How Do I Find More Ease Breathing With My Diaphragm?
A student wrote in and asked how to access greater ease when breathing with her diaphragm muscle. She said, “I feel as if my diaphragm has been knotted for decades, and I would love to break through.”
What the student is describing here is most likely the sensation that she can’t take as deep of a breath as she wants to, or expects to. She wants to know how to increase her ability to breathe more deeply. Don’t take the description of “knotted for decades” literally, but instead as a description of sensation. The question then focuses on breaking through. So, it’s easy for us to assume that there is something wrong with our diaphragm. Perhaps it’s too tight or not strong enough. Although this is possible, it’s generally speaking unlikely. It’s certainly not what we would want to assume from the beginning.
Let’s assume for a moment that her diaphragm is too tight. Well, with respect to stretching the diaphragm, it’s not so much about which postures to do, but more about how you do the postures. Most importantly, if we’re talking about the diaphragm, it’s about how we’re breathing with the diaphragm in the postures. In addition, don’t forget about the most common restriction to breathing, the ribcage.
The diaphragm’s main action is only a part of the whole process of breathing. So, in this article, we’ll take a look at how we use the diaphragm in breathing. We’ll look at how we can add a greater sense of ease to the area of our body where the diaphragm is located, as well as to our breathing itself.
Let’s start by reviewing the diaphragm muscle itself.
What is the diaphragm?
Generally we can say that the diaphragm is located in the torso. It separates our abdominal cavity from our thoracic cavity. Remember that the diaphragm muscle is unique in that you can almost say that it attaches to itself. It originates from the lumbar vertebrae 1-5, areas of cartilage in between the lower six ribs, and the bony point at the bottom of the sternum, called the xiphoid process. The fibers all converge to insert on the central tendon of the diaphragm. It’s primary action is in the process of breathing.
What happens when we breathe with our diaphragm?
Let’s review what happens when we take a regular, relaxed breath, without any intention to control how we breathe. In a regular, relaxed breath, our nervous system cues the diaphragm to contract. Contraction in the diaphragm looks like the dome-shaped muscle getting flatter and moving down as the fibers get shorter. In truth, different areas of the diaphragm will move in different amounts to create that flattening. The diaphragm connects to the lungs above it through fascia. As a result, when the diaphragm flattens out and moves down, it pulls on the connective tissue surrounding the lungs. Simultaneously our external intercostals help out by contracting. That ultimately results in our ribs expanding outward. All of this combines to create a negative pressure, or vacuum. This pulls air in from outside, and creates our inhale.
On our exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and recreates the original dome shape. The external intercostals relax and allow the ribcage to pull back in. We also get some help from the internal intercostals on the exhale. They contract to add to the action of pulling the ribs back down and in. The post-inhale recoil from all of these muscles and structures pushes the air back out of our body. That creates our exhale.
Types of breathing
Here are some of the labels used to describe different types of breathing. Let’s get some clarity on what we mean when we use these labels. You might have heard someone talk about one or more of the following as a type of breathing. Maybe you even heard these labeled as a “good” or “bad” type of breathing:
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Belly breathing
- Abdominal breathing
- Chest breathing
- Secondary breathing
So let’s break these down.
The regular everyday breathing that we described above is sometimes referred to as belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, or abdominal breathing. In regular breathing we’re not trying to impose any kind of pattern on the breath. Our abdomen/belly is relaxed and expands on our inhale and contracts on our exhale. The diaphragm contracts and relaxes in the action of regular breathing. But, understand that even when we do impose a pattern on our breathing, such as in a yogic technique, we are always breathing with our diaphragm unless we have a significant problem.
Belly versus chest breathing
But, this is where things get tricky with these labels, because we don’t breathe with our belly or our abdomen, right? The movement of our belly is just a sign that our diaphragm is pushing down, which has the effect of pushing the belly out. But, just as the action of the inhale has the effect of moving the belly out, it also moves the ribcage. This includes the upper part of our ribcage, or our “chest”. So, even in “belly breathing” air moves into the top of our lungs and the top of our ribcage. Our chest lifts and expands with the rest of our ribcage to allow this to happen.
