The Diaphragm: Life and Breath

Breath – one of the first visible signs of life. 

It is said that the first breath we take is the most difficult in life. At birth, it can take a newborn up to thirty seconds to take that first breath in to fill their once fluid-filled lungs with air. This is done by contracting the diaphragm, a large dome-shaped muscle (looks a bit like an umbrella) that sits below the lungs and separates our chest from our abdomen. This muscle is unique to mammals. It allows us to breathe and move our body at the same time.

A sophisticated system 

The diaphragm covers a big surface within the ribcage and attaches primarily to our spine and our ribs. When we breathe in, this muscle contracts causing our belly to expand, pulling air into the lungs. This fresh air brings in oxygen to create energy in the body. To release our breath, the diaphragm slowly relaxes, allowing our belly and ribcage to fall back in as we exhale the breath out. This happens automatically and mostly without us being aware of it! 

The diaphragm is crucial for breathing; however, it is not the only breathing muscle. Any muscle that has the ability to change the volume of the rib cage is considered a breathing muscle. The diaphragm does do most of the work at rest, but we need other breathing muscles to help out, especially during strenuous physical activity.  When we’re working hard the muscles between the ribs (the intercostals) help to lift our ribs and expand our rib cage. This draws even more air in.  

  • Place one hand on your belly.
  • Make a fist with the other hand and blow into it like you would a balloon (make sure to wash your hands before and after!) You may notice your abdominal muscles tighten. 

The abdominal muscles contract automatically to create an upward pressure to help push the air out. The intercostals can help with this too, forcing the breath out quickly during a cough or intense exercise for example. 

We also have several neck muscles that connect to the upper chest to help expand the ribcage even more. Pregnant women rely on these muscles to help with breathing, especially in the later stages of pregnancy when breathing becomes more rapid and shallow, with most of the movement coming from the upper chest. As a growing baby takes up more and more room in the abdomen, this prevents the diaphragm from expanding as fully, so the body finds another way!

With all of these options, how does our body decide how much to breathe and which breathing muscles to use? Check out our next article for the answer! 


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