Don't underestimate the important role your diaphragm plays in your health.


How we breathe.

I make no apology for the amount of time I spend focused on the diaphragm in classes.  Breath training is an integral part of yoga and understanding the diaphragm can be a valuable tool for us as practitioners.  It may help you to know that the lungs are not muscles. This means they cannot move air in and out without help. So when we think about how we breathe, really we are thinking about which muscles we choose to use.

Relaxed, effortless diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation for good health and an advancing yoga practice.

The muscles in the neck and upper torso have little effect on their own. Breathing using these muscles alone (clavicular breathing) only brings a very small amount of air into the lungs and is associated with short shallow imperceptible breathing like that found in chronic lung illnesses such as emphysema.

The intercostal muscles between the ribs move the ribs up and down but are not efficient and account for only about 20% of the work. This type of (thoracic) breathing causes sympathetic nervous system arousal which quickly drains energy. This may be great after strenuous exercise but in normal circumstances when it's far less dramatic it becomes too laboured and increases your susceptibility to emotional disturbances. Overusing the chest muscles is a subtle but major cause of physical and emotional distress.

Elements of thoracic and clavicular breathing are found in normal breathing, but the main muscle required is the diaphragm. 

The diaphragm is a dome or parachute shaped muscle that sits inside the base of the ribs and lies horizontally inside the torso. It separates the heart and lungs in the chest from the digestive and reproductive organs in the abdominal cavity.

When we inhale fibres contract and pull the top of the diaphragm down. The lungs expand as they fill with air and the abdominal organs are compressed downwards. When the muscle fibres relax, the natural elasticity of the lungs and ribs causes the lungs to shrink. It takes more effort to inhale than to exhale. Muscle contraction is only minimally involved in breathing out. Exhalation is relaxing.

Relaxed, effortless diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation for good health and an advancing yoga practice.

the life of a person and his/her personality influence the behaviour of their diaphragm

The amazing diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a fascinating structure. It has multiple functions, both indirectly and directly which go beyond breathing. It also promotes coughing, vomiting, defecation, urination, swallowing and vocalisation.

It influences the body's metabolic balance. It is essential for correct posture and movement as it works to maintain a balanced posture as we move, as well as the movement of the arms. It also influences your emotional and psychological states and has the ability to affect your perception of pain.

The action of the diaphragm is not controlled solely by the physiological demands of the body but also by emotional states such as sadness, fear, anxiety and anger. Stress can lead to anxiety and or depression, resulting in an alteration of the proper functioning of the diaphragm thereby compromising healthy breathing patterns. During times of high stress or emotional intensity this muscle can get rigid and stuck. There is a relationship between the parts of the brain associated with the fear response and the areas connected to breathing. This means the life of a person and his/her personality influence the behaviour of their diaphragm.

As you improve the quality of your breathing, you will improve the quality of your life.

The diaphragm is one of the most powerful influences on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest state) The vagus nerve is the main circuitry of the PNS and it runs right through the diaphragm. The more movement there is of the diaphragm the more stimulation of the PNS we get as a result. So to stimulate the parasympathetic response (which should be the natural default state of the NS) we need to be practicing diaphragmatic breathing. However, like other muscles in the body, the diaphragm is easily neglected.  Poor postural and lifestyle habits, extended periods of sitting or a sedentary lifestyle, overeating, cigarette smoking, stress and tension all lead to poor diaphragm movement.

There is also a natural connection between our breathing and our heart rate. When we breath in, the heart rate naturally increases creating a sympathetic nervous system response, as we breath out, the heart rate naturally decreases through a parasympathetic nervous system response. The changes in heart rate with breathing is referred to as respiratory sinus arrhythmia. (RSA) In this way the diaphragm becomes a powerful mediator of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.

These two strong connections between the diaphragm and the PNS through breathing and the vagus nerve provide a powerful gateway to improving our health.

The benefits.

The rewards of a properly functioning diaphragm are remarkable.

  • You have a tool to maintain your equilibrium in tense and uncomfortable situations in life.
  • Your everyday internal tension will lessen.
  • You will move your body with more ease.
  • Your concentration will improve.
  • You will improve your emotional state and ability to self regulate.
  • You will reduce the strain on your heart that extended periods of stress place on it, reducing your risk of heart disease.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation for many other yogic breathing practices.
  • As you improve the quality of your breathing, you will improve the quality of your life.

How to improve your diaphragm function.

Practice asana to strengthen the abdomen and improve your posture. 

Practice yoga to increase your awareness of your habitual tension holding patterns physically and emotionally.

Spend time learning pranayama and how to breathe diaphragmatically.

Practice crocodile pose regularly which is the best posture for sensing the flow of the breath and the movement of the diaphragm.

Practice effortless diaphragmatic breathing in savasana or sitting in a chair as often as possible.

Restore the natural strength of your diaphragm by breathing into resistance with sandbag breathing.

To practice crocodile pose and sandbag breathing you'll find guided practices here.