“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.
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Having had surgery to a ligament on my diaphragm, I found your blog post very interesting. I’ve had a strange relationship with this muscle my whole life. The pain I had in that area made it almost impossible to study it – I couldn’t roll it or touch it and it was hard to think about it. Since my surgery, I’ve wanted to study the diaphragm and your blog post is giving me a starting point. Thank you!
We give so much attention to the back body (our upper shoulders, back of the neck, lower back, and hamstrings) and forget that so much of the tension we feel in our back is a RESULT of the tension in the front body. Thanks for shedding light on the importance of releasing our abdomen and diaphragm in order to free the whole.
I loved this article on the diaphragm! I actually had this moment much more recently than I’d like to admit–I’d known about the diaphragm forever because I’d taken singing lessons when I was a child and teenager AND taken many workshops on the psoas but it never occurred to me that it was a muscle until it was very explicitly pointed out! I also have to admit that more recently I’ve thought of releasing the diaphragm because of the osteo work that I’ve done. But I hadn’t thought about strengthening it and training it like a muscle. Or that it… Read more »
Great article. I’m really gaining a better appreciation for this oft under-appreciated muscle and it’s connections to other parts of the body.
I’ve just started using the Yoga Tune Up Balls and I was curious how and why the Coregeous Ball can be used. After reading the blog and watching the video I’m more informed, and I’m going to buy one tomorrow!
I remember when this moment happened in my life. My mind was blown when Lisa Hebert brought my attention to the diaphragm by introducing me to the Coregeous ball and Uddiyana Bandha. I never thought of it, or the lungs, as a muscle. In dance breathing efficiently is so important in so many ways. Its not just about endurance. In contemporary dance it is a way to cue each other, communicate with one another, it helps us to inform our bodies and it works cooperatively with our muscles and nervous system to produce a desired effect. But we often do… Read more »
I am just getting started in my explorations of the diaphragm and it is so exciting. I have already noticed fewer headaches and a decrease in that feeling that I just can’t suck enough air into my lungs which invariably leads to anxiety. I don’t know if my body tension was creating my mental tension or vice versa but what I do know i that the Coregeous ball was the best investment in my physical and mental health. I still have a long way to go for my EmbodyMap, but I’m excited to do it!
I love this! I am completing my YTU level 1 training and, in my other life, a professional tuba player and I am forced to admit after all these years of playing and teaching tuba that I don’t really understand the diaphragm. Aside from being clear and entertaining, this post is a rallying call for us all to give the diaphragm the love and respect it deserves. Thank you!
Beautifully written. I would love to add that being connected to your diaphragm and taking care of it properly is also key to “getting your core back” after pregnancy and avoiding “core amnesia” (pretty common after pregnancy). You might not be able to do much once you have popped out a baby but you can breathe intentionally even if you are resting in bed.
Great article on the important of the breath and the diaphragm. I loved the quote that “improving the breath’s agility goes hand-in-hand with your postural ability.” It reminds me to give the diaphragm space to stretch for proper breathing into the body.
Excellent article on the importance and centrality of the diaphragm—we breathe over 20,000 breaths per day. If we stop breathing for 4 minutes the brain begins to die. Louis suggests students should come to yoga classes more concerned w improving the diaphragm than stretching hamstrings. Embedded in the article is a video of Jill Miller demonstrating abdominal rolling on Corgeous ball for diaphragm as well as lower in pelvic bowl for iliacus.
Merci pour cet article. J’ai fait vraiment connaissance avec mon diaphragme lors de l’atelier sur les abdominaux profonds. L’amplitude que peut atteindre notre diaphragme est impressionnante et nous fait réaliser à quel point il est sous-utilisé et ce pratiquement 20000 fois par jour! Il est important d’y revenir souvent, le bienfait est incroyable. Merci encore.
Thanks. I really appreciate your attention to detail in this article. It really gave me a visual.
Its amazing how breath can affect our spinal stability. I always tell my students, as long as you are breathing your are already there, doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes or not. As long as the breath is there the practice is there. thanks for this great insight.
Hi, thank you for the article on the diaphragm. It’s one of a few that actually made it clear to me. I am a 200CYT & seems my natural calling is the breath & meditation. Today a student told me she been diagnosed with a unilateral paralyzed diaphragm & asked if I was aware of any yogic breath work that can help her. I’ve searched the internet, but found nothing connecting the two. Your article seemed user friendly, so thought I’d ask if you can refer me to a starting point. I’d really appreciate it. Thank you. Namaste.
Louis! Fresh off Level 1 YTU training with you and I’m so grateful that I stumbled upon this blog post to comment on (as my last blog homework assignment nonetheless). You gave me the feedback that I “need to get into my gut.” How very perceptive of you. The days of training, followed up by the many blog posts and articles I’ve read about the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles have made me realize the importance of RELAXING them. I’ve become honest with myself. I hold a lot of discomfort (physical and emotional) in my belly. I need to get… Read more »
Will be sharing your article with naturopathic and YTU clients. As a naturopath, your article has inspired me to consider all the fascial connections and the implications of diaphragm contracting frequently/prolonged which will impact digestion, hormone balance, reproductive organ health, tighten hip flexors and/or QL so could be impacting so many conditions. Further to this, contraction of diaphragm stimulates cortisol response (if frequent will lead to hormone imbalance, digestive dysfunction and potential reproductive pathologies) . Also has me considering all the lifestyle choices/stresses “perceived threats” that will unconsciously trigger diaphragm contraction, as well as the implications of tight hip flexors,… Read more »
Great article. As I am getting more and more information on this muscle, I am realizing how much it affects and relates to different areas and functions , not just breathing. Currently at the level one training we were watching some videos by Gil Headly and I was absolutely fascinated to see the connection of the Diaphragm to the lumbar spine and Psoas. Using the Coreagous ball has opened up a whole new world for me and it feels great! Thank you for this!
LOVED your article Lou. The diaphragm is one of my favorite subjects and I love to learn more. I particularly enjoyed the border crossing metaphor and how the diaphragm can impact the main jobs of the aorta, vena cava, esophagus and phrenic nerve. Thank you for the encouraging exploration through the use of Yoga Tune Up abdominal massage (Coregeous ball) as a way to better understand its importance not just in our practice but in our day to day lives. As they say, the yogi’s idea of a strong core is a strong fully utilized diaphragm. 🙂
I’m in day 1 of the YTU Integrated Embodied Anatomy course and this article totally both sums up and solidifies what I just learned and has given me a new appreciation for how it all works. I think you’re right Louis, if people knew what we know, they’d be lining up to learn how to live longer and better in their bodies! Thank you – now we’ve got work to do educating people on how to embody their bodies!
Excellent article Louis, and written in such an understandable and interesting way. Very powerful way to capture attention with noting muscles we can live without and then highlighting what happens if the diaphragm ceases to work. That sure got my attention! Every aspect of our living begins (and ends) with our breath which is why I place a large emphasis in guiding students through breath awareness at the beginning, during and end of classes. As the diaphragm tones and stretches the rest of the body will follow.
Great introduction to the diaphragm and its “core” function in our life! If you’ve had the “wind knocked out of you” you’ve experienced what its like for the diaphragm not to do its job. Thanks for all the geek details.