Why how you breathe matters!
Anyone who has spent enough time learning about exercise and mindfulness or meditation, comes across a rather strange idea – that there is more than one way to breathe. Most of the time we don't think about breathing, our body breathes on its own without us having to tell it how! But knowing the full story behind "diaphragm breathing" will help you get deeper and more relaxed breathing, and will help you support your body in a safe, protective posture.
What does the diaphragm actually look like inside my rib cage?
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle which joins into the lowest few ribs, internally dividing the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity below. When it contracts it pulls itself down towards the bottom of the ribcage, causing the lungs to expand and fill with air. So, while you feel your chest go in and out while you breathe normally, this is not the primary way your lungs fill up – the internal motion of your diaphragm is actually doing most of the work.
Did you know that the diaphragm actually supports your posture too?
Your diaphragm works as the top of the deep system of core muscles surrounding your abdomen, with the pelvic floor at the bottom, the multifidus muscle at the back near your spine, and the transversus abdominus, or deep abdominal layer on the sides. This set of muscles forms a cylinder deep inside your midsection (your "deep corset"), working to support and stabilise the area and protect against injury.
An easy way to breathe better using your diaphragm
While the diaphragm is essential for all breathing, other muscles can get involved and get our bodies into bad habits. These can include the neck muscles creating increased neck tension, shoulder and chest muscles, closing the chest posture or the belly muscles. What we are going to focus on is making sure that the diaphragm is doing the right amount of work in the right way.
- Place your hands on your lower ribs and take in some deep breaths, just to feel how they move when you breathe normally.
- Then try and keep taking those deep breaths, only now try and keep your ribs from moving back-to-front, letting them mostly just move side-to-side, feeling how they return close to the centre again when you exhale.
- As you continue, see if you can minimise any changes to your back arch. When breathing with the diaphragm, no increase in your arch should be necessary. Just widening of the ribs into the side-seams of your shirt.
- Check that the neck is be able to stay soft and relaxed as well, reducing any unnecessary effort in the process of deep breathing.
How often do you think you breathe like this throughout your busy life? Bringing this peaceful kind of breathing into your waking life is going to help keep your body stable and happier.
How does my breathing coordinate with the other core muscles?
Your pelvic floor should mirror the movement of your diaphragm. It is great to try to remember that
- when you inhale and the diaphragm lowers, your pelvic floor should relax and drop, and
- as you exhale and the diaphragm lifts, the pelvic floor muscles should also tighten and lift:
This can take a bit of practice, but it is the best way to make sure that "deep corset" of yours is working as effectively as it can. Try taking five deep breaths in a row, practising your coordination of diaphragm breath with the deep pelvic floor contraction and relaxation.
Now try also gently drawing in the lower abdomen with the exhales as well, making the sides of your deep corset or cylinder work together with the top and bottom. Try this fully coordinated breathing pattern five breaths in a row.
Why should I do this?
If you can successfully master the above exercise, you will have just activated all of your core muscles in a safe and supportive way that gently promotes good posture and injury prevention. This form of deep, wide, relaxed breath ensures your abdominal stabilisers wake up, which can in turn help with back and neck problems, improve your core strength, and help with pelvic floor function. It is also the way we breathe when we are most relaxed, and helps with our mental well-being.
So whether it's to help your sore back, before or during exercise, or just before someone passes you the microphone at karaoke, try breathing with your diaphragm and see how it serves your body and mind in a multitude of ways!