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Diaphragmatic Breathing

Updated: Jun 2


If you’re reading this post about diaphragmatic breathing without having read my other post about breathing techniques for public speaking, you might want to head there first.



Otherwise, let’s get to it.


What is the Diaphragm?


It’s a domed muscle (and membrane) attached to the bottom of your ribs.


What does the diaphragm do?


When it contracts, it flattens down towards your pelvis. Your lungs expand into the space it creates and breath comes in (the viscera under the diaphragm - organs like the stomach, intestines, bowel etc - move out the way, which is why the abdominal wall often moves out to the front when we breathe using the diaphragm). When it releases - doming back up towards your head - breath comes out (and the abdominal wall comes back in).


Do you use your diaphragm?


When we are born (free of complications) we all breathe using the diaphragm. It is our instinct. Watch a baby’s belly when it sleeps and you’ll see it rise and fall on each breath. That’s because the diaphragm is supposed to be the primary breathing muscle.

But not everyone uses it (or at least uses it fully). Why? There could be many reasons for this, too many to go into here, although I’ll offer some thoughts on this in a moment. However, the most important question is, are you one of those people?

Let’s find out:

  • Sit on a chair.

  • Place one hand on your stomach (roughly where your belly button is) and the other on your chest.

  • Let your mouth relax apart by a few millimetres and ensure you are breathing in through your mouth (if you pinch your nose and you can still breathe then you’ll know that you are breathing in through your mouth).

  • Sit for a moment, breathe as normally as you can through your mouth and observe whether you feel the hand on your belly moving out on your in-breath or the hand on your chest.

If your hand on your belly moves, hurrah! At least in that moment, sitting, it would seem that you were breathing using your diaphragm (one can physically push ones belly out to give the appearance of breathing using your diaphragm, so make sure you are not doing that). If only the hand on your chest moved, you weren’t. Now, even if you felt your hand on your belly move, does it do the same thing when standing and/or when breathing while speaking? Maybe not. How can you check? One way might be to pay more attention to this the next time you make a phone call. Put a hand on your belly and notice what happens.


You might be thinking, “so what if I’m breathing from my chest! What’s all the fuss about breathing from your diaphragm?”


The benefits of diaphragmatic breathing


Let’s talk about economy of effort.


If you did the exercise above, you’ll have noticed that other than using the diaphragm to breathe, the muscles that move your ribs can also be used.


The issue with this is that it takes a lot more neurophysiological activity to lift the 12 pairs of rib bones instead of just flattening your diaphragm. If you speak for any length of time and primarily breathe by moving your ribs, you’ll become tired very quickly.


Second, for most people, they seem not to be able to lift the ribs without tensing through their shoulders or neck (it’s possible but challenging for some people). And in turn this can tense your throat and can constrict your voice.



And third (you may think this sounds like new-age nonsense, but what follows are hard facts backed up by science) is that involving the diaphragm in breathing can keep us connected to our emotional intelligence (now recognised as a highly essential skill in all people-facing professions and social situations). How?


The solar plexus (a plexus is simply a large, complex network of nerves) is located at the pit of the stomach just below the diaphragm. It is in this area where we tend to experience the feeling of many emotions: anxiety, dread, longing, excitement, relief etc... We even have phrases in the English language like ‘I’ve got butterflies in my stomach’ and ‘I’ve got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach’.


The location of the diaphragm and this nerve centre is not just a happy accident.


Instinctively, we seem to attempt to control many of these feelings by tensing the stomach and diaphragm. We know that when nerves are constricted the messages they carry can’t be delivered effectively. Think about it, when trying not to cry, laugh, defend ourself with words, speak up against injustice, volunteer ideas etc... we tend to stop breathing or try to shallow breathe in our chests. We do this by either closing in our throats or by tensing our abdominal muscles so that our diaphragms can’t move (remember that all the organs in the stomach need to be able to move out of the way of the diaphragm and can’t if the abdominal wall is tense, which means the diaphragm can’t move).


As unwanted as some of these emotions may be, being connected to our full psycho-physical intelligence seems like a potential game-changer for reading ourselves and other people and be effective in communication.


So why may I have stopped using my diaphragm?


I suggested earlier that there could be many reasons. But all we really have to go on is empirical data. And most evidence seems to point to sociocultural influences.


For example, let’s say you are 10 years old in a school classroom. The teacher asks a question. You put up your hand confidently, get chosen to answer, without a second thought you breathe down in to your belly to speak, and give the wrong answer.


