Q&A: How Can I Breathe Deeply with Tight Abdominals?

Barbara Benagh offers advice for balancing ab strength and deep breathing.
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Barbara Benagh offers advice for balancing ab strength and deep breathing.
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Q: Since I stopped breath-hold diving and have been weight training, I can't take as deep a breath because my abs are too strong and tight. How can I continue working my abs and allow my diaphragm to expand fully? ——Melissa Bardfield, Saint Martin

Barbara Benagh's reply:

I understand the appeal of having a tight abdomen. The problem, as you've noticed, is that you are compromising your breathing. Back in the days of corsets, ladies regularly fainted because their diaphragms were restricted. Sounds to me like you may be creating your own corset!

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So, yes, I encourage you to back off of the ab training. There are a number of asanas that will actively tone the muscles of your abdomen without having the same over-tightening effect as your current regimen. The obvious asanas for abdominal strength are:

  • Paripurna Navasana and Ardha Navasana (Full and Half Boat Poses)
  • Arm balances such as Bakasana (Crane Pose), Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose), and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose) with your head pulled in toward your leg
  • Salabhasana (Locust Pose) variations
  • Mula and Uddiyana Bandha—but you'll need a good teacher for training

Additionally, I advise you to practice asana and breathing exercises that contribute to improved exhalation. Simple exercises such as pursing your lips and drawing your abdomen gently in as you exhale will help free the diaphragm.

Viloma Pranayama on exhalation—pausing several times as you breathe out—may also help. Practice your asanas using ujjayi breathing, and make sure your exhalations are not shorter than your inhalation.

Inversions (which also tone the abs) and forward bends facilitate exhaling, and simple spinal twists help to free the muscles of respiration. Lying in Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose) or over a bolster with your arms stretched overhead will provide a good stretch to side muscles and encourage space between the diaphragm and abdomen.

If you choose to continue your current exercises, make sure you exhale while tightening your abdominal muscles.

I really don't know about the long-term effects of free diving. However, I suspect that years of holding your breath is as much the culprit as your firm abs. Constantly suppressing the urge to exhale can harden the diaphragm and perhaps even damage the alveoli. I suggest that in addition to doing the practices suggested here you consult a pulmonologist.

Barbara Benagh, YJ's 2001 Asana columnist, founded the Yoga Studio in Boston in 1981 and teaches seminars nationwide. Currently, Barbara is writing a yoga workbook for asthmatics and can be reached at www.yogastudio.org.