Diaphragmatic Breathing in Meditation

Diaphragmatic Breathing is the most efficient method of breathing. This article explains one of the single most important practices to learn before beginning meditation. 

The human body is made up of head, torso and 4 limbs. 

The torso itself can be divided into 3 parts:

  • thorax or chest which houses the two lungs, 
  • the diaphragm, a tough sheet of muscle, which separates thorax or chest area from the digestive organs in the abdominal region, and
  • the pelvis which extends from the hip bones to the organs of excretion and reproduction

The 3 types of Breathing

One can fill the lungs in 3 ways: 

  • Extending the diaphragm downward, called diaphragmatic breathing
  • Expanding the walls of the chest outward, called thoracic or chest breathing
  • Moving the shoulder area upward, called clavicular breathing

If your breath is rapid and shallow you are probably chest breathing. This means means you are not allowing your breathing to be full and complete and you are only using part of the lungs' capacity.

Of the three types of breathing, diaphragmatic breathing is physiologically the most efficient. The goal is to reestablish the body's natural respiratory pattern, called even, diaphragmatic breathing. 

In even diaphragmatic breathing, all inhalations and exhalations flow through the nostrils rather than the mouth and the entire process is silent and noiseless. When you establish even, diaphragmatic breathing you allow the lungs to expand fully with the inhalation and to be emptied completely on exhalation.

How Diaphragmatic Breathing works

In its resting position, the diaphragm billows up into the chest cavity like a dome. For this reason its movements are not directly visible at the body's surface. 

Diaphragmatic inhalation is accomplished by moving the diaphragm downwards. As the diaphragm moves down it decreases the volume of the abdominal cavity, so that the abdomen moves passively outward. If the diaphragm moves downward or the ribs outward the lungs will expand.

The lungs are very elastic and expansive and when they are efficiently filled, their capacity is far greater than when we breathe shallowly, as in chest breathing.  As the diaphragm moves up, the lungs are emptied; as the diaphragm comes down, the lungs are allowed to fill more completely. 

You cannot really observe the diaphragm muscle, but when you breathe diaphragmatically, you may notice that the lower ribs flair out slightly on inhalation and the abdominal area may also move out a bit. On exhalation the abdominal area moves back in toward the spinal column. 

Are you breathing right?

You can check your breathing in normal seated position by placing one hand on the chest and the other on the abdomen. If you are breathing diaphragmatically, then the hand on the abdomen will rise and fall, while the hand on the chest will not.  

When you breath evenly and diaphragmatically you will breathe more slowly, since each breath is more effective. However it is impossible to breath diaphragmatically unless head, neck and trunk of the body are correctly aligned. 

Diaphragmatic Breathing and Meditation

If your posture is poor and your spine curved you will be unable to breathe freely, and will unconsciously constrict the movement of diaphragmatic breathing, resulting instead in rapid, shallow breathing. 

This is why sitting posture is so important: If the spine is poorly aligned, you cannot breathe freely, and when the breathing process is disturbed, the mind will become agitated.

You should plan to spend 4 weeks consciously attending to the breathing and learning how to breathe diaphragmatically before you turn your attention to other aspects of meditation.

There are interesting interactions between the diaphragm and gravity, depending on the posture one assumes. If the body is in an upright posture, gravity tends to pull downward on the abdominal contents, the diaphragm and the lungs, making inhalation easier. 

When one lies flat on the back the diaphragm pushes the abdominal wall upward during inhalation. The diaphragm must work harder. On the other hand, little or no muscular effort in needed for diaphragmatic exhalation in this position. This makes the horizontal body position interesting for training diaphragmatic breathing and establishing an even and balanced breath.




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How to train Diaphragmatic Breathing

There are a couple of useful techniques that will help you to become aware of diaphragmatic breathing. 


Lie on your back on the floor in Savasana. If you place one hand on the chest and the other on the abdomen at about the navel area, it will be easy for you to become aware of when you are breathing diaphragmatically, 

As one inhales, the lower edge of the rib cage should expand and the abdomen should rise; as one exhales the opposite should occur. 

If you are breathing diaphragmatically you will feel relatively little movement of the upper chest. 


In the crocodile pose, lie on the stomach, placing the legs a comfortable distance apart and pointing the toes outward.

Fold the arms in front of the body, resting the hands on the lower arms. Position the arms so that the chest does not touch the floor. 

Let the head rest on the arms.

This posture necessitates diaphragmatic breathing. When you inhale you feel the abdomen pressed against the floor, and when you exhale you feel the abdominal muscles relaxing. So you can easily notice the movement of the diaphragm when you are in this posture. 

Breathing for 5-10 minutes, twice a day, morning and evening, in this posture can help make diaphragmatic breathing a habit. 

Once you can maintain diaphragmatic breathing during the day or when lying down, it will be normal to breathe this way while sitting upright in meditation. 


Rozane from Brazil:
Radhikaji, this article explains very clearly how to train diaphragmatic breathing through Shavasana and Makarasana. Thank you so much.

Manash from India:
What is the difference between abdomel breathing and diaphragmatic breathing? Are they same?

Radhikaji from THATfirst:
Yes, Manash, abdominal breathing and diaphragmatic breathing are the same. The movement of the diaphragm cannot be seen externally. What is seen is the movement of the abdomen, therefore the term abdominal breathing.

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