Diaphragmatic Breathing

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

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.

Man with hands on stomach diaphragmatic breathing

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.

woman holding sticks with faces on the ends with different expressions

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?