If you read our last article about the diaphragm, you may have gotten a sense of how this muscle is more than just a breathing muscle.
The process of breathing creates significant movement within our body. The fluctuations in pressure that this movement creates helps to circulate blood flow in the body as well as lymphatic fluid, an important part of our immune system. This makes breathing an integral part of our circulatory and immune health!
Our breath also creates movement within our internal organs such as the digestive system and thereby helps with digestion and overall organ function. Previously we’ve discussed how posture affects breathing. If you’ve been sitting or slouching at a desk all day you may notice that your breathing has changed. Perhaps it’s become shorter or maybe you’re using your upper chest more. This prevents the diaphragm from moving through its full excursion and restricts the corresponding movement within the gut, which can have an impact on proper digestion.
Holding it together
The diaphragm is intricately related to our pelvic floor, a group of muscles often referred to as the “pelvic diaphragm” given their similar dome or bowl-like shape. These are the muscles that help us hold in the urge to go to the bathroom. They’re the muscles we contract when doing a “Kegel”. Together, the pelvic floor and respiratory diaphragm work like a piston or dynamic cylinder. When the diaphragm contracts downward on the inhale, the pelvic floor is stretched downward to make room. When the diaphragm relaxes on the exhale, the pelvic floor engages just enough to help lift everything back up. These two muscles form a great partnership and play a key role in bowel and bladder function, internal organ support, sexual health and child birth. A change in the way we breathe can have direct implications for the pelvic floor as well as uro-genital health.
The diaphragm and pelvic floor, together with our deep abdominal and spinal muscles, also play a key role in controlling what we call “intra-abdominal pressure”, i.e. the pressure in our abdomen that creates a supportive stiffening around our trunk. The diaphragm thus acts as an important core stabilizer, meaning that it works with the breath to control the stiffness of our trunk, which in turn helps us move our arms and legs efficiently and control posture and balance.
The struggle is real!
Have you ever noticed yourself holding your breath while attempting to lift an object that seems almost too heavy to lift? Maybe while moving a heavy couch. Why do we do this? Our body is constantly problem solving and taking shortcuts to expend less energy! Holding your breath and bearing down in this scenario increases the pressure in your abdomen making your trunk stiffer, which makes it easier to lift that couch off the floor. Kind of like what contracting our abdominal muscles does, except here instead of using our core muscles, we’re holding our breath! This strategy might work, however, it is not ideal and could lead to an array problems if repeated over time. The problem with holding your breath is that you may create too much pressure. The excess pressure needs to go somewhere. This may increase blood pressure, put pressure on your back, or even push on your bladder and potentially cause leakage. Breath holding may also restrict movement elsewhere such as the hips, potentially adding more strain to the back.
Here’s a tip: Take a deep breath in. Now try breathing out against pursed lips as if you were blowing bubbles. Lift and engage your core muscles at the same time to help stiffen your trunk. This will help with the heavy lifting, without creating that excess pressure! Try this out next time you have to lift something heavy.
We’ve now covered many of the ways in which our breathing is connected to our physical body. You may still be asking yourself, “but what do my thoughts and emotions have to do with any of this?” The next article may have the answer to your question!
Intro : Dare to Breathe
1. The Diaphragm: Life and Breath
2. Breath: Supply and Demand
3. Breathing and Joint Mobility
4. The Diaphragm: A Web of Connection
5. Breath and Emotion
6. How Stress Can Change Our Breath
7. Breath Awareness: a Powerful Tool to Bridge the Body and Mind
8. Breath Regulation: Empower Yourself!
9. Mindfulness and Meditation: the Power of Awareness
10. Yoga: Transforming the Body and Mind
Prosko, S. (2019). Breathing and Pranayama in Pain Care. In: Pearson N, Prosko S, Sullivan M (Eds). Yoga and Science in Pain Care: Treating the Person in Pain. London, Uk: Singing Dragon Publishers; pp. 140-156.