We’ve all experienced the yoga teacher who cues you to breathe into a specific part of the body. Have you ever paused and wondered if that’s even physically possible? “Breathe into your side ribs” is sorta understandable. If you have a particularly enthusiastic instructor, you might have heard “Send the breath all the way out to enliven your fingertips.” Perhaps the most common anatomically perplexing cue is when teachers simply say, “Breathe into your belly.”
In our current climate of cancel culture, there has been something of a backlash against expressive or poetic yoga cues that aren’t, strictly speaking, anatomically accurate. And in recent years, as anatomy has become increasingly common in everyday language (thank you, Google) and increasingly explored in yoga teacher training (thank you, teacher trainers), our understanding of physiology has become a lot more nuanced so that each of us are “experts.”
We all know that we breathe into our lungs, and our lungs are situated in our chest rather than our abdomen. So, on the face of it, the cue to “breathe into your belly” invites us to do something physiologically impossible. But a look at the intention behind the cue tells a more complete story that goes well beyond the assumed lack of anatomical knowledge on the part of the teacher.
To understand the mechanics of breathing and where it is possible—and not possible—to direct the inhalation, imagine the torso as a sealed container with smaller containers within it: the chest, the abdomen, or belly, and the pelvic bowl. We’re specifically interested in the relationship between the chest, the abdomen, and the muscular structure that separates them, which is the diaphragm.
The diaphragm runs pretty much horizontally across the lower abdomen, its outer edge attaching to the inner surfaces of the lower ribs and sternum, and its center attaching to the spine. The lungs are situated above the diaphragm and also connect to the inner surfaces of the ribs and the diaphragm to fill the space in the chest. Below the diaphragm are the digestive organs.
Like all muscles, the diaphragm shortens when it contracts and lengthens when it relaxes. When the diaphragm contracts it flattens downward, leading to two flow-on effects. First, it increases the volume of the chest cavity, and therefore the lungs within it. This action decreases the air pressure within the lungs to less than that of the surrounding atmosphere, which draws air into the lungs to equalize pressure, prompting an inhalation.
Second, the downward movement of the diaphragm displaces the abdominal organs and creates a more rounded belly shape. The mass of those digestive organs resists slightly, forcing the bottom of the ribcage to also widen.(Photo: Getty Images)
When the diaphragm relaxes, the opposite occurs. The diaphragm softens into a parachute shape up inside the ribcage, decreasing the volume of the chest cavity. This increases the pressure of the air within the lungs to greater than that of the surrounding atmosphere, pushing air out of the lungs, prompting an exhalation. It also creates space for the abdominal contents to retreat back toward the spine and up toward the chest, leading to a comparatively flatter abdomen.
With normal breathing mechanics, each breath involves this give and take, a rhythmic dance between chest and abdomen.
It is, of course, possible to contract our abdominal muscles even during inhalation. This is something we might do in the more dynamic phase of yoga asana practice, when muscular support around the midsection can be helpful. In this scenario, securing the volume of the abdomen redirects the downward pressure of the diaphragm sideways, creating more pronounced lateral expansion of the ribcage to make up some of the lost volume. In more restful moments when that muscular support is not required, allowing the abdomen to expand will lead to deeper and more relaxed breathing.
It is this version of breathing that is sometimes called “belly breathing,” “abdominal breathing,” or “diaphragmatic breathing,” even though each breath is contingent on the diaphragm and will probably also involve some movement in the abdomen. When your teacher hopes to encourage a deeper and more easeful breath, a cue like “breathe into your belly” might help by giving you permission to relax your abdominal muscles to allow—or even encourage—your belly to expand and then retreat as the diaphragm moves.
A cue like “breathe into your belly” might not be intended to reference breath mechanics at all. The practice of yoga is about a lot more than anatomy. There are mental, emotional, and energetic impacts to consider as well, and a cue can take on multiple meanings or applications. Your teacher might use it to direct your thoughts. Where attention goes, energy flows, so in a class focusing on the abdomen, the cue to “breathe into your belly” could be offered as an invitation to draw your attention there.
Sometimes we brace our abdomen in response to tension, to guard our literal underbelly or to feel ready for action. So toward the end of an asana class, as we ease into supported or supine poses, the cue “breathe into your belly” might be intended to ease those patterns, to encourage relaxation, and ease the body and mind into Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Other times, the cue is intended to help us become aware of our habitual patterns and explore alternatives. An unconscious process, such as breathing, is even more subject to this than something that requires conscious thought. Many of us have a habit of holding our belly in and breathing into our chest instead. While the lower portion of the lungs has a better blood supply than the upper portion, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with breathing into the chest. But a cue to “breathe into your belly” might be exactly the encouragement you need to experiment with a different pattern.
Try focusing on different regions of the body through various positions paired with breath-related cues, such as a relaxed side bend along with “breathe into your side ribs.” A supported backbend with “breathe into your heart.” Or a supported forward bend with “breathe into your kidneys.” While in reality you are, of course, breathing into your lungs throughout your practice, the reminder to be aware and explore how the breath can make an unconscious process feel far more mindful.
However, we each interpret cues in the context of our own unique perspective and experience, so no cue can influence us all in a singular way. If “breathe into your belly” isn’t meaningful to you, use different language. Depending on the pose or context, you could try the following options (or any other phrase that creates the intended feeling or experience in your body):
The breath is such a fundamental component and focus of our yoga practice, as well as our life, that the primary objective is to be aware of it. Perhaps the specific words or images we use to create that focus don’t need to be accurate. When you hear someone say “breathe into your belly,” rather than tensing or puzzling over the anatomical implications, take it as a cue to relax into a deeper and more easeful breath.
See also: The Secret to Slowing Your Breath