Q “How do I breathe with my Diaphragm??”

“What is a Diaphragm breath??” 

This question often comes up in conversation.  Very good question. A couple of my previous blogs discuss breath already, but I’ve come across some more good words/pictures/links that I like on the subject.

Firstly let’s clear one thing up — with every single breath you take you are using your diaphragm, unless you are on a ventilator, that is.  True.  The detail after this lies in:

  • how unrestricted or uninhibited your diaphragm is able to work
  • your system’s demand for oxygen/CO2 exchange, and
  • whether or not other muscles are adding to the action of your diaphragm, for better or worse

And secondly, consider thatAir goes into the lungs, Breath goes into the whole torso/body

Once you are able to access your (basically) unrestricted diaphragm breath, then you can explore a variety of shapes for your breath – chest breath, abdominal breath, lateral breath, progressively fill from top to bottom, or bottom to top, and so on as you wish.

As an aside …

… breathing is unique in that it is both involuntary and voluntary:

  • Together respiratory centres in your brainstem and O2/CO2 sensors in your carotid arteries coordinate your  breathing so that it continues endlessly without your attention according to your physiological state.
  • You can also bring your attention to your breath and choose to alter your breath, be it deeper shallower faster slower this rhythm or that.
  • Interestingly, there exists also a lovely sweet spot, a bridge between these two states that is a bringing your awareness to your breath so that your automatic breath patterns can adjust and self-regulate.

    Diaphragm action Kapandji*

Now to what the Diaphragm does:

In this image notice the following:  

  • the domed shape of the diaphragm. 
  • the lower edge of the dome attaching to the lower edge of the rib cage and front of the vertebrae – a complete if unusual shaped circle, or “hem”.  
  • the diaphragm muscle attaching “to itself” at a central flat sheet of tendon (connective tissue, no muscle).  

The diaphragm and central tendon are connected to your heart (central tendon only) and lungs above, and liver/stomach/kidneys below.  

and visualise that:

  • As the diaphragm starts to contract, the central tendon is pulled down.  This downward movement of the central tendon is limited by how much the heart is able to elongate — which is a little but not a lot — and from then on the central tendon is stable in place within the body.
  • From then on the outer edges of the diaphragm act on the ribs, sternum (breastbone) and vertebrae in such a way that:
    • there is expansion of the thorax (rib cage) in diameter side to side, front to back, and
    • the edges of the ribs & sternum are lifted up (A’B) because they are moving in an arc (AB) around the axis of movement of the rib-spine joint (O)

      Rib-Spine Joints:  Kapandji*

At the same time…

  • the way the ribs join the spine (fig14) means that the spine straightens a little bit as the ribs lift & expand, and in turn …
  • because individual vertebrae are joined elastically from skull to tailbone, the entire spine elongates, just a little.

In this way the Diaphragm has all of these effects, simultaneously.  An entire torso expansion in 3-D with next to no effort.  Amazing huh!  I think it’s a pretty extraordinary, a highly efficient arrangement.


Now what does this feel like?

My previous two breathing blogs on breath each contain a number of tips for playing with this experience of a complete, spacious diaphragm breath.  For most people the top tip is this:

  • Bring your awareness to your breastbone, and allow the sense that it is soft, expansive.  Keeping this in your awareness, let your breath come & go and notice the sense of spaciousness.  Notice also it is something to allow/let/observe, rather that do/push/pull.  


But what about all those different breath patterns?

Different breath patterns simply differ in the the way your torso expands to accept your breath.  Chest – belly – side, upper – middle – lower or any other variation.

** remember to allow the sense of a soft breast bone as you allow your breath to flow, and you will find the nicest version of any pattern you choose**

  • for a chest breath, you allow your abdomen to stay still and allow only your chest to expand.
      • if you’ve tension held in your breastbone this will overemphasise expansion upwards into your shoulders and very upper chest rather than a nice overall chest expansion
  • for a belly-abdomen breath you allow your chest to stay still and only your abdomen to expand.
      • if you’ve tension held in your breastbone this will overinflate your belly away from your backbone rather than a nice even abdomen-pelvis-lower back expansion
  • for a side-lateral breath you allow your chest and abdomen in the front to back dimension to stay still so you expand only/mainly into your sides.
      • if you’ve tension held in your breastbone (&/or solar plexus) this will exaggerate shoulder/upper chest movement instead of a nice general sideways filling of your torso
  • or you can sequence expansion from upper to lower, or lower to upper areas


Finally, a couple of other good links that I came across:

from In Pursuit of Yoga – some nice moving illustrations for diaphragm action in chest vs abdomen breath

from Yoga Anatomy – a very good discussion of breath pattern misconceptions and clarifications.  A longer conversation on the topic by Leslie Kaminoff.  The only tiny extra thing I would add to this article is where it speaks about thoracic spine flexion & extension being an element of diaphragm action, I would add that the effect continues as a subtle elongation of the entire S-shape of the spine & is not limited to the thorax.


* Kapandji “The Physiology of The Joints” (Vol 3, Fig 25-7 and 12-14)