Breath, Breathing & the Diaphragm Demystified

breathe-easyA big ask, I know, but what is simple has been made complicated, and what is unified has been dismantled and disjointed.  When it comes to breath, breathing & the diaphragm, I have noticed for many people that this is indeed the case.

I have noticed that many people and paradigms who instruct breathing emphasise a particular perspective while missing the something of its central essence.  The “student” will often switch from one dysfunctional pattern of breathing to a different one, and as often as not revert to the familiar “old habit” because the new one is unsustainable, unfamiliar and unhelpful.

I find myself often bringing people’s attention to their breath, to begin to understand what they understand about their breath.  Common misconceptions include:

  1. diaphragm breathing is belly breathing
  2. diaphragm breathing is breathing into the sides of you rib cage
  3. belly breathing is good, chest breathing is bad
  4. the chest should not expand
  5. diaphragm breathing will fill the pelvis first, then abdomen then chest – in that order
  6. deep breathing is good, shallow breathing is bad

… all of these ideas when examined are correct in some way, all are well meaning, but on their own are dysfunctional.  Except for the idea that the chest should not expand – which is just plain wrong.

I notice that people’s awareness of where their diaphragm is in their body, what it does, and how it works varies a lot. This is not really surprising, given that it is rather interior, and that as our ultimate endurance muscle the sensation of its contraction is super subtle (in general, power muscles have an obvious sensation eg biceps or rectus abdominus, whereas endurance muscles have a quiet, subtle, almost negligible sensation eg Transversus Abdominus or subscapularis).  Nevertheless, I believe it is the birthright of everyone of us who breathes to be able to experience normal diaphragm function, and a free and uninhibited ability to breathe.

I’ve been reading recently a collection of interviews with the Breathworker Dan Brule.  His work encompasses a range of disciplines, drawing on his many teachers, and combining with his own perspective and experience.

Dan highlights 3 concepts common to all perspectives on Breathwork, with which I concur:

  1. Becoming more aware of your breathing … simply noticing it
  2. Using the breath to relax and to release the breathing mechanism, and
  3. Breath Control

Of value to notice here is the sequence:  Before you can develop breath control, your breathing mechanism needs to be free … Before you can free your breathing mechanism, you need to cultivate an awareness of your breath …

Interestingly, the misconceptions I listed earlier all revolve around Breath Control … What is assumed, consciously or not, is that the prerequisites of Breath Awareness and a relaxed Breathing Mechanism already exist.  The importance of this cannot be underestimated.  So we’ll return to Breath Control, later,  and start at the start.

1. Breath Awareness:  I challenge you to to start with this.  It is at once the simplest and the most challenging. Simply notice without analysing, without making any deliberate changes, without judging, without evaluating – only noticing.  The practice of noticing your breath (I use the word practice rather deliberately) will reveal much – sensations, constraints, relationships of your breath to physiological mental and emotional states, and to energy levels.

This simple practice alone of noticing can be rather valuable.  As you simply notice, bringing your conscious awareness to your unconscious breath patterns, this in itself will generate changes in your breath – which you simply notice … “going with the flow”.  You might notice it speed up, slow down, become smaller, become larger, soften, energise, quieten, enliven.  Then you can start to play with this … “riding the wave”.

Practicing Breath Awareness:  Dan Brule suggests 10 minutes breathing practice morning and evening (2 x 10min) plus 2 minutes 10 times a day (10 x 2min), which I rather like.  This is a great general principle:  regular extended practice + frequent small reminders = sustainable changes.  Remember to simply notice your breath, allowing your breath to take its own course.

2. Freeing the Breath Mechanism:  Now this is where I spend a little time with people, so that they can understand the breath mechanism enough to experience what it means to breathe freely; and put to rest existing misconceptions and poor habits. Dan Brule in his interviews simply speaks about taking a deep breath, and letting it go – the emphasis being on the letting go – without controlling the pace of the exhale, neither slowing it down nor squeezing it out.

The other aspect I’d like to explore here is to do with having a relaxed inhale – with neither effort nor constraint.  But first a little about the anatomy of breathing…

Rib cage - thoracic spine, ribs, cartilages and breastbone in 3 parts

Rib cage – thoracic spine, ribs, cartilages and breastbone in 3 parts

 

2 (a) The Breath Mechanism:  includes includes the rib cage in its entirety – thoracic spine, ribs, cartilages and breastbone in 3 parts (around 120 articulations all up, depending how you count them)  – plus the diaphragm and lungs.  Left to its own device, free from any restriction inhibition or dampening, the diaphragm expands the entire rib cage, which in turn inflates the lungs contained therein.

