Diaphragmatic Breathing – An Introduction

On Monday night I held a seminar on an introduction to Diaphragmatic Breathing and discovering your diaphragm. I didn’t get to video the seminar so I thought I would create a blog about the subject.

What is the diaphragm?

The diaphragm is a huge, dome-shaped involuntary muscle at the bottom of the rib cage.

diaphragm_yoga_anatomy

When we breathe, this dome-shaped muscle contracts and flattens downward allowing a reduced pressure in the upper body so that air may enter the lungs and provide tension across the top of the abdominal area. As we breathe in, we should see the stomach, lower ribs and back expand slightly as the dome contracts and compresses the abdominal space. As we breathe out, both the chest and the stomach return to their original position.

When many of us breathe ‘normally’ we use a shallow breath and quite often through our mouth. This is called Thoracic breathing, inhalation by expanding the thorax, using the intercostal muscles to elevate the ribs. As we breathe in, the chest and shoulders rise and the stomach may contract inwards. This may look good in the mirror but is not a good breathing pattern. This type of breathing triggers our nervous systems fight or flight response and as a result, not only do we panic breathe, but the heart rate rises quickly and we tire and lose the ability to think clearly as we revert to using our reptilian brain.

When you deep breathe your diaphragm contracts and stimulates the vagus nerve, which sends a message to the brain telling us to relax. So many benefits come from deep breathing including:
• Helps lower blood pressure
• Helps lower blood sugar
• Releases serotonin, which not only makes you feel good, but can reduce cravings for processed carbohydrates and other junk food
• Increases the secretion of growth hormone and slows the aging process
• Improves mental focus and clarity by increasing blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex of your brain
• Improves sleep quality

Time yourself!

Breathe normally and time yourself over a one minute period to see how many times you breathe a full cycle (in and out). The average person will most likely breathe between 10 to 15 full cycles a minute, maybe more! The following exercise will reduce your breathing cycles down to just 3 or 4 per minute! You won’t be able to do this continuously for very long at the start, but with practice you will last longer. Of course you will not breathe like this 24/7, but with practice your breaths will become slower and longer as your body starts to subconsciously use the diaphragm more and you breathe into your chest less.

Exercise 1: Discover and exercise your diaphragm!

Lay on the floor, place your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your chest. Breathe in through your nose as if you are filling a balloon in your stomach. Of course, you are not literally breathing into your stomach! But what is happening, is as your diaphragm contracts it compresses your organs in your midsection and expands your stomach. Your chest and shoulders should remain relaxed and should not move much, if at all. Inhale for the count of 8 then hold for the count of 2. (When you hold, don’t close your throat or mouth as if you are shutting off the exit – just stop breathing as if you are in a state of suspended animation. Everything remains open and exactly the same as while you are breathing as your abs, obliques, etc will tense to try to stop your diaphragm from relaxing). Exhale slowly for the count of 8 while making a ‘sss’ sound to control the rate of exhale. At the end of your exhale hold for 2 (“Suspended animation” again, muscles tense to stop the diaphragm from trying to contract) then repeat the cycle. Repeat this exercise for five minutes. If you are unable to reach the count of 8 for the inhale or exhale, start at a lower number and work up.

Exercise 2: The 360 breath

Sitting in an upright position, make a claw with both hands and grab your sides, thumb to the back and fingers to the front. You want your hands to squeeze above your hip bone and below your ribs in that fleshy part. Lightly squeeze as you inhale. Same as exercise 1, inhale into your belly as if you are blowing up a balloon in your stomach. Not only should your fingers move outwards with the expansion of your belly, but your thumb should also move outwards as your lower ribs and lower back expand. Just inhale slowly then exhale slowly without stopping between the two. Breathe 10 full cycles like this

Exercise 3: Multitasking

Now we are going to stand up and walk around while practicing our breathing. Place a hand on your stomach and the other on your chest and slowly walk around the room as you concentrate on breathing into your belly. Just walk casually and take note of your breathing the whole time. There may be the temptation to tuck the belly in and push the chest out in an attempt to look cool, but let it all hang out! relax that chest and shoulders, just walk and breathe!

When it comes to Jiu Jitsu, the benefits should be obvious. Lower heart rate, ability to think clearly under pressure, no gasping for air, etc. Try breathing while escaping side control or mount. Or even while drilling basic passes like the toreando pass.  DO NOT gasp, grunt or moan! Breathe through the stress! Exhale as you exert energy (bridging or shooting for the underhook, for example). Sometimes you may have to take smaller breaths in through the nose and ‘sshh, sshh, shh’ out the mouth. Just keep breathing!

So there you have it, an introduction to diaphragmatic breathing.  Continue these exercises for about 10 minutes each day and feel the improvements!

One thought on “Diaphragmatic Breathing – An Introduction”

  1. Great simple explanation of the fight-or-flight vs. relaxed state of the nervous system when breathing into the chest vs. diaphragm. So important in BJJ… oh, and everyday life 🙂

    Like

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