Deep Breathing Techniques,
Lesson 2 of 6
Breathing well can positively impact your health and well-being more than any other single exercise. However, there are many misconceptions about breathing–most of which start with the belief that the lungs are responsible for oxygenating the body. In actuality, the diaphragm is the engine of the breathing cycle.
In this article, we’ll consider how we can enhance breathing through techniques that target the diaphragm. Once you have some practice, you can then move on to the following three articles that will further help you develop a whole-body, deep breathing for a healthy body and a healthy mind.
Anatomy + Physiology of the Diaphragm
The diaphragm connects to the spine and inside lower section of the ribcage, which separates the torso into two parts. Above the diaphragm (the thoracic cavity) sits your lungs and heart. Below the diaphragm is where the bulk of your internal organs are housed (in the abdomen). Directly below the diaphragm sits your liver, kidneys, stomach and spleen.
The diaphragm is responsible for filling the lungs with oxygen, while the lungs are completely passive and only respond to the action of the diaphragm–descending to breathe in and rising to breathe out. When you increase the motion of the diaphragm, you increase the quantity of air you inhale and exhale, which in turn supplies more oxygen to your body and more completely releases carbon dioxide. The pressure transferred from the increased air intake also creates a firm massage in the abdomen and eventually the heart (to be discussed in detail in lesson 3).
Engage Diaphragm Breathing
To activate your diaphragm, first you must learn to sink air into your abdomen while preventing your chest from rising and/or expanding forward. So either stand or sit (with good posture), and place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. Now with your focused intent, guide the air entering your body down into your abdomen while keeping the chest still in space.
You could also practise while lying down on your bed or on the floor. However, it’s not recommended if you find yourself falling asleep during breathing practice. Place a thin pillow under your head and keep your feet flat on the bed or floor with your knees up in the air. Make sure the legs are relaxed. All of these points will help you maintain a straight spine, giving you the best chance of engaging your diaphragm.
Practise for 3-5 minutes or longer as you like or find it necessary to reduce or eliminate the movement of the chest and increase the movement of the abdomen.
Increase the Movement + Strength of the Diaphragm
Find the front of your diaphragm by placing your fingers on the front of your ribcage and following your ribs down until you reach the bottom of the ribcage. Do this with both hands on both sides simultaneously. Once you find the bottom of your ribs, go a little bit lower until your fingertips feel a springy soft tissue (i.e. muscle not bone).
Place your fingertips on the soft tissues and gently yet firmly press your fingers into your body about .5-1 inch (1 cm to 3 cm) or so. If you feel any sensation of pain whatsoever, then do less: always remember to adhere to the Rule of Thirds and never exert more than two-thirds of your effort in mind or body. Moderation will ensure you stay within an appropriate range of comfort and personal development.
Now breathe in slowly and deeply, so that your fingers get pushed out of your body progressively more in coordination with the inhale. As you breathe out, press your fingertips back in again. There is no need to tense your belly muscles—only use the air coming in and out, or you will inhibit the relaxation response.
Diaphragm Breathing Practice
This diaphragm breathing exercise can be done a few times each day for a week or so to increase the movement and strength of the diaphragm.
Return to your standing, sitting or lying position while keeping the chest still as you breathe into the belly. As your diaphragm increases in mobility and strength, your breathing capacity and organ massage will also increase.
That said, be sure to always adhere to the Rule of Thirds, making sure you do exceed your two-thirds of effort in mind or body. Never strain or force your breath, body and/or nerves at any time. You can soften your breathing pattern by adding the circular, nerve-release techniques from the first breathing exercises in this five-part series. With practice, you can loosen the tension that resides in your diaphragm, deepen your breathing and gently yet effectively massage your lower organs. Just make sure that the downward pressure from your in-breath goes no lower than a few centimetres (an inch or two at the most) below your navel (belly button), as it is not good to put pressure into the lower pelvic area.
Breathe to Access Yin Energy
Initially, circular breathing techniques are used to release and relax the nerves, so that your whole system calms down and becomes smooth. Then, you can engage breathing to initiate the pulse (opening and closing techniques). Learning how to pulse the joints, cavities, fluid and energetic centres of your body can only be achieved in a live teaching situation. But, once learned, they can be activated in a real, soft and yin way by simply making the link in your mind between the in-breath and the open and the out-breath and the close.
As you breathe, maintain all the physical considerations—good posture, still chest, and moving belly and diaphragm—to get a circular breath going really well. Once stable, the pulse will naturally reveal itself and you can enhance it with your mind’s intent. The combination of breathing and pulsing creates an abundance of yin energy that floods the channels of the body, healing and nourishing your whole system as it flows.
Diaphragm Breathing for an Anytime Energy Boost
During your day, look for small gaps where you can re-establish a robust, relaxed and whole-body breath. Breathing—with the diaphragm as the engine—clears the nerves and thereby leaves the mind and body refreshed. Practising whenever you get the opportunity (a few minutes here and there) can make all the difference to how energised you are at the end of the day and for your life in general.