How to fix your diaphragm and breathe better.
Not using the diaphragm to breathe is like trying to taste food while pinching your nose.
Yes it still works, but it means that we are operating under a significant handicap and not adhering to nature’s best intentions for us. And it means if we start to use the diaphragm to its full potential, we can start to enjoy a much fuller and richer experience.
My clients’ most common breathing problem.
Many of my clients come to see me complaining of feelings of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm, often coupled with physical issues such as digestive problems or hypertension.
When I first take a look at a client’s breathing pattern, the first thing I notice is that their belly and solar plexus is tense, and the majority of the breathing movement comes from the upper body.
They are often wearing clothes that are too tight fitting and have a tendency to suck in their tummies for that perfect Instagram shot, and/or work in jobs that mean sitting all day hunched over a computer or smartphone.
Are you neglecting the breathing powerhouse muscle?
The diaphragm is the powerhouse muscle that we are meant to breathe with.
When we don’t breathe using the diaphragm, because of tension or weakness in the muscle itself and other parts of the body, as well as poor posture, we resort to using the much smaller and weaker muscles of the upper body (chest, upper back, shoulders, and neck), which get easily fatigued.
So-called “chest breathing” also puts our nervous system into the “fight or flight” response.
What proper breathing should feel like.
On the other hand, the powerful and rhythmic movement of the diaphragm maximizes the effort-to-energy ratio in our breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as “belly breathing” because the belly should expand or rise with each inhale and contract and fall with each exhale.
A female client recently shared with me that by learning to breathe into her belly, she became more aware of tension that she was holding in her pelvic floor and hips. Through a combination of conscious breathing and mindful movement, she was able to release this tension, which helped her to feel more grounded and at home in her body.
3 vital side effects of diaphragmatic breathing.
One: diaphragmatic breathing massages our internal organs (guts and heart), which improves digestion and circulation and stimulates detoxification via the lymphatic system.
Two: belly breathing also activates the “rest and recover” branch of the nervous system.
Three: by strengthening the diaphragm through breathing, you can improve core stability.
For example, the same client mentioned above also experienced relief from her chronic IBS as a result of switching to breathing with her diaphragm.
It’s not just you. It’s a sign of the times.
Perhaps less obviously, but just as impactful, is that we live in times of fear and uncertainty, and the body responds to this by tensing the abdominal and psoas muscles, initiating the action of curling us up into a fetal position in order to protect our fragile internal organs.
Tension in the diaphragm is also a result of suppressing our feelings. Think about what happens to your breathing when something startles you, or you try to stifle a laugh, or hold back tears.
Reduced range of motion is the root cause.
All of these factors contribute to a reduced range of motion of the diaphragm.
The diaphragm, like all other muscles, is really just trying to do its job in as effortlessly and efficiently as possible. Whenever I start talking about this topic and our general (and very common neglect) of the diaphragm, I’m reminded of how perfectly evolved and incredibly wise the body really is.
But when we get in the body’s way by bringing conscious or unconscious tension and resistance to the natural movement of the diaphragm, the body has no choice but to switch to “chest breathing.”
Fortunately, this dysfunctional breathing pattern can be easily reversed by redirecting our breathing into the belly, releasing tension, improving posture and strengthening the diaphragm. This simple tweak to the way we breathe can lead to profound, positive improvements in all aspects of your life.
How to practice diaphragmatic breathing.
Step 1: Bring your awareness down to your belly.
Your belly should expand with each inhale and narrow with each exhale.
If this isn’t the case, then try lying on the floor with your knees bent and a weighted object like a book balanced on your belly. See if you can raise the book with each inhale and lower it with each exhale.
What’s really happening, what’s really causing your belly to expand is the expansion of your lower lungs.
And that’s what we’re after ultimately: an ability to breathe using all of our lung capacity, not just the portion within the chest.
Step 2: Let it all hang out.
Relax your belly. This is a time when you can let it all hang out rather than holding everything in. By allowing your abdominal muscles to loosen and relax, you will enable your diaphragm to move downwards freely.
Step 3: Feel the balloon inflate.
Place both hands over your belly button and interlace your fingers very lightly. When you inhale, the breath should cause your hands to move apart. When you exhale, the hands should come together again.
Imagine that your breath is inflating a balloon in your lower belly when you inhale. Try to exaggerate this.
How to make a habit of diaphragmatic breathing.
The consistency is what’s really important here. Better breathing has a cumulative effect. The more you breathe better, the better you think, the better you are able to focus, the better you feel long term.
In order to build this into a regular practice throughout your day, you can follow the so-called “Four laws of behavior change” outlined in James Clear’s excellent book Atomic Habits.
Four laws of behavior change:
- Make it obvious: schedule a regular time to do it and set a reminder, or pair it with an existing routine like brushing your teeth or brewing your morning coffee.
- Make it attractive: be as present as possible and notice how it makes you feel.
- Make it easy: start small with just a few minutes or even a few breaths a day.
- Make it satisfying: set up a streak by marking your progress on a calendar. See how many days you can practice in a row, or over 30 days.
Marcus Blacker | Life and Breath Coach