How much air moves into the top of our lungs depends on a number of factors, such as how big of a breath we just took and what our posture is when we’re breathing. If we just took a big breath as part of a big contented sigh, then we probably moved our whole ribcage more to allow that to happen. We might expect to see more movement from both the belly and the chest. If, however, we’re hunched over at the computer taking little breaths, then we might have less movement of both belly and chest. Regardless, some movement of the chest during “belly” or “diaphragmatic” breathing is normal and healthy.
What are the secondary breathing muscles?
We also have a backup and/or accessory breathing system: the secondary breathing muscles. These include muscles like the scalenes and the sternocleidomastoid muscles of the neck. These muscles come online normally when the primary breathing system with the diaphragm can’t do its job for a moment, such as when you get knocked into while playing soccer and you “get the wind knocked out of you”. The secondary breathing muscles also come online when you do something higher intensity than your primary breathing system can support on its own like running or walking/hiking uphill. These muscles lift the upper ribs to make more space for breath. When we use the secondary breathing muscles, visually we will most likely see more movement from the chest than we otherwise would.
So what is good versus bad breathing?
What often happens is that we oversimplify ideas of “belly breathing” versus “chest breathing” without actually defining what we mean by those terms. Neither of those terms is especially meaningful if we really want to talk about what’s happening when we breathe, or if we want to change something about how we breathe.
Truly “bad” breathing, is breathing that is in some way dysfunctional. This might look like something as simple as postural patterns acquired over the years which are constricting the movement of the ribcage, diaphragm, or other structures that create our abdominal container. Those restrictions can prevent us from taking full breaths when we are at rest, which can have many physiological implications for our body. That might look like more of the breath going into the top of the lungs, or “chest breathing”. But, it could also take on many other patterns that result in a full, relaxed breath being restricted in some way.
Another “bad” breathing habit that we might have acquired is a habit of prioritizing our secondary breathing muscles when we are breathing at rest, rather than allowing them to “turn off” when not needed. This could happen from being very active in sports, like running, where the secondary breathing muscles are called into use to support the main action of breathing with diaphragm because we are doing activities that have a greater than “normal” need for oxygen. In this kind of dysfunction, instead of relaxing when we return to a lower oxygen-need activity, the secondary respiratory muscles stay engaged.
There are of course many other conditions, such as asthma, that can affect our breathing patterns. Likewise, accidents and trauma can affect our breathing. This can happen both from the place of impacting the muscles themselves through injury or scar tissue, and through emotional pressures on our nervous system that can affect how we breathe. All of this might lead us to an interest in exploring our breathing in the laboratory of our yoga practice.
Breathing in yoga
Aside from the ways in which we might breathe in everyday life (either with healthy or dysfunctional breathing patterns), there are some common methods of controlling how we breathe for a particular purpose in yoga. We won’t get into all of the many techniques that we might explore within yoga around breathing, as there is a whole branch of the eight limbs of yoga focused solely on breathing: pranayama. But, one foundation that we might start with is simply creating ease and balance of the musculature around our torso. This will create the foundation for us to take full, unrestricted, relaxed breaths during everyday life.
How do we free up the diaphragm?
So, to come back around to the student’s question that we led this article with: how do we “break through”? Although we could look at it from a strengthen or stretch perspective, I’d rather start by looking at what restricts our ability to breathe more deeply.
One of the most common restrictors to breathing with the diaphragm that I see in yoga students is tension in and around the ribcage. Sometimes students wrongly assume that their lung capacity is limited. Although technically, this refers to our ability to get oxygen out of the air we breathe, it still speaks to the idea that somehow there is a limitation. So what might create that feeling of a limitation?
The ribs themselves are mobile. They attach between the vertebrae at the back of the body. When we breathe, they pivot on that point of attachment and the front of the ribs raises and lowers. This is sometimes referred to as a bucket handle movement since there is a single point that they pivot around. Most people don’t realize that when they are in a relaxed position, the ribs are angled downward at the front of the body and not horizontally. As we inhale, the ribs rise, making the chest grow in size. However, if this movement is limited, it will make your diaphragm work harder, potentially making it feel as though you can’t get enough breath into your lungs.
Layers of tissue
To be a little more specific, there are three layers of muscles between the ribs. They are the external intercostals, the internal intercostals, and the innermost intercostals. Although we get some help from the external intercostals on an inhalation, if the others are tight, that tension can restrict movement between the ribs. In addition, we have a lot of connective tissue layers on the inside and outside of the ribcage, not including the layers of those muscles just mentioned, which can also be tight due to postural issues.
