The Diaphragm...A Yogi's Breath Control
"Breathing is the key that unlocks the whole catalog of advanced biological function and development. Is it any wonder that it is so central to every aspect of health? Breathing is the first place, not the last, one should look when fatigue, disease, or other evidence of disordered energy presents itself. Breathing is truly the body’s most basic communication system." – Sheldon Saul Hendler, MD, PhD
Yoga is more than balance, twisting and bending. In fact, it is breathing that gives life to yoga...most importantly...YOU. Don't practice yoga? You can still practice breathing.
Many work to build strong exterior muscles; but, is the internal core of you as strong as you think it is? Go deeper beneath the surface and take a full inhale. Notice the lift of your ribs and expansion in multiple directions? Know the muscle making it possible? The one and only...diaphragm.
The diaphragm is an internal skeletal muscle that divides your thoracic cavity (space for heart/lungs) and abdomen cavity (digestive space). The name translated from Ancient Greek language means "partition". It is dome shaped and curves upwardly in a relaxed state. Lungs filled with air push this muscle downward and internal massage of the digestive organs takes place. The rib's intercostal muscles are expanded from the front of the chest to the back. Strengthening the diaphragm has a ripple effect on all the smaller muscles. Individually, small muscles may not seem worth the focus. Collectively, they keep you at the top of your game.
Pranayama, breath work, is not a passive action. It demands effort and concentration. Just like you might focus on building strength in your biceps by pumping iron, this internal muscle is no exception. Ujjayi breath, sometimes called "ocean breath" requires you to slightly constrict your glottis (or, vocal cords within the larynx muscle) in your throat so that the inhales and exhales are a conscious action. Do it with awareness and you will start to notice the power of the muscle make breathing do more than move air.
Welcomed space is provided via breath work during a yoga practice. Take the pose Utkatasana (Chair), for example. Arms are lifted, knees bent and a subtle arch in the back is maintained. Add Ujjayi breathing and suddenly the diaphragm gives methodical compression to the organs beneath it (liver, pancreas) followed by a moment of space. The process ripples down to the digestive system and physically helps move things along. Chemically speaking, the flow of focused breathing triggers a message sequence in the brain.
The hypothalamus releases neuro-hormones informing the pituitary gland to release specific hormones to inform the body its safe to be in a 'rest and digest' mode. Also known as the parasympathetic state. Everything operates better when relaxed. You know how your mind gets discombobulated as stress overloads it via a monsoon of thoughts. Same affect happens in the body and the results can be detrimental over time.
Focused breathing strengthens this 'partition' muscle and increases your ability to inhale, exhale and hold the air at will. Breathing is one body function we are designed to be able to do consciously or unconsciously. It impacts emotions...body functions...overall health. We only think about lungs in regards to breathing; but, they depend on the diaphragm to move the air. Ever had the wind knocked out of you and couldn't breathe for a few scary moments? Your diaphragm muscle is having a spasm constricting its ability to function.
See what happens when you make diaphragm focused breathing your primary intention and the physical pose secondary. Shifting focus from outside to the inside just might be the next edge of practice you actually needed. Envisioning the muscle convex and concave as you breathe helps you feel and control what is happening. The muscle will get stronger...you may not be able to show it off; however, the results of your effort will be expressed in more ways than one.