“So…the diaphragm is a muscle?” a student epiphonied during one of my beginning yoga sessions. “Yes!” I said with the same glee a mom has when her baby takes that first step. “Just like your biceps. You gotta stretch it and strengthen it.” We’d been working on Bridge lifts to Udiyanna Bandha and his new understanding of this muscle changed how he viewed “core” work, bike riding, and how he breathed in everyday life. Way cool.
I can live without a biceps. I can live without the giant quadriceps on the front of my thigh. I can even live without the overworked chewing muscle called the masseter who does the most work for its size of any muscle in the body. But, I cannot — repeat, cannot — live without a diaphragm.
When it stops flexing, air stops moving. After four minutes of that, pieces of the brain start to die. Folks who bravely survive muscular dystrophy — a genetic disease in which muscle fibers are unusually susceptible to damage and become progressively weaker — eventually pass away because of the failure of the diaphragm. When snake venom paralyzes all the muscles of the victim, suffocation is the cause of death because the diaphragm, too, is paralyzed.
Without even noticing, we breathe on average 20,000 times per day. That’s over 8 million breaths per year. Hold up. That’s huge! If we really got it, folks wouldn’t come to yoga class complaining about tight hamstrings and wanting to touch their toes, they’d say, “Can you help me stretch my diaphragm? I want to breathe more efficiently so I can live longer. ”
But don’t just limit our breathing buddy to breath. The diaphragm is like a border crossing for three important highways: the aorta, the largest artery (think garden hose) in the body from which most of your vital organs receive blood; the inferior vena cava which is the return-route back to the heart for deoxygenated blood; and the esophagus, your food and breath tube. It’s also the border crossing for the phrenic nerve which is responsible for telling us to “chill out!” Sewn to the fibrous linings around the heart and lungs, the diaphragm takes some shape from above because of the heart and lungs and from below because of its intimate rest atop the liver, stomach, spleen, and transverse colon.
If it’s tight, weak, or unable to move freely, you think that’ll effect stress? circulation throughout the body? Our emotions? Digestion? And that’s not all.
Because of its centrality (pasted to the inner surface of half your ribcage), it’s a key structural player in spinal stability. “Improving the breath’s agility goes hand-in-hand with your postural ability,” describes Jill Miller in an interview for this core webinar. It bisects us bipeds and “suture[s] into and seam[s] into” the major fascia, muscle, and tendons that line the abdominal and thorasic cavities, acting as a buttress for this “soft tissue canister.”
If we got all this, folks would come to yoga class saying things like, “Bikini season is coming up and I want a strong foundation for my six-pack. I figured i’d try yoga to get my diaphragm ripped,” or “I have lower back pain, and my body worker sent me here to build up my diaphragm,” or “I’m trying to add a third register to my singing voice and need some tools.”
So how do we stretch, strengthen, and assure proper movement of this muscle?
Embody it; drawing and feeling from deep to surface; talking to all the muscles having intimate relations with the the diaphragm. Start building the embody map using abdominal massage with the Yoga Tune Up® Coregeous Ball, as demonstrated below by Jill and Dr. Kelly Starrett of MobilityWod. “The four abdominal muscles [which] wrap the entire abdomen in vertical, horizontal and diagonal directions, in the same way packing tape is wrapped around a box going for a long journey. ” [Biel, Trail Guide to the Body 5th ed., p.209] These layers need to show their love with tight embraces but also to let go and give space if the diaphragm wants to stretch.