The Breath. Respiration. The simple act of inhalation, exhalation; of the muscular diaphragm moving down and up, down and up. It is so simple, so automatic, that we all take it for granted. But is there a right way to breathe? Does it even matter?
Yes and Yes again.
Ideal respiration occurs in and out through the nose, using the diaphragm as the primary muscle of respiration. When we breathe with our diaphragm, it descends toward the abdomen, causing the abdomen to expand outward. The middle and upper chest should not move significantly unless we are inhaling to our maximum capacity.
But what exactly is the diaphragm and why is it so important?
The diaphragm is a large dome shaped muscle that divides the thoracic and abdominal cavities. It is part of the myofascial train known as the Deep Front Line.(1) Anatomically it can be connected, via fascia and muscle, from the tarsal bones of the foot to the occiput of the skull. Other significant structures to which it connects are the pelvic floor and hip flexor muscles, the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae, the ribs, and even the jaw and muscles of the throat. (1)
The diaphragm also has extensive visceral connections to the heart, lungs, esophagus, liver, kidneys, stomach and colon. (2) These connections mean that it affects a wide variety of body functions beyond its primary function of respiration. The diaphragm pumps lymphatic fluid and blood back to the heart. It aides the peristaltic waves of digestion through the esophagus, stomach and colon. (2). It is a vital part of postural control and core stability. It is even important for proper speech, urination and defecation (3).
Its centrality and extensive connections are why osteopaths regard good diaphragm function as a vital part of good health. Given that the diaphragm moves over 22 000 times per day, it is easy to see how quickly poor diaphragm mobility can affect the function of so many other body systems. (2)
So many of us today (I suspect myself included) don’t utilise our diaphragms to their maximum capacity and instead use our accessory muscles of respiration located in the upper chest to breathe. This method is much less efficient and not just for our respiration. Decreased mobility of the diaphragm affects all the body systems discussed earlier. That’s decreased lymph and blood flow, slower digestion and poorer core stability.
My suggestion. Take five minutes a day to draw a little awareness to your breath. Do you breathe through your nose or your mouth? How fast do you breathe? Do you use your chest muscles or your diaphragm? The two exercises below are a great way to get started. Why not try them before jumping out of bed in the morning, or just before you say goodnight.
Lie on your stomach, head turned to one side and simply breathe, slowly and deeply, for two minutes. Pay attention to which parts of your trunk are moving. You should feel your abdomen expanding and your chest remaining relatively still. This is how we should breathe in every position. The point of this exercise is simply to reconnect your conscious mind with diaphragmatic movement so that you can begin to replicate it in all other positions.
Lie on your back and simply breathe, slowly and deeply for two to five minutes. Focus your attention on using your diaphragm, not your chest muscles, to initiate the movement. In other words make your belly go up and down. As you breathe, count. Try to make the inhale the same length as the exhale. I suggest starting with 3 seconds per inhale and then slowly increasing the length of each breath as you feel comfortable to do so. Try to breathe as slowly as you can comfortably, without making yourself short of breath.
1. W., T., 2014. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Churchill Livingstone.
2. Barral, J., 2005. Visceral Manipulation. Eastland Press.
3. L, E., 2004. An Osteopathic Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.