Diaphragmatic breathing is a free, rhythmic and natural inhalation and exhalation, under all circumstances, moods, emotions and body movements. Diaphragm is the evolutionary breathing muscle. We are programmed to engage the diaphragm to breathe.
Diaphragmatic breathing; an involuntary expression, is the first that we control due to factors like our moods, stresses, habits, body image, bad posture, allergies and certain ailments.
In his book ‘Respiratory Physiology’, noted physiologist John West stated that the lower half of the lungs is the most efficient on delivering oxygen. While the top 7% of the lungs brings in 4 ml oxygen per minute, the lower 13% brings in 60 ml oxygen per minute. So, by not engaging the diaphragm for breathing, we are depriving optimisation of systemic oxygenation.
A thin wide sheet of muscle, diaphragm is located between the rib cage & abdomen and manages more than 80% of respiration in normal tidal breathing.
1. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves down into the abdominal cavity, pushing the belly out. Diaphragm contraction increases the capacity of lungs by lowering the air pressure, thus, drawing in oxygen into the body.
2. When we exhale, the diaphragm and rib muscles relax, pushing the air out of your lungs. That’s why good breathing is called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.
3. The movement of the diaphragm massages all the abdominal organs that lay beneath it, and it also massages the organs that sit on top of it. That is why the greater the excursion rate of our diaphragm, the healthier we are.
Science of correct breathing
Despite the inherently involuntary nature of the breathing, most of us have to learn to improve upon the most basic of the physiological functions of our body. We breathe at a fairly quick pace most of the time- anywhere around 14-20 breaths per minute- double the optimised breathing.
Breathing cycle. On an inhale…
1. As you inhale, the diaphragm (the dome shaped muscle that separates chest from abdomen) contracts, lowers and flattens. This increases the intra-thoracic space (chest cavity enclosed by the rib cage), which makes the room for the air coming into the lungs by changing the pressure inside the lungs.
2. The air travels through your nostrils and into your nasal cavities routed through the bronchi (passageways connecting windpipe to lungs) into the lungs.
3. In the lungs, the air reaches the alveoli (air sacs), which serve as a place where exchange of O2 and CO2 takes place.
4. From the alveoli, O2 move into the capillaries (thin-walled blood vessels) and attach to red blood cells, which start making their way to the heart.
5. The heart, then contracts and pumps O2 rich blood to every single cell in the body via the network of arteries and capillaries.
Breathing cycle. On an exhale…
1. In every cell, Mitochondria (the centre that produces energy) uses oxygen to metabolise sugars, fats, and proteins for energy and releases CO2, a byproduct of this process.
2. CO2 travels into the veins that carry CO2-rich blood to the heart. Next, the heart contracts, pushing the CO2-rich blood into the pulmonary artery and back to the lungs.
3. As the blood enters the alveoli, the CO2 leaves the bloodstream and enters into the lungs. Then the diaphragm relaxes, decreasing the intra-thoracic pressure and initiates an exhalation thereby release CO2 out of the system.
Few of the support muscles/ nerves help with diaphragmatic breathing
Vena cava, pec major & pec minor, psoas, rectus abdominus, internal and external abdominus, internal and external obliques, rhomboids, central tendons, esophageal hiatus, serratus posterior inferior & serratus posterior superior, phrenic nerve and vagus nerve.
Your breath is not flowing in a sine wave pattern if…
1. You are breathing through your mouth.
2. You sigh or yawn frequently? If so, this is a sign that your body is not getting enough oxygen.
3. On inhalation, if chest is the first thing to move; going up or slightly forward, this is a sign you are breathing shallow.
4. Your rib cage is not expanding to the sides. If it is not, this is a sign of shallow breathing.
5. Do you feel your neck, chest and shoulder muscles are tight and you feel pain and tenderness when massaged? If so, maybe you suffer from stress hence the shallow breathing.
Why the diaphragmatic breathing?
Diaphragm movement is a hardwired evolutionary connection to the respiratory center in the medulla and pons in the brain stem. We are programmed to engage the diaphragm to Breathe.
Diaphragm is where the emotions, instinctive ‘reptilian’ brain meets the rationalising ”thinking” part of the brain. In other words, Diaphragm is where the oldest part of our nervous system connects with the newest.