Now what if the teacher and your class mates respond in a way that makes you feel stupid or belittled? The likelihood is that next time you think you’ve got the right answer, you hesitate before putting your hand up and that hesitancy is a thought that makes you tense your stomach. As a byproduct, you can’t let a breath down into your belly and instead you control your breath in your chest, away from the solar plexus where those feelings of potential stupidity and anxiety exist. You feel safer but you’ve started a habit that may snowball into permanently distrusting your instincts and shallow breathing in your chest.


So, how do you breathe from your diaphragm?


If you haven’t got the next 10 minutes available and access to a space where you won’t be disturbed, bookmark this page and come back when it’s more convenient.


Breathing operates on the autonomic nervous system - it takes care of itself without your conscious awareness (I talk more about this in this article). So your neurophysiological habits around breathing may be hard to change if it has become hardwired into your system.


Also, bringing breathing under conscious awareness may be unsettling for some people: it might make you distrust your body’s instinct and make you breathe too much or too little.

So whilst it is highly unlikely, in the event that the following exercise makes you feel unwell in any physical or psychological way, please stop and seek the guidance of a professional voice coach.


And lastly, I would highly recommend that you record yourself speaking the following exercise aloud, listen back and follow along:



  • Sit (preferably in a chair where you feel your back is supported and your spine is fairly upright) or better still lie on your back, with a one or two inch book under your head and your feet on the ground so that your knees are bent.

  • Place one hand on your belly. If you are sitting place the other hand on one of your thighs and if you are laying on your back, place that hand palm down on the floor.

  • Let your lips relax apart by a few millimetres. Let your top and bottom teeth relax away from one another. Let your tongue tip rest behind the back of your bottom teeth. And if you feel comfortable close your eyes.


  • <pause for 10 seconds>


  • Pay attention to air coming in and out through your open mouth. Remind yourself that your breathing normally functions without your conscious help, so might it be possible to notice your breathing without consciously influencing it?


  • <pause for 10 seconds>


  • This perspective might come and go so be patient with yourself.

  • Start to notice whether or not your hand on your belly is moving as you breathe. If not, it’s likely that you are breathing into your chest. You might move your hand to your chest to feel what is happening there and then move your hand back to your belly.


  • <pause for 10 seconds>


  • Now, picture your diaphragm as clearly as possible. Picture a dome in the middle of your body, attached to the bottom of your rib cage front, sides and back. Picture your lungs above the dome and the organs in the belly as below.


  • <pause for 10 seconds>


  • Begin to picture the movement of the diaphragm as flattening down towards your pelvis on the in-breath and releasing back up into a dome on the out-breath. Flattening down on the in-breath and doming up on the out-breath. As it goes down on the in-breath, picture the organs behind your hand moving out into your hand and as it goes up, then picture the organs going back in and your hand moving in on the out-breath. Out on the in-breath, in on the out-breath.


  • <pause for 10 seconds>


  • It’s likely that you have started to control your breath into a slow, steady rhythm. I wonder if you can stop this.

  • Instead, notice that breathing in doesn’t have to be long or slow. Explore the possibility that it could just drop in and down to your hand on your belly.


  • <pause for 10 seconds>


  • Then notice how breathing out can be remarkably sudden. If (and I know that’s a big ‘if’) you can picture your diaphragm releasing on the out-breath, then much like dropping something, your breath can come up and out without pushing. Picture your diaphragm releasing on the out-breath, noticing the suddenness with which your hand on your belly falls into your belly.


  • <pause for 10 seconds>


  • And finally notice two last things: first, that the impulse to breathe in may not come immediately. Notice how there might be a moment where your body has enough oxygen. Maybe you could rest in this moment with your mouth relaxed open. And then a new breath comes in.


  • <pause for 10 seconds>


  • And second, there is no need to hold your breath once you have breathed in. Instead, release the breath out immediately. It’ll actually help you release your diaphragm. And then there is a moment between the out-breath and the next in-breath and it happens all again.



Changing any physical habit takes time, so if you can find 10 minutes as many times a week as you can afford, the sooner you’ll be diaphragmatic breathing. If you do this sitting, it’s the kind of thing you can do at a desk as you work or on the tube, a bus or a taxi. Do it with your eyes open and closed. And eventually, do it standing as well, as this is the most likely posture that you'll be in when speaking. A great book for training your voice is by Kristin Linklater, with whom I trained. And if you need some one-to-one guidance, just let me know.


P.S. Ask me for a free PDF download of this exercise here.

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