Diaphragm outline - front, side and back views

Diaphragm outline – front, side and back views

2 (b) Your Diaphragm: is a thin muscle layer shaped like a dome, parachute, of jelly fish, if you like.  The central top area of the diaphragm is tendon – pliable but inelastic.  The outer area is muscle, its fibres curving over and downwards to its lower edge.   The images above show its location from the front, side and back.

To orient yourself to your own diaphragm:

  • First, find find the lowest tip of your breastbone, and then with finger pads of both hands trace the lower edge of your rib cage down and out and around the cartilage edge, continuing around your side and back tracing the lowest floating rib to where it meets your backbone.  You have now traced the lower “hem” of your diaphragm where it attaches inside the lower circumference of your rib cage.
  • Then, close your left hand and place it in the centre of your breastbone, this is the position of your heart – which rests atop the centre of your diaphragm.  So at the undersurface of your heart-hand is the central tendon of your diaphragm internally.  From here the muscle fibres of the diaphragm curve over and down internally to meet the lower edge of your rib cage.

So what does your diaphragm do, and how??

  • Recall that the diaphragm alone left to its own devices will expand the entire rib cage – all 120 articulations.  It does this through a combination of two actions:
    • the upper fibres of the muscular part of the diaphragm pull on the central tendon – drawing it down and elongating your heart & throat structures.  At the same time…
    • the lower fibres of the muscular part of the diaphragm pull on the lower edge of the rib cage, which lifts and expands its entire perimeter (which you just traced)
  • The expansion that the diaphragm creates, then, is:
    • An even expansion of the chest and belly
    • An expansion side to side and front to back
    • A lengthening of the thoracic spine, and, if there are no restrictions in the neck or back, a lengthening of the entire spine from head to tail
    • In other words, and expansion of the entire torso
  • … Air expands the lungs, and breath expand the entire torso
Diaphragm relationships - front & side view + in context entire torso

Diaphragm relationships – front & side view + in context entire torso

To orient yourself to your own Diaphragm breath:

  • Begin by allowing your awareness to settle into your breath, and for your breath to settle into its own rhythm.
    • allow a little time for this
  • Bring your awareness to the shape of your rib cage, abdomen and backbone – and in turn bring your awareness to the entire interior space within.
    • allow a sense that this entire interior space is spacious, and “at ease”
  • Now if you allow your breath to relax out, and you wait just a little, your breath will start to find its own way in.
    • allow your breath to trickle in, without adding any sense of exterior “muscular effort”
      • to increase volume, simply allow more time (rather than effort)
      • for a little more volume: as your breath trickles in and meets the first sense of elastic resistance, pause, suspending your breath for a moment before you allow your breath to again relax out
      • and to explore more volume again:  as your breath trickles in and meets the first sense of elastic resistance, pause, suspending your breath here for a few moments, waiting until your breath is able to find a bit more space which it might occupy, letting your breath in further.
        • all the while, avoiding adding any exterior “muscular effort”
    • play with each of these different stages, returning to a resting breath as you wish, simply noticing your breath and allowing it to find its own rhythm.
      • notice any changes in your breath.
    • repeat
  • You can practice this any time you are awake, although practicing whilst lying down simplifies things, at least to begin with
  • Other helpful hints
    • bring your awareness to your breastbone, collar bones and the whole front of your chest wall, allowing it to feel “soft” and “at ease”
    • if you are lying down, bring your awareness to the contact between your body and the surface you are lying on, allowing it to rest there.

Notice the words – awareness, wait, suspend, trickle, relax, and allow.  Allowing the breath is a key sensation here – rather than any words like do, push pull, make.  The idea is to foster the ability of your body to relax around the expansion of your breath, and also to allow your breath to find otherwise hidden or forgotten places.

Start now, practice consistently, notice change

In my next post/s about breath, breathing & the diaphragm, I’ll continue with more strategies for relaxing your breath mechanism, highlight other nuances of a complete diaphragm breath, and explore different ways to play with breath control.  But for now start at the start.  enjoy!!