“Belly rise, belly fall.”
It’s a phrase I’ve heard many times in various yoga classes, and I thought little of it until I really started examining my breath in meditation.
And it turns out I’ve been breathing backwards.
You’re belly is supposed to rise when you breathe in, and fall when you breathe out…but I was doing the opposite. I would suck my belly up and in as I took a breath, and let it out when I let the air out.
It seemed strange that I did this until I realized why: having spent all of my childhood and early adulthood as an asthmatic, that is simply how asthmatics breathe. We are so used to the bottom of our lungs being swollen and constricted that we tend to breathe at the top of our chests instead of in our bellies.
This strange habit of backward breathing didn’t seem like a big deal until I started looking at why deep breaths matter.
When you take shallow breaths at the top of your chest, your brain picks up a signal that something is wrong: those shallow breaths are anxious breaths and your brain prepares to jump into a fight or flight reaction. This can then lead you to feel anxious or panicked, even if you weren’t actually feeling that way before.
If you can catch yourself doing this, pause and take a deep breath, you give your brain time to understand that there is nothing to panic about, there is no danger, and it can stand down.
It often feels that whatever our brain is thinking is set and can’t be influenced by the actions of our body, but if we believe that, we are missing out on a huge opportunity. There is plenty of evidence that taking action with our body can influence our brain – even MRI scans that show the positive impact of a forced smile.
So pause, take a deep breath, and realize that it may not be anxiety that is causing you to take shallow breaths, it may be shallow breaths that are causing you to feel anxious.