Diaphragmatic breathing for better meditation and mindfulness

How to instantly improve your meditation practice with slow, deep abdominal breathing exercises for enhanced posture, greater relaxation and better intention.

Meditation and Diaphragmatic Breathing. The original image is Copyright © BBC, and has been modified for the research purposes of this article and used under the “fair usage” policy.

In “The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science”, a true masterpiece by Dr John Yates, at one point he quickly summarises his basic meditation instructions in three axes: 1) posture; 2) relaxation; 3) intention and breath.

This short article will explain how breathing with your belly, that is, diaphragmatic breathing (also called abdominal breathing or slow, deep breathing), can help improve your meditation practice, by enhancing your posture, increasing your relaxation and strengthening your intention.


Diaphragmatic Breathing and Mindfulness Meditation: Enhanced Posture

The right posture is fundamental to meditation. However, there is no general right posture — only the posture that is right for you. Dr John Yates mentions, in “The Mind Illuminated”:

“Regardless of the position you choose, it’s important there be as little physical strain or pain as possible, especially during longer sits. Expect some aches and pains merely from staying still, but try to minimize pain in general, and don’t aggravate preexisting injuries.”
Meditation sitting postures

Dr Belisa Vranich mentions when 9 out of 10 people breathe, they feel like getting a little bit taller and stretched upwards during the inhale and on the exhale sort of settle down. She calls this “vertical breathing”, which is “an anatomically incongruous way of breathing”, by overusing the neck and the shoulder muscles — which were never meant to be primary breathing muscles, leading to neck and shoulder pain. This kind of breathing that most of us are so used to only allows us to use only the top part of our lungs.

But how can diaphragmatic breathing help with the meditation posture? Ed Harrold explains that as the diaphragm moves down when we breathe in, the core muscles in our lower back, pelvic floor and abdomen are activated, allowing us to stabilize our hips and our lower-body mechanics, so that we’re more grounded and rooted — physically, but also mentally.


Diaphragmatic Breathing and Mindfulness Meditation: Increased Relaxation

Several studies have demonstrated that diaphragmatic breathing is an effective relaxation technique, reducing anxiety and heart rate. In fact, physiological evidence has indicated that diaphragmatic breathing significantly reduces blood pressure and increases heart rate variability (HRV) and oxygenation.

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve, which is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves, has multiple branches that diverge from two thick trunks rooted in the brain stem, reaching the lowest viscera of your abdomen, touching your heart and most major organs along the way.

The “wandering nerve”, as it is known (“vagus” means “wandering” in Latin), is one of the main components of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the stimulation of “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” responses — in balance with the sympathetic nervous system, which drives the “fight-or-flight” response.

Have you ever had a gut instinct? That’s your vagus nerve speaking to your brain or, in other words, you are feeling its influence in your enteric nervous system or your gut-brain axis. It is estimated that 80 to 90% of the nerve fibres in the vagus nerve are dedicated to transmitting the state of your viscera up to your brain.

Diaphragmatic breathing (and particularly deep diaphragmatic breathing, with a long, slow exhale) is one way of stimulating the vagus nerve and therefore of reducing sympathetic activity. This stimulation then triggers the release of acetylcholine, GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) and dopamine, important neurotransmitters involved in reducing the heart rate, taming the inflammation reflex and setting off a state of inner-calm, including emotional regulation, psychological adaptation, emotional reactivity and expression, empathic responses, and attachment.


Diaphragmatic Breathing and Mindfulness Meditation: Better Intention

The term intention has many meanings in a meditation context. Diaphragmatic breathing can support intention in at least two meanings: as a pre-meditation ritual, to support motivation; and as a pre-meditation exercise, to aid stable attention.

Intention as motivation: Diaphragmatic Breathing as a pre-meditation ritual

Rituals are symbolic behaviours we perform before, during, and after meaningful events. They allow you to quickly and more easily engage in a specific mindset (think classical conditioning and the Pavlov effect) and perform an activity, such as meditation.

Rituals bring your awareness and attention to the present moment, which is what mindfulness is all about, and also helps creates meaning, by acting as reminders of what we actually care about.

Just like you would not run a marathon without preparing yourself, stretching, hydrating, you probably shouldn’t jump into longer meditation sessions without any sort of preparation.

Regularly practising breathing exercises before sitting for a meditation session may allow for deeper, more focused and intense practices than when such techniques are not performed.

This happens not only because of some of the direct effects of the breathing techniques (such as relaxing and re-energising the body, as well as clearing the mind) but also by creating an anchor to the feelings of the meditation practice. By following a prescribed pattern of behaviour (for instance, a deep diaphragmatic breathing technique as a pre-meditation ritual), one can activate the corresponding neural pathways in order to more easily experience certain mental states associated with meditation.

Intention as stable attention: Diaphragmatic Breathing as a pre-meditation exercise to increase focus and mental clarity

Dr John Yates defines and explains stable attention as follows:

“Stable attention is the ability to intentionally direct and sustain the focus of attention, as well as to control the scope of attention. Intentionally directing and sustaining attention simply means that we learn to choose which object we’re going to attend to, and keep our attention continuously fixed on it. Controlling the scope of attention means training the mind to adjust how wide or narrow our focus is, and being more selective and intentional about what is included and excluded.”

Diaphragmatic breathing allows for increased focus and greater clarity of thoughts which might be an effect of increasing blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex of your brain. A recent research study indicates significantly increased sustained attention after diaphragmatic breathing training.


Other effects of Diaphragmatic Breathing for meditation and well-being

Diaphragmatic breathing maximises the positive effects of meditation

It is an established fact that the regular practice of meditation correlates with lower oxidative stress levels, lower cortisol levels and higher melatonin levels.

Recent research indicates that diaphragmatic breathing could maximise these beneficial effects of meditation. Although the research was conducted in specific circumstances (athletes who performed exhaustive training sessions followed by one hour of diaphragmatic breathing in a quiet place), it shows the potential of diaphragmatic breathing for increasing the antioxidant defence status and protecting from long-term adverse effects of free radicals.

Another research concluded that diaphragmatic breathing, probably through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, increases insulin, reduces glycemia, and reduces reactive oxygen metabolites. Furthermore, deep, slow breathing enhances pulmonary function and improves cardiorespiratory fitness and respiratory muscle strength.

Finally, there are significant positive mental and emotional health effects associated with diaphragmatic breathing, including a reduction in anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as emotion enhancements.


Conclusions and Recommendations

There is a strong body of evidence that clearly establishes that deep diaphragmatic breathing elicits vast positive changes in the body, both physically, mentally and emotionally.

Many of these positive changes are also shared by the practice of meditation in its many forms: mindfulness, transcendental, progressive relaxation, loving-kindness, zen meditation, and others.

Other effects of deep diaphragmatic breathing, although not also directly caused by meditation, contribute to a deeper meditative state, possibly with synergistic effects.

In other words, establishing deep diaphragmatic breathing as part of a ritual before a regular meditation practice can contribute to deeper, more fulfilling meditative states, by enhancing your posture, increasing your relaxation and strengthening your intention, while meditation by itself can maximise the beneficial effects of abdominal breathing — a win-win situation.

Keep on breathing. Keep on meditating.


Diaphragmatic Breathing Tutorial and How To

For a quick overview of what deep diaphragmatic breathing is and how to practice this technique, please visit: