The diaphragm is a large, thin sheet of muscle dividing the thoracic (chest) cavity from the abdominal cavity (belly), and is the major muscle of breathing. As the diaphragm contracts, the lungs move downwards, expand and fill with air. Diaphragmatic breathing, along with breathing through the nose (not the mouth) is essential for healthy breathing. However, as a breathing educator I see many clients –especially those with ME/CFS/fibromyalgia or anxiety who make little or no use of this important muscle! Instead, they often breathe though the mouth, the breathing is obvious in the upper chest, accessory muscles in the upper chest and neck and shoulders do the donkey work of lifting the ribcage, and posture is often slumped.
Here is the best 3D video of breathing I have seen though take note, normal breathing at rest would be MUCH slower and MUCH smaller and less obvious than this.
Why is it important to engage the diaphragm for breathing?
Five advantages of using the diaphragm are:
1) Efficient gas exchange –the bottom third of the lungs is where about two thirds of the gas exchange takes place, so oxygenation is more efficient when you use the diaphragm
2) Less tension and tightness in the neck and shoulders as the muscles here can relax
3) Diaphragmatic breathing rebalances the autonomic nervous system, reducing heart rate and breathing rate and changing from sympathetic fight or flight to parasympathetic calm and relax
4) Diaphragmatic breathing gently “massages” or moves the abdominal organs, aiding digestion and helping lymphatic drainage; much of the lymphatic system is located just below the diaphragm
5) The diaphragm contributes to good posture and core muscle strength, so needs to work properly. In fact overdeveloped abs and sucking the stomach in can hinder proper movement of the diaphragm, and promote upper chest breathing
How do you breathe?
Check it out, put one hand on your upper chest, the other on the belly; which moves first when you inhale, which moves most?
A good way to promote diaphragmatic breathing is to lie flat on your back with legs raised, then bent at the knee right angles and calves supported on a chair. Check that the belly is moving up and down as you breathe – a book on the belly will help to feel this. This can be further encouraged by clasping your hands behind your head. Once you get used to it, make sure you still breathe with your diaphragm when sitting, standing and moving –don’t hold it all in!
Sometimes it is very difficult for people to use the diaphragm BECAUSE they breathe badly and there is poor blood flow and oxygenation of the diaphragm. As the breathing pattern starts to improve with constant nasal breathing, blood supply improves and it becomes easier to use the diaphragm.
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