It’s almost poetic the way the diaphragm parachutes its way through our torsos. Floating and sheet like, it is the transverse plane’s sweetheart.
For the 15 years that I have been an actor and yoga teacher, I have often been confused by its capacity and usefulness. Sometimes feeling disassociated from it, and often stunned by its great effect on my mood and emotions.
Once in a while, I suffer from a form of minor anxiety that shows itself as a difficulty taking a full breath in, such as a yawn. Living in a big city (some call it THE city), it can be difficult to block out the constant influx of not only noise pollution, but also actual pollution; this plus all the other forms of trauma we experience in our daily lives can give even the most faithful yogi some anxiety.
A few years back I asked doctors, chiropractors, and naturopaths I knew what I could do about this issue. I was told to use inhalers, herbs, meditation, and so on. Big surprise, none of it helped.
The only morsel of relief I gained was from another yoga teacher who said to ignore the fact that the breath couldn’t complete itself. She said to remember that as long as we are alive we are breathing, and to just keep on keeping on. This did calm my emotional body about the anxiety I felt over my breathing problem, but didn’t yet give me a clear way to picture what was going on with my physical body so I could actively work on it.
Luckily, everything about how I picture breath and work on it changed when I took my Level 1 Yoga Tune Up ® certification. Of the thousands of times I’d laid down on my mat, trying to breathe through my inability to take a full breath in, it never felt so free or full as it did in Yoga Tune Up® Savasana with the Yogic Complete Breath.
Imagining the belly filling with air, the ribs spreading and sternum inflating, with a waterfall-esque exhale, allowed me to imagine my diaphragm as free, open, and essential to my body. Now I don’t need to just ignore the anxiety, I can bring my mind’s eye inside of myself to picture these movements and actively calm the Sympathetic Nervous System.
Through the Level 1 training, I realized that every breath you take, whether it is a “chest,” “ribs” or “belly” breath, is (in actuality) a diaphragmatic breath. No matter how flat you keep your belly, how high you try to breathe the breath up towards your sassy clavicles like a ballerina, or how short and strained the breath feels, the diaphragm is moving up and down in its whimsical dance.
This often makes me think of actors playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s tragedy; how they feign death near the end of the play. No matter how still and lifeless the actor may try to appear, as long as they are alive and taking in any amount of air, the diaphragm works its ballooning magic. They must practice this same Yogic Complete Breath in their coffin-laden Savasana. Creating a shallow belly breath, calming the mind, treating the breath as a wavelike massage that pours over and melts the body.
In this way, we too, the ones with anxiety and confusion, can find a way to ease through the fear of not being able to breathe our breath. In this way, the breath can begin to breathe us.