This may lead you to wonder, how do we stretch these tissues? There are two answers to that question. One is to breathe more deeply, more regularly, particularly during your yoga practice. The second answer is to take advantage of postures that stretch the muscles and tissues in and around the ribcage.
Think about which postures make it the most difficult to breathe. Typically, those postures are twists and backbending type postures. Do you know why that is? It’s because those postures are stretching out the ribs, and then when you inhale, you’re asking them to stretch even more. These are the exact postures where you should be even more focused on your breathing while practicing asana. We can stretch the diaphragm by moving the body and breathing at the same time.
Dealing with the muscles
Unlike a muscle such as the biceps, for example, we don’t necessarily consciously choose to lengthen the diaphragm muscle. In the case of the biceps, it’s essentially only under voluntary control by our body. We have to decide to move a bone (or really something more general than that, our arm) in a way that creates more distance between the attachments of the biceps muscle. That puts tension on the muscle fibers and “stretches” them.
Because breathing is a process that is under both involuntary control and some amount of voluntary control by our body, our nervous system automatically cues the diaphragm to contract and relax in a rhythm that we call breathing. If our breathing system is healthy, we constantly contract and relax the diaphragm every moment of every day.
But, the diaphragm is connected through fascia to other muscles and structures in the body over which we do have voluntary control. When we move those structures, or choose to lengthen those muscles, we indirectly influence how and where we put tension on the diaphragm. (We can also use specific breathing techniques to influence how we move the diaphragm, but that is really a separate article, so I won’t get into that in detail here.)
Using yoga to impact breathing
This becomes useful in yoga when we try to potentially undo some of the chronic or habitual patterns in the body structures over which we do have voluntary control. The muscles or tissues that put tension on the diaphragm, or prevent lengthening of the diaphragm in ways that don’t support our healthiest breathing patterns, are what we can choose to stretch or move in yoga.
In that case, it’s not just the diaphragm which needs lengthening. All of the musculature that creates the abdominal cavity needs to be lengthened or rebalanced in relationship to their antagonist muscles before an intention to lengthen the diaphragm itself would likely be impactful. Thankfully we have the tools of yoga to do both of those things at the same time. And, if we are doing a well-rounded yoga sequence, then we are probably already lengthening the muscles that surround and create the abdominal container.
What yoga poses affect the abdominal container?
We can affect the tension on the abdominal container, and indirectly the diaphragm, from multiple directions. This is important because the abdominal container, where the diaphragm lives, is a three dimensional space. If we want a healthy diaphragm and healthy breathing patterns, then we want the muscle and breath to move easily and fluidly in three dimensions. We don’t want either the muscle itself or the action of breathing to get stuck anywhere.
We can change the abdominal container from the bottom by engaging the pelvic floor muscles and not allowing the breath to push them down as we inhale and the abdominal cavity expands. Tension on the abdominal container is also something we can change from the front/back direction, like when we do backbends, and breathe while the muscles and tissues on the front are lengthened and those on the back are shortened. The reverse would be true if we were breathing while doing a simple forward bend.
We can also change the container from the sides, like when we do twists. When we’re doing a seated twist, one side of our torso, especially muscles like the obliques and intercostals are lengthened, while the muscles on the other side are contracted. And, we can change the container from the top, as when we engage with something like jalandhara bandha and we deeply flex the neck. This changes how breath moves into the chest and shortens the secondary breathing muscles on the front and sides of the neck.
Changing our shape impacts breathing
Ultimately though, we are most likely doing some aspect of more than one of these things at the same time when we do a yoga pose. We might engage our pelvic floor muscles while also twisting, for example. Or, we might be lengthening the secondary breathing muscles of the neck, while also lengthening the muscles of the upper chest and torso when we do a backbend.
Changing the shape of our body while we breathe is constantly changing the tension on the abdominal container and the diaphragm muscle itself, even when we’re not specifically aware of it. So, depending on your individual situation, all that may be necessary to stretch the diaphragm is to focus your intention on maintaining a smooth, even breath on both the inhale and exhale as you move through the different postures in your yoga sequence.