Diaphragmatic Breathing

What is diaphragmatic breathing and why is it helpful in reducing tension and stress?

Anatomy of the diaphragm

The diaphragm is shaped like an umbrella, separating the lungs from the abdomen, and is the main muscle in respiration or breathing. The principal function of the breath cycle which occurs thousands of times each day ( in a lifetime), is to allow oxygen from the atmosphere to be absorbed by our red blood cells, whilst at the same time exchanging carbon dioxide (CO2). There is a constant ebb and flow of these blood gasses, regulated by our nervous system, and controlled by the phrenic nerve which comes directly from the brainstem.

The phrenic nerve gets its name from the Greek word
phren, meaning mind. Interestingly its other meaning is muscle. This duel meaning is because the ancient physicians understood the relationship between the mind and the physical body, and saw them as indivisible and mutually interrelated.

The diaphragm has been called the muscular equivalent of an umbilical cord, for its capacity to contact our bodies with the outside world.

How the diaphragm works
On inhalation, the diaphragm muscle contracts, and pulls downward, making the ribs flare out slightly. It pulls the bottom of the lungs downward to bring in air. On exhalation, this releases and the air goes out.
This is something you do approximately 18 times per minute, 1,000 times an hour and almost 26,000 times a day – and you don't even think about it.
If you do think about your breath, it's probably only when you're short of it. For patients who want to explore the subject, we’d recommend a new book, Breath in Action, which has contributors from the worlds of science and the arts, exploring how an increased awareness of breathing can impact positively on health, confidence and stress levels.

One of its co-editors, Jane Boston, senior voice practitioner at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, says that paying attention to your breathing can be the best preventive treatment for numerous health issues – notably asthma and high blood pressure, and even aches and pains picked up from bad upper body posture. It can also lead to a better awareness of your sense of self.

"We tend to take sips of a breath," says Boston, "and hold it when we're anxious, both of which can have a ripple effect through the system. One bad habit, like shallow breathing, triggers another. Breathing incorrectly can make you more susceptible to lower back pain. On a philosophical level, breathing properly helps to keep the mind open, enabling you to think about who you are and what and why you're doing something. But primarily, if you breathe in the right way, you'll have better digestion, your balance will be improved, and you'll develop an optimum posture."

Abdominal Breathing

Learning how to breathe from the abdomen is very important; firstly, because the blood in the lowest part of the lungs is the richest in oxygen; secondly, if you emphasize your breathing on your upper chest and shoulders, this will exacerbate any difficulties you suffer with your lungs. So if you have chronic bronchitis, asthma or a stiff rib cage due to poor posture, you should work to strengthen your core muscles around your abdomen and lower back. This will assist in improved lung capacity and a more relaxed state of mind as an added benefit.

How to Breathe Properly

* Learn from Yoga to breathe as deeply and fully as possible through the nostrils. Do not mouth breathe at any stage in the breathing cycle as the composition of gaseous exchange is better when drawn through the nasal passages and turbinate bones of the sinuses. The cells lining the sinus region are called epithelial cells. As well as having fine hairs called cilia along their pathway, they act to both warm the incoming air, and produce nitric oxide gas. This gas relaxes the nervous system and naturally reduces stress levels. That’s how breathing techniques induce a natural feeling of well-being and at peace.

Find an image for the breath in your stomach such as a bellows. This is to help you visualize your breath coming from a deeper part of the lungs and helps reduce a tendency to shallow breathing. Use this image whenever doing breathing exercises.

*Relax your breathing mechanisms. Stand upright, plant your feet firmly on the floor a hip-width apart. Relax your shoulders and slacken off your joints – ankles, knees, hips and lower spine. At the same time, straighten up through the top of the head (called the vertex) to the ceiling, so that you feel loose but have the maximum height. Keep your head straight but allow it to slacken slightly between the atlas and the occiput.

* Breathe the right way round. Place both hands, one on top of the other, over your stomach and over the solar plexus. Breathe in to flatten the diaphragm and feel your stomach expand; breathe ‘out’ and suck the stomach gently back in with the ‘in’ breath.

* Practice wide breathing. Feel the lower chest and rib cage expand as you breathe. Place your hands just above your hips on your bottom ribs – you should feel these expand in and out as you breathe. There is a belt of muscle under your diaphragm and its those muscles that send the breath outwards. Practice expanding your breathing capacity regularly for 5-10 minutes daily, trying to keep to the same time each day for optimum results.

The benefits to regular practice include a more relaxed attitude to life, and an ability to appreciate the link between the old naturopathic adage of ‘a healthy mind brings a healthy body.’ Many patients notice an improved sleep pattern, more energy and improved memory and concentration levels when at work. We recently used this practice with several high level sportsmen and women who reported improved personal best performances, and an improved ability to focus on their pre-performance preparation.

Teach your children how to do it, too. It’s never too young to learn!