As a yogi, you know how important good breathing is for your overall health and wellbeing. Your breath affects all of your vital systems, right down to the cellular level. It impacts your sleep, memory, energy level, and concentration. But in a busy life, even for yogis, breathing well can be easier said than done. Poor posture (all those hours hunched over a keyboard or steering wheel), emotional stress, mental pressure, conscious or unconscious movement patterns, and lack of movement can all contribute to restricted, shallow breathing and tension in the diaphragm, your primary breathing muscle. Though you may not be aware of poor respiratory mechanics throughout your day, the effects can be profound. Did you know that the way you breathe (or don’t) also influences how effectively your muscles work?
See also 7 Poses for Core Strength
How Your Diaphragm Affects Core Strength
The diaphragm isn’t typically talked about in the context of your core. But located right at the center of the abdomen, it connects to many of your body’s stabilizers. Working in close relationship with the deep abdominals, the pelvic floor, and the multifidus muscles in the lower back, the diaphragm is part of your intrinsic core. You can think of these muscles as forming the sides of a pressurized container: the pelvic floor is the bottom, the deep abdominal and back muscles form the sides, and the diaphragm is the lid on top. If any of these muscles don’t perform their important tasks perfectly, the container will start to lose pressure, weakening the stable base you need to move effectively. The result is a decrease in overall strength due to the lack of support from your core, which can cause all kinds of compensation patterns.
The brain organizes how all the muscles work together to make your movements fluid and effective. If one muscle is stuck or not working properly, something else will have to step up to create stability and make movement happen. So if your diaphragm is tense and less flexible—in turn causing the other core muscles to weaken—other nearby muscles, like in the hips or the more superficial parts of the trunk may be recruited to compensate for the lack of core stability.
An overactive diaphragm may also cause strained breathing and even cause neck tension. Neck muscles are secondary breathing muscles, helping with inspiration, and thus also frequently get involved in issues with the diaphragm and core. Ever felt your neck tighten up during ab work? It may be compensating for missing core strength.
Additionally, the diaphragm connects to and affects the thoracic and lumbar erectors, quadratus lumborums in the low back, and the psoas muscle that crosses the rim of the pelvis to connect the legs to the spine. These are all important muscles in moving and stabilizing the spine, and any one of them not working properly can have system-wide effects in the body. So as you can see, the proper functioning of the diaphragm is essential for a body that moves effectively and effortlessly.
Lucky for yogis, the practice offers many wonderful tools to unravel the negative effects of modern lifestyle. Simple diaphragmatic breathing, restorative postures, meditation, mindful movement through yoga poses, the coordination of breath and movement, and a focus on alignment can all help relieve tension in the diaphragm and deepen the breath. When the diaphragm is less tense, your core muscles have a better chance of stepping up to their primary task. As you optimize your breathing, you might see all kinds of other changes happening you didn’t expect.
3 Ways to Relax the Diaphragm and Build Core Strength
1. Stretch your diaphragm
For this modification of Uddiyana Bandha, lie on your back, bend your knees, and place your feet on the floor, slightly wider than your hips. Place the heels of your hands on your thighs, close to the hip creases. Breathe calmly through your nose a few times. After a deep inhale and full exhale, push your hands into your thighs and think of doing an inhale without actually letting air in. Suck your belly in and expand the ribs to create a vacuum that pulls your diaphragm up into your thorax. As you keep pulling, you can try making small movements to bring your spine and pelvis into flexion, extension, and lateral shifts to produce more stretch to different parts of the diaphragm. Hold as long as you are comfortable before relaxing and slowly inhaling fully. Breathe normally for a cycle or two before repeating up to 5 times.
2. Activate your transverse abdominis
Lying on your back with your knees bent, place your feet hip-width apart and a block lengthwise between your thighs. With your pelvis and low back neutral, place your fingertips on your lower abdomen, just between your front hip bones (ASIS). On an exhale, let your belly button drop, engage the pelvic floor, and squeeze the block. Feel for the transverse abdominis (TVA) popping up under your fingertips. Maintaining the neutral curve of your spine as your belly drops is key here. On your inhale, relax and soften the belly. Do a few rounds to find the deep activation of your core.
Next, repeat the exercise above and at the end of your exhale lift both your feet an inch off the floor. Keep the belly in and your pelvis stable. Check again that the curve of your spine stays the same. Stay for an inhale before lightly placing your feet back down. Less is more here. Keep the movement small enough to feel the subtleties of the muscle activation. Watch out for tension in your back, chest, shoulders, neck or jaw. If you need to modify, start by lifting one foot at a time without a block.
3. Try straw breathing
Lie comfortably on your back with a bolster supporting your upper back and head if that’s comfortable. Allow your shoulders to fall back and your chest to open. Holding a straw between your lips, inhale through your nose and exhale through the straw. Breathing out through a long straw will automatically make your exhalation longer than the inhalation. Let the pace of your breath gradually slow down. After a few cycles, you can start to notice if a natural pause occurs after the out breath. Explore resting in this pause until the next inhalation rises spontaneously, like a ball held underwater bounces up when it is released. Keep your breathing as easy as possible, trusting your body to draw the breath when it needs to without your conscious effort. Stay for 3 minutes or more.
See also Breathe Easy: Relax with Pranayama
About Our Expert
Gry Bech-Hanssen is currently working toward her 500-hour yoga teacher training with Tiffany Cruikshank. Based in Oslo, Norway, she has a background in contemporary dance and has been teaching movement for well over 10 years. She teaches yoga and pilates in groups and therapeutic private sessions, and is also trained in Structural Bodywork, massage, and Neurokinetic Therapy. Gry is passionate about using yoga in combination with all the other tools in her tool box to help people make lasting changes in their bodies and lives. You can find more about her at www.somawork.no.