1. Stress and blocked emotions restrict diaphragmatic breathing
90% of the people do not breathe correctly mainly due to un-addressed stresses and blocked emotional issues.
Our collective cultures reward us for stifling emotions. Women can’t get angry, Men don’t cry, Be positive… always!, Don’t vent, Don’t express yourself…
In this world of enforced do and don’ts, most of us tiptoe through a fearful/painful situation, we hold ourselves back; stress become a natural habit.
Sympathetic nervous system takes over… We Bottle up! Posture changes, shoulders drop, internal organs & the abdominals knot up… Diaphragm cannot move freely. We simply stop Breathing!
Diaphragm ‘gates’ in emotions. Diaphragm contracts in response to threats — real and/or imagined. Diaphragm responds to pain — actual and/or anticipated. Diaphragm expresses and reflects our stress responses.
2. Body image affects diaphragmatic breathing
“Body image is a person’s feelings of the aesthetics or sexual attractiveness of their own body, which may be forced onto them by others or social media…” Source Wikipedia.
More than 80% of people who have a Body Image issue have severely flawed and restricted Breathing.
The race to “looking fit” has overtaken the effort to “being fit”.
“Washboard abs” “Six pack” or “Eight pack” stomach is considered attractive in all cultures & men and women are encouraged to possess them. Most struggle and those who can not have them end up either constricting their abdominal muscles to look ‘fitter’ and ‘slimmer”.
Constricted abdominals block the diaphragm movement, tightens the neck, shoulders, upper back, hips, psoas, lower back and the plevic floor.
Diaphragmatic breathing gets compromised and shallow “chest breathing” becomes the norm. We become shallow breathers!
3. Bad posture restricts diaphragm’s rage of motion and lungs capacity
If you slouch, this can block the movement of Diaphragm – your primary breathing muscle.
Posture is critical for the functioning of the human body, for optimising the Diaphragm’s movement and of the lung capacity as well.
An unbalanced body and compromised posture can lead to dysfunction of the postural muscles in the latisimus dorsi, abdominal and the gluteus region.
Dysfunction of the postural muscles can lead to improper blood flow, increase in musculoskeletal imbalance and reduced neural reactions, which can lead to metabolic imbalance, chronic pain, restricted movement of the lungs and internal injuries of muscular walls.
Diaphragmatic breathing is considered to be right breathing pattern in humans. It accentuates correct breathing covering maximum capacity of the lungs and helps in decongesting lung walls and opening up the air sacs.
As the mechanics of our breathing improves, it enhances the visceral functions, offers proper support to our spinal regions and enhances the intake of airs through air sacs of lungs cavity.
4. Specific medical reasons for restricted diaphragmatic breathing
Specific medical issues can play Havoc with the quality of one’s Breathing. Medical intervention and rehabilitation is required in those specific cases. Some of the medical issues a restricted diaphragmatic breathing are…
5. Multiple sclerosis,
6. Thyroid disorders,
7. Radiation therapy,
8. Muscular disorders,
9. Muscular dystrophy,
10. Congenital defects like diaphragmatic hernia
11. Acquired disorders like diaphragm & phrenic nerve injuries due to accident.
Nowadays, most of the Doctors are recommending breathing exercises as part of rehabilitation plan for post medical interventions and surgeries.
Breathing capacity test: Breath quality indicates the state of one’s Health. The breath has to be gentle and smooth especially after retention. The key is to check the Controlled Pause after exhalation.
Step 1 – Inhale/Exhale gently for five minutes.
Step 2 – Exhale completely once the body and the breath is relaxed.
Step 3 – After complete exhalation, hold the breath and start the stopwatch.
Step 4 – Retain the breath until you feel the definite desire to breathe.
Step 5 – Resume breathing and stop the stopwatch simultaneously.
Find out how many seconds elapsed. Try step 2 to step 5 at least five times and then average it out. The time you noted down is called Control Pause.
Control pause shows the tolerance of your body to carbon dioxide and saturation levels of Oxygen on cellular levels. Short control pause times mean low tolerance to carbon dioxide and its depleting level in the body.
Refer to the following chart to know your Diaphragmatic Expiration Pulse.
1: Optimised Breathing pattern: 40 to 60 seconds.
2: Mild Health issues: 20 to 40 seconds.
3: Significant Health issues: 10 to 20 seconds.
4: Serious Health issues: Less than 10 seconds.