The muscles involved in breathing are many, including the musculature corresponding to the clavicle zone, thoracic area and the diaphragm. When the main muscle being used during breathing is the diaphragm, we refer to it as diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing brings a large quantity of oxygen to the inferior part of the lungs, which is a zone that has the highest capacity for oxygen intake. Inhaling air in this way guarantees a better entry of oxygen and a more efficient exit of carbon dioxide when exhaling. The more the lungs are able to empty during exhalation, the more oxygen that can be breathed in.
When the main musculature involved during respiration is the thoracic group of muscles, the result is superficial breathing that does not provide adequate oxygenation of the tissues. When this happens, the general musculature of the body tends to contract, increasing overall tension.
The relationship between diaphragmatic respiration and the relaxation of the entire body is very intricate. The natural movement of the diaphragm actually activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is the one responsible for making one feel relaxed. The PNS is an integral part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of the central nervous system (CNS) that controls unconscious bodily processes, such as digestion, dilation and contraction of blood vessels, the production and release of hormones, among hundreds of other crucial functions. For this reason, the action made by the diaphragm when it is the principal actor during breathing results in the general relaxation of the body.
The diaphragm always responds to involuntary breathing movements, but we can actually intervene by modulating its rhythm and functioning. This is why it’s important to re-educate oneself to make diaphragmatic breathing commonplace, so as to have it influence us in a beneficial way spontaneously when needed. For example, those that suffer from anxiety (they tend to hyperventilate) will certainly find diaphragmatic breathing useful because it helps in re-establishing a normal breathing pattern by slowing it down, though it can take some practice, the patience required will definitely have a nice payoff in the end by way of better control of anxiety thanks to oxygen seeping deeper in the lungs via diaphragmatic breathing.
How to Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing
Lie down on your back with your hands placed over your abdomen or one hand on the abdomen and the other on your chest. Before beginning inhalation, make sure to expel as much air as possible from your lungs. Breathe in some air until your hands on your abdomen move up along with it. Hold this inhalation for just two seconds. When you breathe it out, relax your belly so that it deflates (the abdomen only seems to deflate because in reality, the diaphragm pushes down on the abdominal organs when breathing in, making it seem like it’s being filled by air). Exhalation should be around 4 seconds, twice as much as inhalation.
Important Position Tips to Keep in Mind
The position of some parts of the body is fundamental to maximizing the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. For example, if you have issues in the lumbar are of the spine, extending your legs while lying down can cause discomfort. In this case, you can simply bend your legs or place a couple pillows underneath your leg so that the back does not arch.
Another good tip is to keep your shoulders a good distance away from the ears. When we inhale, our shoulders tend to move up closer to the ears. Keeping your shoulders down when inhaling will help relax the trapezius muscle which influences the tension on the cervical spine. The closer the shoulders to the ears, the higher the tension on the cervical structures.
The position of your chin should also remain neutral in order to avoid unnecessary tension in the cervical area. Also, the shoulders and scalpels should not go forward.
Concluding these tips is visualization. It is important to stay focused and not distracted so it’s good to literally visualize the air coming in and filling your lungs all the way to the bottom while doing the same for exhalation and all the aforementioned distance between body parts.