm. It is located below the lungs. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts, the abdomen expands, and air flows into the lungs. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, the abdomen softens, and air flows out of the lungs. A strong diaphragm increases your capacity to manage stress and anxiety, and remain calm throughout your day.

The best tool for strengthening the diaphragm is a soft, lightly weighted object, like a breath pillow. Breath pillows range in weight from 3 pounds for beginners to 20 pounds for advanced practitioners. If you don’t have a breath pillow, you can fill a bag with 5 to 10 pounds of rice, beans, or playground sand—adjusting the weight according to your needs. The bag should be big enough to cover your torso from below the rib cage down to your belly button or just below. Most people start with 5 to 10 pounds, but you may have to experiment a bit to see what weight is best for you.

Here’s a simple 10-minute technique for strengthening your diaphragm:

1. Lie on your back and make yourself comfortable.

2. Place a thin blanket or pillow under your neck and head.

3. Relax and allow yourself to be supported by the floor.

4. Bring your awareness to your breathing and notice your breath flow in and out as the belly rises and falls.

5. After a few minutes, place the breath pillow over your belly, just below the rib cage and above the pubic bone.

6. The weight of the pillow will cause your breath to flow out more quickly; gently resist this pressure by slowing your exhalation to match the length of your inhalation.

7. Try to keep your attention on your breath—feel the breath pillow move up as you inhale, and back down as you exhale.

8. After about 5 minutes (or when you become tired), gently remove the pillow and lie there for a few more minutes breathing normally. Notice the breath. You may feel that your breathing is more effortless, and may notice that you feel more relaxed and at ease.

Practice this technique once a day or as often as you can for one month. Try adding more time or weight (not both at the same time) as you become more comfortable with this technique. As you go through your day, notice if you are breathing more comfortably and if you have more energy, resilience, and patience.

Further Reading

Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation

by Rolf Sovik, PsyD

Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation is an essential read for the modern yogi and meditator. In this book, Rolf Sovik, PsyD draws from his 35 years of teaching experience to explain what meditation really is, its practical value and philosophical foundation, as well the connection between meditation, yoga postures, and other yoga practices.

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