What is diaphragmatic breathing, and why is it so important?
As you can see in the diagrams below, the diaphragm is an umbrella-shaped muscle located just below our lungs. In diaphragmatic breathing, we contract our diaphragm, pushing its center downward and inverting its umbrella shape as we inhale. This action draws air into our lungs and makes our belly expand. Then as we release our diaphragm, the muscle relaxes upward and expels the air out of our lungs.
Diaphragmatic breathing occurs naturally in all mammals when we are in a state of relaxation; this type of breathing is known as eupnea and requires no conscious effort.
When we become stressed for any reason, however, we instinctively shift to shallow breathing. This type of breathing consists of drawing air into the lungs using the intercostal muscles (the muscles in between each rib) instead of the diaphragm. As a result, in shallow breathing the chest expands instead of the belly.
The most common physiological issue associated with shallow breathing is a heightened level of stress due to constant activation of the stress response. Stress causes us to breathe shallowly, and if we experience stress on a regular basis, our shallow breathing becomes habitual. We continue to breathe shallowly whether or not we’re experiencing stress, and the shallow breathing actually activates our stress response.
Shallow breathing is also associated with anxiety disorders, panic attacks, hyperventilation, shock, asthma, pneumonia, pulmonary edema, and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the body known as hypercapnia.
Another reason people tend toward shallow breathing is the desire to not stick their belly out and appear overweight. The idea that we should suck in our stomach is so ingrained that it affects our breathing without us being aware of it. Many people have unnecessary tension in their abdominal muscles as a result of holding their stomach in so often, and this tension prevents them from taking full breaths.
The good news is that you can train yourself to breathe diaphragmatically pretty much all of the time. It just takes practice, like any muscular skill. The more often you practice diaphragmatic breathing, the more habitual it will become—and the more relaxed you’ll feel.
Close your eyes. Visualize your diaphragm inside you, just below your lungs. Completely relax. As you inhale through your nose, visualize the air going down to your lungs, and your diaphragm pushing downward. Be aware of your belly expanding at the same time. Then slowly let your diaphragm relax upward, as you slowly exhale.
Now try this while slowly counting to five as you inhale, then slowly counting to five as you exhale.
Now, slowly count to ten as you inhale, then slowly count to ten as you exhale.
The more often you practice this exercise, the more aware you will become of how you’re breathing. Soon, you’ll notice when you’re breathing shallowly because it will feel wrong, and you’ll instinctively slow yourself down and return to diaphragmatic breathing.
An added benefit of diaphragmatic breathing is that it pandiculates your diaphragm. By consciously inhaling and then very slowly exhaling, you’re pandiculating the muscle just like you do with all your other muscles in Clinical Somatics exercises. So by practicing diaphragmatic breathing on a regular basis, you’ll release any chronic tension in your diaphragm, and your breathing will become easier and more relaxed.