Monday, March 30, 2009

Optimal Health

As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, breathing is one of the least understood aspects of Yoga. True, we have many images and techniques regarding breathing techniques, though at the end of the day, the incidence of incorrect breathing is epidemic.

Perhaps you’ve heard teachers suggest belly breathing, filling the collarbones, breathing into the side ribs, filling the armpit-chest or other secondary instructions. While each of these carries an element of truth, in isolation, they’re often misleading.

These instructions are all based on the assumption that the diaphragm is moving properly. In our 21st century world, this assumption doesn’t carry much weight. Perhaps proper diaphragm movement was commonplace at some other time and place, but today it’s become exceedingly rare.

Why do we care about the movement of the diaphragm? The diaphragm signals the brain whether to be content, or ready-for-the-worst. If the diaphragm is moving improperly, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, which triggers a cascade of physiological responses. Often called the fight/flight/freeze response, the overstimulated sympathetic nervous system will elevate the blood pressure, tighten neck and shoulder muscles, depress sexual function, divert blood from the digestive organs to the skeletal muscles and overload the immune system. An overactive sympathetic nervous system leads to a host of conditions that plague our communities.

With little effort, we can trace heart disease, chronic muscle pain, autoimmune disease, anxiety, insomnia, digestive troubles and infertility to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. Why is the sympathetic nervous system on overload? For many people, it is directly linked to breathing.

If the diaphragm moves properly, each breath sends the “everything’s okay” message to the brain. If the diaphragm freeezes or moves in reverse, the vagus nerve sends the message to the brain that something bad is forthcoming, and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to put all systems on full alert. A life spent on full alert ultimately leads to burnout.

There are many yoga teachers who claim that all breathing defaults to healthy diaphragm movement. While I wish this were true, I’ve seen little evidence to support this assertion. Particularly when people start to breath deeper, the vast majority of yoga students reverse the direction of the diaphragm to create the feeling of bringing the breath higher into the ribs.

This is not to suggest that yoga students should not breathe deeply! Rather, yoga students need to be educated on the proper movement of the diaphragm, and be given strategies to incorporate that knowledge into their practice.

Put simply, the diaphragm should move toward the pelvis with the inhale, and release back up into the ribcage with the exhale. The video below gives a great visual representation of this movement. You can see that the movement of the ribs is the opposite of the movement of the diaphragm. Any amount you can fill the ribs is a bonus, as long as the diaphragm maintains its proper descend-with-the-inhale and release-upwards-with-the-exhale movement.

Is diaphragmatic breathing the same as belly breathing? In some instances it is. If you’re resting on your back, the soft belly will rise and fall in concert with the movement of the diaphragm. If you’re in a deeper backbend and the belly muscles are stretched, or you’re working on vigorous standing postures and the belly muscles are involved in supporting the pose, then the diaphragm movement will cause little, if any, movement of the belly.

I generally don’t use the term belly breathing because it diverts our attention away from the soul of breathing, which is the diaphragm. The implication that the belly should remain so flaccid that diaphragm movement is observable in all postures is an invitation for lower-back strain. When there’s tone in the belly, as there should be in many postures, there is very little movement in the actual belly as a result of breathing.

Please take some time to study the accompanying video and develop an understanding of the mechanics of breathing. With particular focus on the diaphragm, observe how you breathe in your asana practice. I think you’ll be surprised to find how often the diaphragm will freeze, flutter or actually reverse direction. Learning to breathe with proper diaphragm movement not only enhances your daily experience, but potentially keeps you healthier in the long haul.

In an upcoming posting, we’ll explore why proper diaphragm movement has become such a scarcity in our world.


To download the video, right-click the following link and click "Save as..."
Inhale Exhale


Anonymous said...


Deb said...

Hi Scott - Thanks for sharing. Question - I have a woman in class, she's in her 70's, is active, happy, doesn't seem stressed & has noticed she has Reverse movement of her diaphragm. She gets stressed when trying to breathe correctly. Please comment . . .Thank you - Deb, fan in Dubuque

Scott Anderson said...

Paradoxic breathing can be the precursor to any number of health conditions. That being said, there's the old expression "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Given that your student seems very healthy and happy, I'd be inclined to emphasize other aspects of the yoga practice.

The other factor to keep in mind is someone's support network. Because breathing is so intimately related to mind/emotion, it can sometimes be unsettling to start working with the breath. Unless someone has a solid support network that includes a steady home-life, reliable friends and a willingness to encounter difficult feelings, it's often better to stick with less-invasive yogic techniques.

Thanks for reading, Deb!

Mia (Savor Everyday) said...

Hello Scott, I just found your blog so this is a late comment.

How exactly can we tell if the diaphragm is moving correctly? Is there a particular sensation that I should be aware of? In the video it shows the descending movement on the inhale as the ribs expand. Is the movement of the ribcage then an indicator of correct diaphragm movement?

Thank you!

Jugney said...

The diaphragm can make a number of movements during breathing. Optimally, it moves downward on the inhale, and upward during the exhale. Sometimes, particularly when we're lifting something heavy, it will stay still - part of how the lower-back is stabilized. Under periods of stress, the diaphragm will also stop moving, and sometimes even reverse direction (moving upwards on the inhale, and downwards on the exhale.) The latter can be problematic, as it can be part of the fight/flight/freeze response.

The best way to gauge the movement of the diaphragm is to practice observing its motion directly. At first that may seem abstract or impossible, though by trying a little bit each day, many people report finding its sensations directly. The ribs, in general, are not an accurate way to gauge the movement of the diaphragm, as the diaphragm can move independent of the ribs.

When lying on the back (and belly muscles are not involved in postural support), the belly will rise and fall with the diaphragm's movement, too. As the diaphragm descends on the inhale, the belly expands, and as the diaphragm ascends with the exhale, the belly falls.



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