What is the diaphragm? You often hear it associated with breathing and singing; whether you’re doing one or the other, the correct way to do it is from the diaphragm. If you’ve been pregnant before, you’ve probably been told that your shortness of breath is caused by your belly bulge pressing against your diaphragm. You can safely assume that it’s a body part located somewhere along your tummy, but what exactly is it?
The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle sitting under the lungs. When it is at rest and not contracting, it forms a dome and divides the chest from the abdomen. When it contracts as it does when you breathe, it descends and the dome flattens toward the abdomen, pulling down the lung bases with it and opening the air sacs to take in air. The diaphragm is integral to correct breathing because it comprises the lung bases that get the most blood flow. The thing about good tissue oxygenation is that it requires oxygen from the air you breathe to diffuse into the blood vessels passing through your lungs. Doing diaphragmatic breathing means ensuring good air supply meets with good blood supply.
When your diaphragm descends, it puts pressure against the abdominal organs, which are for the most part fluid-filled. Since fluid cannot be compressed, the abdomen has to displace somewhere to make room for the diaphragm. This is why the stomach walls move outwards when you inhale while doing diaphragmatic breathing, which understandably is also referred to as abdominal or belly breathing.
Exhaling, on the other hand, is a relaxing movement, allowing the diaphragm to go back to its domed position at rest. It calms you and releases stress, hence the relieving feeling of a sigh. Diaphragmatic breathing is the correct way to breathe. To check if you’re doing it, see if your stomach rises when you inhale and relaxes when you exhale. When the opposite happens, what you’re doing is paradoxical breathing.
When you breathe paradoxically, the neck, shoulder, and inter-rib muscles have to put in more effort to maintain your breathing. While diaphragmatic breathing feels effortless, paradoxical breathing makes you tired and your chest sore.
If you find that you are a paradoxical breather, you may need to get some professional help retraining your diaphragm. This is especially important for asthma sufferers as learning to breathe correctly can go a long way in helping them control their disease. Physiotherapists often help asthma patients with breathing exercises involving tummy breathing, which allows them to relax and get over an attack naturally.
Your body is designed to breathe diaphragmatically, so whether you suffer from asthma or not, it would serve you well to start practicing it for better health.