Digging Your Diaphragm

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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.

Liked this article? Read Why Deep Breathing is Effective for Calming Down

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Dina

I had no idea that we are actually supposed to breathe with our bellies. I learnt about it few years ago and trained myself to do it. It makes a big difference! Im all about belly breathing!

BEVERLYN

I love and can completely relate to the concept of picturing what’s going on inside to better communicate with the nervous system. It has helped me countless times to take a break from the world and be fully engulfed in the magic that’s happening within. Thank you for sharing.

Carol

Learning breathing techniques has changed the way my students respond to me, and to themselves, when I am teaching. Thank you for sharing.

Cindy Lou Kelley

I can relate to anxiety and not being able to take in full breath. It is a relief to know that breathing is living. I have been practicing an opposite direction of breath, for years, and loved trying on this different direction. The imagery of a waterfall washing down as you exhale is beautiful. I love that we naturally breathe, without effort.

Mary D

Good article. It’s important to come back to the breath and simply breathe in and out. We all experience anxiety and fears at times.

Jackie Wolff

Thank you for this. I also struggle with anxiety and have been using yoga complete breath as a tool for dealing with it. But there are times when the anxiety controls my breath despite my efforts and I have to repeat a sankalpa that I am safe, my breath is working to remind myself that it is an auto response and I will make it through this wave. YTU level 1 was also a great shift in how I deal with anxiety. Thanks for reminding me I’m not alone 🙂

Cynthia

Love your writing – that bit of cheekiness really helps me take in your message 🙂

Janice Quirt

This is a wonderful article! I know of many yoga teachers who came to yoga after experiencing anxiety. And not one of them say that they never experience anxiety again – it’s just that they have so many different ways to sit, observe and deal with that anxiety. I know people and teachers who feel like they can;t breathe in yoga nidra – the complete yogic breath is always a great one to insert then. I love talking about the three abodes of the breath, but had never thought to use the Shakespeare metaphor. Thank you!

Markella

Thanks for sharing your experience working with anxiety and the breath. Since taking the Level 1 training I’ve been incorporating Yogic Complete Breath into almost every class, either in Savasana or in a constructive rest at the very beginning of class if I sense that the room needs help settling in.

Alicia Moyer

I have had the most wonderful savasana journeys during my Level 1 Yoga Tune Up training this week and the wave-like abdominal thoracic breath seems to be the key. I love the idea that we can take this kind of control back – over something so simple and yet so profound. But that also, when we aren’t able to control it, the knowledge that it will still do exactly what it is meant to do is also quite comforting. My daughter suffers from sleep anxiety and really doesn’t like it when I try breathing exercises with her so perhaps letting… Read more »

Alyssa P

I loved both this article and the one after it. It’s just fascinating not only how connected our diaphragm is to our heart, our ribs and so many other nooks and crannies in our chest cavity – but it’s ability to literally help us hijack our nervous system out of SNS stress and anxiety. The simple idea too that this is not an act of “dominance” or control – that we are breathing simply because we are alive allows the approach to be gentle and mindful and provides space to embody the experience as a whole. Very insightful and (as… Read more »

Esme Lopez

I love the fact that we, as human race, are so well made. We come with everything we need to balanced and heal ourselves, and yet, we need training to find out the techniques.

Liselotte Frandsen

It keeps surprising me how influential our breath is to our entire wellbeing!

Denitsa Lilova

Thank you Yvonne for our post! It surely makes full sense to come back and think about the importance of the diaphragm as it can work in such a natural way with regulating the peripheral innervation .

Marsela Suteja

I’ve had my share of anxious-filled savasana. However, this may have showed me a different way to calm down my body.

Elaine

I definitely relate to that anxiety that comes from feeling like you’re not breathing as “properly” or “fully” as you’re being asked to in a class (especially not during allergy season). I find it very helpful to remember that breathing, like getting into any asana, may not be as accessible on some days compared to others – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As always, practice over perfection!

Jon Connelly

Very cool. Would this increase your vocal range/projection as an actress or singer?

Amanda Stoker

Your description of the diaphragm parachuting it’s way through our torsos brings about such vivid imagery. I can close my eyes and breath right now with such gratitude for the ability to breathe and be alive. Visualizing and feeling into my the parts of my body moving as I breath brings me away from my stress and anxiety and to an inner wave of calmness. Thank you.

Ashley Corlis

Breathing is so amazing! I love how you spoke about the diaphragm doing its “whimsical dance” and how it always does these moves no matter how deep of a breath you take. What a cool realization!

Maki

Sometimes calming our thoughts, emotions, mind, and then letting go of the negative way of thinking are few of things we can just start with. Simple and kind reminder from a yoga teacher “to ignore the fact that the breath couldn’t complete itself ” was gentle invitation to calm the emotional body. Watching how baby breathe during sleep. We had forgotten how easy it can be. Relearning how to breathe deeply and effortlessly like a baby may seem challenging for some people. One thing I have learned from Yoga over and over is ” body is so honest” It is… Read more »

Morgan Balavage

I often describe that truly fulfilling breath as a ‘vacation breath,’ the one that you take once you’ve landed at your holiday and can release the burdens of our day-to-day living. But we can have that release truly anytime!

cg ovalle

Thank You for your story, i am currently in level 1 in YTU. i also find myself with anxiety of trying to get my day done, i for get to breath. Being in class today and laying on the mat and letting the world go. Breathing from within helped me cope with whats to come and just be in the moment.

Rea

I think sometimes we underestimate the power of breathing. Just paying attention to each an every breath for a short period of time and explore the breath with simple but powerful techniques – can make a huge difference in short and long term as well. When you Jill asked us today to breath into the back of our lungs – I had actually an `aha!` moment. So for even though I took some pranayama classes, I didn`t really understand how to breath into one side of the lungs but not the other side, and simply explaining use your muscles and… Read more »

Michele

I agree that having the right cues to guide us during our breathing practices makes all the difference. I especially like how you noticed that your breathe was more complete when you started imagining your diaphragm as being ‘free and open’. I feel that when effective cues are lacking, there is a tendency to become focused on the effort of breathing, instead of connecting it with our mind and letting it all just happen.

aleks meuse

I am always inspired by the body and mind connection. Breath and its primary muscle, the costal diaphragm, seem to be at the centre of this equation. Awesome how thousands of years of meditation practice meet modern medicine.

Mary

To quote Leslie Kaminoff, “saying let’s do diaphragmatic breathing is as silly as saying let’s do foot walk”. Correct me if I am wrong but I guess this term in now and forever OUT isn’t it?

kate

Thanks for this article, the words your yoga teacher imparted on you just rang really true for me, too. I’m realizing breathing is the answer to a lot of questions I repeatedly ask, but can get lost in judging the breath.