“Breathe deep in the belly.”
”Send your breath to your baby.”
“Feel the expansion of the belly as you inhale.”
These are some of the instructions you might have heard or used in a pregnancy yoga class. They can create useful sensations and visualisations, and help us send vital energy, or Prana, to the baby. But as pregnancy progresses, women can find it increasingly difficult to ‘belly-breathe’, and for some, it can lead to a pattern of short upper chest breathing.
Most of us have heard of these two distinctly different types of breathing – Belly (or diaphragmatic) Breathing and Chest Breathing. Belly breathing has lots of benefits, including increased oxygen flow, calming the nervous system, assisting in labour and helping to manage stress. Although this is very helpful, I also encourage my pregnant students to develop another type of diaphragmatic breathing. This has a different focus and can be referred to as diaphragmatic rib cage breathing.
What is the diaphragm?
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle, separating the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity, and is the major muscle responsible for respiration. It has a central tendon which sits high up in the chest cavity, and the bottom edge attaches to the lowest ribs around from the front, sides and back of the body (all the way down to the lumbar spine).
Upon inhalation, the diaphragm contracts. If the lower ribs are relatively still, the top of the diaphragm will move down and press on the abdominal cavity, which in turn, causes the belly to bulge (or “rise”) during the diaphragmatic belly breath.
How is diaphragmatic rib cage breathing different?
The difference with diaphragmatic rib cage breathing is where the breath is directed. As you inhale you consciously keep the abdominal muscles gently engaged to avoid the belly bulging out. This makes it harder for the top of the diaphragm dome to descend, and as the belly can’t bulge out, there is a lift and expansion in the lower ribs instead. This action is assisted by the intercostal muscles – the small muscles between the individual ribs.
During pregnancy, guiding women to work with opening the side-thoracic (intercostal muscles), as encouraged by the Bliss Baby Yoga Group 2 Lateral Stretching Prenatal Postures, helps to develop this pattern of deep breathing. A lot of us hold tension in the upper body, so, the first step is to warm up and gently loosen up this area. Asanas that can help include side-stretch variations of a number of seated, kneeling and standing postures, including those pictured below:
- Sukasana – Easy Pose
- Utkata Konasana – Horse or Goddess Pose
- Parighasana – Gate Pose
Once we have warmed up and prepped the rib cage muscles and fascia, we can work more internally with the deep breathing exercises.
How to cue diaphragmatic rib cage breathing
With non-pregnant students (or students in the first and second trimesters), I may suggest using the hands and arms to understand where to send the breath. For example, crossing the arms around the midbody to direct the breath into the lower part of the ribcage. Or wrapping one arm around the lower ribs whilst resting the other hand on the top of the chest as a reminder to keep it relaxed whilst breathing into the lower ribs. In pregnancy, as the belly expands, I often make use of imagery instead.
As you guide students through this breathing technique there should be minimal movement in the upper chest area, with the collarbones stable and the facial muscles relaxed.
Below is a recording that I often share with my pregnant students. I hope you enjoy it!
(Click the ‘play’ button on the track below to listen).
If you would like to expand your knowledge in teaching yoga for mums-to-be safely and confidently, you may be interested in our Bliss Baby Yoga Online Prenatal & Postnatal Yoga Teacher Training course, and Online Extension Modules covering topics including Prenatal & Postnatal Anatomy and Physiology and Pelvic Floor Anatomy and Physiology for Women’s Health. We offer a holistic approach to teaching Prenatal and Postnatal Yoga, with a focus on safety guidelines and contraindications for safe and appropriate practices to nourish prenatal students and new mothers.
Kanako Yajima is an experienced yoga teacher, teacher trainer, translator, mother, and Senior Bliss Baby Yoga Online Prenatal & Postnatal Yoga Teacher Training course facilitator, who also offers Online One-on-One Mentoring Sessions. Kanako works as a teacher trainer and translator on various yoga teacher training courses internationally and also shares Prenatal Yoga classes as well as general yoga classes inspired by the Five Element Form, ISHTA Yoga and Viniyoga in the Byron Bay region in Australia. For more information about Kanako’s offerings visit www.kanashakti.com.
Illustrations by Sophie Duncan www.deerdaisy.com
Further Reading related to this topic:
- Chanting, Mantra and Mudra for Pregnancy and Birth (Video) by Jennifer Allen
- Let’s Twist Again! Twisting safely during Pregnancy by Ana Davis
- To Supine or Not to Supine – That is the Question by Ana Davis
- Safe Yoga for Placenta Previa by Nadine O’Mara