by Louis Jackson, an Integrated Yoga Tune Up Instructor
I can live without my biceps. I can live without the giant quadriceps on the front of my thigh. But, I cannot — repeat, cannot — live without a diaphragm. Without even noticing, we breathe on average 20,000 times per day. That’s over 8 million breaths per year. Hold up. That’s huge! If we really got it, folks wouldn’t come to yoga class complaining about tight hamstrings and wanting to touch their toes, they’d say, “Can you help me stretch my diaphragm? I want to breathe more efficiently so I can live longer. ”
The diaphragm acts as a border crossing for major blood vessels and the esophagus. But don’t just limit our breathing buddy to breath. The diaphragm is like a border crossing for three important highways: the aorta, the largest artery (think garden hose) in the body from which most of your vital organs receive blood; the inferior vena cava which is the return-route back to the heart for deoxygenated blood; and the esophagus, your food and breath tube. It’s also the border crossing for the phrenic nerve, which is responsible for telling us to “chill out!” Sewn to the fibrous linings around the heart and lungs, the diaphragm takes some shape from above because of the heart and lungs and from below because of its intimate rest atop the liver, stomach, spleen, and transverse colon.
Because of its centrality (pasted to the inner surface of half your ribcage), it’s a key structural player in spinal stability. “Improving the breath’s agility goes hand-in-hand with your postural ability,” describes Jill Miller in an interview for this core webinar. “It bisects us bipeds and suture[s] into and seam[s] into the major fascia, muscle, and tendons that line the abdominal and thoracic cavities, acting as a buttress for this soft tissue canister.”
If we got all this, folks would come to yoga class saying things like, “Bikini season is coming up and I want a strong foundation for my six-pack. I figured I’d try yoga to get my diaphragm ripped,” or “I have lower back pain and my body worker sent me here to build up my diaphragm,” or “I’m trying to add a third register to my singing voice and need some tools.”
So how do we stretch, strengthen, and assure proper movement of this muscle? For starters, we need to embody the difference between an abdominal breath and a thoracic breath and (most important) the difference between an “active” and ”passive” belly. When yogis breathe consciously, the movements of the diaphragm set the stage for Uddiyana Bandha, this “flying abdominal lock.” After 16 years of yoga practice, Udiyanna Bandha still remained to me an elusive Da Vinci Code only cracked by a few lucky adepts. It looked so freaking cool, but seemed impossible and no one could actually explain how to do it or even what to practice in order to do it. No one even said why to do it. All I ever heard was “Pull the belly in” or “Pull the navel to the spine.”
Try this: Inhale a Yogic Complete Breath (abdominal-thoracic, filling belly then the ribs with the breath) and exhale by squeezing all the air out. Every last molecule of it. Hold the air out, and then relax the belly like jello. Do you feel the suction of the diaphragm deeper into the chest? Now, repeat the above step and then do the actions of a thoracic breath WITHOUT allowing air to enter the lungs. When the air is not allowed to enter the lungs, the central tendon of the diaphragm is pulled up into the thoracic cavity and the diaphragm is actively stretched and pulls up the muscles and organs that are attached to it.
So what exactly is attached to the diaphragm and involved with Uddiyana Bandha? Take a closer look from deep to surface. At the coastal margins on the inner surfaces of ribs 6-12, the transversus abdominus muscles (the deepest layer of core muscles) grow into the fibers of the diaphragm. There is no difference. Like a sleeve sewn to the body of a shirt, this deep corset muscle around your waist seams into your “six pack”, latches on your pelvic bones, and corsets around to the giant patch of diamond-shaped fabric on your lower back (the thoracolumbar fascia) that anchors layers of back muscles. The six-pack shares the same real estate with the diaphragm (ribs 6-7 and the xiphoid), and also anchors the internal obliques, and on top of them the external obliques.
