Most any yoga practitioner knows the importance of full, deep diaphragmatic breathing to enhance wellbeing and reduce stress. However, while the diaphragm plays a significant role in respiration, it has many other important functions that are often overlooked.
As Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains explains in the video below, the movement of the diaphragm causes all of the organs around it to move, offering a gentle massage to your vital organs with each breath.
Anatomically, the diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle which forms a partition between the abdominal cavity and the thoracic cavity. This location allows it to be a significant mover of organs. When the diaphragm contracts, it makes space for the lungs to more fully expand in the chest cavity. The heart rests on top of the diaphragm, and when the top of it moves down about half an inch, the heart moves along with it. The kidneys sit beneath the diaphragm: on an inhalation they go down five centimeters as the diaphragm contracts, and on an exhalation they move back up as the diaphragm expands. This simple movement of the diaphragm is essential to the body’s health. The resulting movements in the organs help to stimulate blood flow, and keep this precious area of our anatomy from falling stagnant.
This is just one of the many important additional functions of the diaphragm. As Italian researchers Bordini and Zanier note:
“The diaphragm muscle not only plays a role in respiration but also has many roles affecting the health of the body. It is important for posture, for proper organ function, and for the pelvis and floor of the mouth. It is important for the cervical spine and trigeminal system, as well as for the thoracic outlet. It is also of vital importance in the vascular and lymphatic systems. The diaphragm muscle should not be seen as a segment but as part of a body system.”
Listen to Tom Myers in this video excerpt highlight these and other important roles of the diaphragm. This excerpt is a sneak peek at one of the videos from Tom Myers’ course on Yoga, Fascia, and the New Anatomy of the Body, via Yoga U Online.
Along with this multifunctionality, the diaphragm has many links to other areas in the body. The aorta, the inferior vena cava, and the esophagus all pass through the diaphragm. It also plays a major role in spinal stability. When the diaphragm functions properly, and allows even distribution of breath into the lungs, it creates a balance between the front and back body.
An issues that has become common in modern times is lack of tone in the diaphragm, and as a result, lack of functioning. As children we are constantly running, jumping, yelling, and singing—activities that keep the diaphragm fit and functioning at top form. As we age and move towards a more sedentary lifestyle, the diaphragm experiences less demand, and loses its tone. Following this pattern, a diaphragm that ought to comfortably move five to six inches vertically, might only move one to three inches.
The movement in the diaphragm is directly correlated to breath capacity. During inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and enlarges the volume of the thoracic cavity. This in turn reduces intra-thoracic pressure. In layman’s terms, this means that as the thoracic cavity expands, it creates suction, which draws air into the lungs. So the less movement in the diaphragm, the less air is drawn into the lungs and the more shallow the breath progressively becomes.
Despite its complexities, at the end of the day, the diaphragm is simply a muscle. Like any other muscle in the body, it needs to be maintained in order to function at its best. The importance of breath in yoga practice encourages proper tone in the diaphragm, which can increase lung capacity, and in turn longevity.
This post originally appeared on Yoga U Online. For more, check out their free 4-part webinar series with Tom Myers on Fascia in Yoga And Movement. Click here to register.