The four diaphragms of the body: arches of the feet, pelvic floor, breathing diaphragm and soft palate are key components to the Embodyoga system. They are seen as soft supports for the bones, muscles and organs that are piled up on top of them. But Her Majesty The Breathing Diaphragm is far and away my favorite.
It is important not to think of the breathing diaphragm as dramatic. My coyness is certainly not suggestive of drama. It is instead suggestive of this delicacy. The way royal families are always being busily ushered around while being protected from anything even remotely dangerous, so to is the breathing diaphragm an overworked and overprotected muscle.
Think about where she sits. Forgive the use of such a personal pronoun, but I love to think of everything as a person whether it is a muscle, organ, bone, acupuncture point or herb. I’m a writer—everything gets personified. She sits above the Liver, Spleen, Pancreas and Stomach. Imagine keeping a delicate hot air balloon directly over the engine in your car. The digestive hotbed of middle body organs is, in most people, a veritable war zone. Now imagine just above this hot air balloon there is something sacred and pure: the illustrious Heart and Lungs.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine Theory the upper organs of the torso are seen as pure and actually represent the heavens. The purpose of the breathing diaphragm is simply to maintain separation between the purity of the upper region of the body and the firey middle region, while allowing for a smooth flow of qi to keep the body functioning.
Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. This prim and proper muscle with such a grand purpose really has a lot of work to do. It is a shame that the ribcage is then wrapped around the breathing diaphragm to protect the upper digestive organs and the Lungs. Now all those finicky intercostal muscles (between the ribs) can pull the ribcage closed and make a mess of this smooth flow of qi.
In fact it doesn’t really matter who starts things up all it takes is the teeniest bit of tension and all the sudden she is locked up like a drum and the deepest breath you are going to get is a tiny sip.
One of the famous diagnostic questions to decipher if the breathing diaphragm is to blame is to check if there is frequent sighing. I mean big huge, shoulder dropping sighs that you can hear from across the room. When that happens the breathing diaphragm is so constricted that the Lungs are only partially working, which means the Heart is only receiving part of the oxygen it needs to send out into the body and you are constantly starved for oxygen and fresh healthy qi. Everything is just too stuck.
Even though all it takes is some good yoga, losing your temper, a strong cardio work out or a crying session to release the chest and make you feel better; all it takes to get it wound back up again is a little stress, a little anger or some low level irritability.
The breathing diaphragm attaches to the inside of the lower ribs and the very front of the low thoracic spine. As it domes upward it is relaxing (exhale) as it flattens and widens downward it engages (inhale). One of the practices I like to teach in either centering or in various postures is to encourage letting go of any gripping on the inside of the ribcage. Just try it without thinking too hard about whether or not you are capable. Something internally drops and softens. Our bodies want to do this. Next widen the back of the low ribs and fill that specific area with breath letting it widen out and unstick itself from its surroundings. It probably feels amazing.
Instead of blowing off steam at your significant other or your children this balmy holiday weekend. Instead see if you can release the diaphragm with some side body stretches like Gate Pose or Side Angle Pose or best—Triangle Pose or some front body stretches like Camel Pose. Sighing, grunting and groaning are encouraged. Her Majesty The Breathing Diaphragm, while still dainty and delicate, really needs to let some things go.
Image Credit: http://www.yoganatomy.com/2013/06/breathing-in-yoga-is-there-a-right-and-wrong-way/