If your diaphragm is ever going to be able to stretch, its abdominal bedfellows must let go of the sheets. This is why the cue, “pull your belly in” or “pull the navel to the spine” doesn’t stretch the diaphragm. It does the opposite. It holds the diaphragm down like a hot air balloon trying to lift off while its ropes remain tied to the earth. The abdomen muscles must passively stretch and loose their intimate connection with the diaphragm. Likewise uptown, the external intercostals must be free to do their job of pulling the ribs apart for the actions of the thoracic inhale. If the intercostal muscles are tight (I know from asthma what that feels like), Uddiyana Bandha will be felt minimally. To soften the abdominal muscles, try abdominal massage with the YTU Coregeous Ball, as demonstrated in the video below by Jill and Dr. Kelly Starrett of MobilityWod. These layers need to show their love with tight embraces but also to let go and give space if the diaphragm wants to stretch.
Today, I practice Uddiyana Bandha in twists, backbends, and forward folds (in any orientation to gravity) in order to stretch it in all of its glory. When you’ve mastered it, you have a de-stressing tool like no other. Free at last, free at last, thank belly almighty, free at last….
Louis Jackson‘s love of yoga emerged in the 1990s after receiving a copy of B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. After pledging to learn all 202 poses by himself, he injured his back and sought tutelage at Julie Lawrence’s Iyengar Studio in Portland, Oregon, where he learned to cool his fire and practice with impeccable alignment. In the Bay Area, he began studying with Master Iyengar Instructor Ben Thomas, who mentored him during his teacher training at Avalon Art and Yoga and taught him how to breathe. Under the guidance of both Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune Up and Master Teacher and Sanskrit scholar Anirudh Shastri, Louis weds the most recent research from physical therapy, physiology, and neuroscience with the rich tradition of Hatha Yoga practiced in North India.
image cred whitetigernaturalmedicine.com
I had to pin this. I have such a hard time with my breathing, both while practicing yoga and running. I’ll be referring back to this many times.
This article contains a lot of excellent info as well as a bit of misinformation, I think. The esophagus is part of the digestive tract but has no relationship to breathing. That’s the trachea, which connects larynx and pharynx to the lungs but does not pass thru the diaphragm, as the lungs are above it.
Also, the phrenic nerve contains sympathetic nerve fibers, which contribute to the fight-or-flight response, not, as you say, telling us to chill out. Perhaps you were thinking of the vagus nerve, which contributes to parasympathetic response in the heart, among other things.
But the esophagus does pass through the diaphragm at T10…
I believe I have developed a hiatus hernia. I’m 56, have mild hypertension, 6’2″ @ 220lbs. I’m looking to use yoga postures & techniques to strengthen my diaphragm, improve my breathing and heal the esophagus herniation. I’m removing certain foods from my diet. I use to free dive when i was younger to 40-50 feet to spearfish. it’s hard to get below 20′ and hunt abalone anymore.So I’m looking to increase my lung capacity and efficiency through yoga deep breathing techniques as well. Could you suggest a resource when i could find help specific to these issues?
Great article overall. Bookmarked!
Very interesting take. I never thought of it that way.
jackson says, “This is why the cue, “pull your belly in” or “pull the navel to the spine” doesn’t stretch the diaphragm.”
umm, jackson…that cue is not intended to “stretch” the diaphragm. It is a well documented cue for engaging the transversus abdominus muscle of the core. That muscle (along with others) attaches to the thoracolumbar fascia (like the corset example you have borrowed); engaging it stabilizes the lumbar spine.
Understood, sir or madam. Thanks for reading the post. Not doubting the efficacy of “pulling the navel to the spine” as a stabilizer of the lumbar. Please read again a bit closer. The diaphragm will also help stabilize when you do that. Which is often overlooked in this ubiquitous, textbook, pulling-in technique. That’s all mentioned. The point is: It’s quite confusing when you want someone to actually stretch the diaphragm and all they know how to do is “pull in”. If a student wants to graduate to Nauli Kriya, you cannot “pull in.” You must do the variation of Udiyanna Bandha that stretches and softens.
I like it – using the ball as a method to break up tension in the fascia is very good. You can get clients to purchase them from the dollar store and use them at home for other muscles, too. Another method to stretch the diaphragm is to use a sand bag on the abdomen. Lie down, place a sand bag on the belly, inhale and press the belly out and push the sandbag up, then allow the belly to relax as the bag sinks into the pelvis.
I came to yoga to “get my diaphragm ripped” for bikini season?! Hahaha!
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Cfhe background conversations made it nearly impossible to hear the conversation clearly. Re do the vid!