So welcome to Breathe Yourself Better.
This short and sweet series gives you bitesize chunks of information about all things to do with breathing.
This week we are focusing on that hugely important muscle that nobody really thinks much about: Your diaphragm.
The diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle and rises and falls approximately 50,000 times a day, and if used correctly, it allows you to take deep and efficient breaths. This umbrella, or parachute shaped muscle sits below your lungs and separates your chest from your abdomen.
To feel your diaphragm working correctly you can simply place your hands on your upper abdomen – so just above your navel and just below or on your lower ribs. As you breath in, your diaphragm contracts, flattens and moves downward, gently pushing your abdomen outwards. As you breath out, your diaphragm domes and lifts upwards, taking pressure off your abdomen so it can gently move back in place.
It is interesting to notice if you ask people to take a deep breath, how many people actually pull their stomach in. This is a very common 21st century response: But why is that? One reason may be the modern, social pressure to fit into the stereotypical ideal of being slim and having a flat stomach; if you pull your stomach in you look smaller and slimmer. Also, when doctors want to listen to your heart, they ask you to take a deep breath in, many people will pull their stomach in and puff out their chest – in other words –breathe into the stethoscope on their chest, resulting in the diaphragm moving ineffectively.
So, a few reasons why it’s so important to have an efficient working diaphragm?
Firstly, your body is naturally designed to use your diaphragm; you can see this if you watch a baby breathe, their belly gentle rises and falls as they breathe efficiently using their diaphragm.
Also, your diaphragm acts as a connector for many different parts of your body with major blood vessels running through it and muscles responsible for mobility and stability attached. The vagus nerve linking the breath to your rest and digest and flight or fight response also passes through, whilst your heart rests on the dome of your diaphragm, bouncing on this elastic parachute approximately 20,000 times a day. Your diaphragm is also key in helping to maintain the stability of your core.
So, imagine what would happened if this connection was somehow restricted, or not used to its full potential?
Something else to consider is the shape of your lungs – wider at the bottom and narrower at the top – allows for greater blood flow into the larger, lower lobes. Fast chest breathing into the smaller, upper lungs, therefore reduces the amount of oxygen that can be transferred to the blood and also loses greater amounts of carbon dioxide.
As your diaphragm moves efficiently, it massages all your internal organs cleansing them in a fresh blood, fluids and oxygen, stimulating your body to work better, hence why efficient breathing can have such a profound affect on a person’s wellbeing.
It is not necessary to take in large volumes of air to activate your diaphragm. If you are resting and engaging your abdomen correctly doing abdominal, nasal breathing you should not be able to hear your breath, or hardly see your body moving as you breathe. If you compare this type of breath to taking a breath in through your mouth (which is actually a form of over-breathing), you will be able to clearly hear your breath and see your chest rise and fall.
Just like any other muscle in your body, your diaphragm benefits from exercise. Your diaphragm can not only develop strength and flexibility, but if it’s used inefficiently it can also develop tension and weakness; like most things to do with your body: if you don’t use it you lose it!
In his book Breath, James Nestor explains that:
A typical adult engages as little as 10% of the range of the diaphragm when breathing, which overburdens the heart, elevates blood pressure, and causes a rash of circulatory problems. Extending those breaths to 50-70% of the diaphragm’s capacity will ease cardiovascular stress and allow the body to work more efficiently.
So, I can offer 2 simple exercises to get your diaphragm moving efficiently, but always avoid doing these if you have just had a larger meal.
Maybe try finding a comfortable seated position, maybe in a chair, or sitting on the floor. Take a moment to think about your posture, so perhaps lengthen your spine, but without being too rigid. Then placing your hand gently on your upper abdomen, breathe into it. As you inhale through your nose, feel your abdomen gently push into your hand, as your diaphragm contracts and pushes down, and then notice your abdomen fall back as you exhale through your nose and your diaphragm releases and rises. Take a moment to notice now you feel.
Or another exercise you may like to try is to firstly find some books – maybe a hardback or a few paperbacks – No a kindle won’t work!
- Laying down on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the floor
- Take a moment to fidget and settle your body into a comfortable position
- Place your books on your upper belly – above your navel. Take a moment to test the weight and balance – not too heavy and not too light.
- You can place your arms out to your sides – palms upward
- When you are ready, gently inhale into your books watching them rise up. Let your exhale be passive, so it releases by itself and your books lower.
- Notice the gentle rise and fall of your books as your diaphragm gets a mini workout. Increase or decrease your books as required. Continue for as long as is comfortable.
Changing your breathing pattern is not easy. It takes practice, lots of practice, especially if you have been breathing inefficiently into your chest for years. But everyone can control their own breath with time and patience. And the rewards can be substantial for your wellbeing and overall mental and physical health.
So, with practice, you too can Breathe Yourself Better.
You can listen to this podcast by clicking HERE.
Donna Farhi (1996) The Breathing Book. Henry Holt & Company, New York
Patrick McKeown (2015) Oxygen Advantage. Pilatus, London
James Nestor (2020) Breath – The New Science of a Lost Art. Penguin Life
Robin L. Rothenberg (2020) Restoring Prana. Singing Dragon, London