Diaphragmatic breathing for better health
Breathing—or pranayama as it is called in yoga—is central to this practice and key to its therapeutic value. The breath can soothe and calm us or excite and stimulate us. It is fundamental to controlling our physiology, our state of mind, and our ability to manage stress.
The most beneficial type of breathing is diaphragmatic (belly breathing). In contrast, chest breathing, which uses the shoulders, neck and rib cage muscles can create generalized muscular tension and deconditioning of the diaphragm. Most of the time our breathing is involuntary, but at any time it can become a voluntary act.
Understanding the basic anatomy of the diaphragm muscles is helpful. Visualize the bottom of your rib cage as a ring and attached to that ring is the dome-shaped muscle called the diaphragm. The diaphragm muscle attaches to the bottom of the ribs, the sternum and spine.
It is innervated by the phrenic nerve which originates in the cervical spine. The lower lungs rest above it and the digestive organs rest below it. Having both a supple and strong diaphragm is central to proper breathing and digestion. As we inhale the lungs and diaphragm expand outward and downward and the belly expands outward. As we exhale the lungs and diaphragm move upward and inward and the belly moves inward.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, begin in a relaxing position, resting on your back, or in a comfortable seated position. Before you start, decide to do this practice for a certain amount of time or for a certain number of breaths. You can breathe either in and out through the nose or in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Our aim is to breathe as slowly as 4-10 seconds on the inhale and the same length of time on the exhale. One way to visualize diaphragmatic breathing is to imagine you have a sphere in the center of your belly and one in the center of your chest. As you inhale, inflate these spheres simultaneously for up to 4-10 seconds, feeling your lower ribs expanding outward in all directions and your diaphragm moving outward and downward. Exhale for 4-10 seconds to deflate the spheres, feeling your lower ribs moving slowly inward and your diaphragm moving upward and inward.
Benefits of deep slow breathing
Deep slow breathing is used as a focal point in the practice of mindful breathing and meditation. What’s more, at any moment we can use the powerful tool of breath control to change our body’s physiology and the state of our mind. For example, deep slow breathing—
- Slows the heart rate
- Decreases blood pressure (not all cases)
- Reduces stress, reduces anxiety, calms you down when you are angry, shifts negative thinking.
- Improves mental health
- Improves digestion
- Enhances immune function
- Improves lung function
- Improves posture
- Increases the circulation of blood and lymph.
- Reduces spinal pain and muscle tension especially around the rib cage, shoulders, neck and head.
- Improves core strength
- Increases energy with increased oxygen
- Regulates your body’s pH (acid/alkali concentrations)
How it works
The nervous system: deep slow breathing switches off the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” aspect of the autonomic nervous system) and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system (the resting and digestive aspect of the autonomic nervous system). Essentially, this action decreases stress by letting your body know that all is well.
Diaphragm function: The movement of the diaphragm massages and improves function of the digestive organs. Your diaphragm also plays a key role in the proper functioning of the core muscles. These muscles create a container, the sides being the abdominals and back muscles, the bottom the pelvic floor and the top the diaphragm. When these muscles are functioning properly our base of stability and musculoskeletal balance is enhanced.
Oxygenation: Breath is life. We breathe in oxygen and we breathe out carbon dioxide. Oxygen from the capillaries in the lungs attaches to the hemoglobin in the blood and is transported to cells. Oxygen reacts chemically (almost exclusively in the mitochondria) with carbohydrates, proteins and fats and goes through a series of steps influenced by enzymes, to create the high energy compound ATP, which is used to drive almost all intracellular metabolic functions. One of the end products of this energy cycle is CO2, which is released from the cells and taken out through the lungs.
PH regulation: The respiratory system and kidneys regulate body fluid pH, which determines the acid/alkaline balance of the body. pH is related to hydrogen ion concentrations: the higher the hydrogen ion concentrations, the lower the pH; the lower the concentrations, the higher the pH. On a scale of 0-14, the lower range is more acid; the higher range more alkaline; 7 is neutral. Blood is usually about 7.4—just slightly alkaline. As the level of CO2 in the body decreases the body becomes more alkaline and vice versa. Some medical professionals believe that a key component of good health is to maintain the body’s overall alkalinity.