Discover the Diaphragm

You might hear ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ in a yoga class, singing lesson, stress management session or other scenario. It is the muscle of life for breath gives us life, or is it the heart? An unusual muscle it is part of the autonomic nervous system but can be consciously controlled. This makes its life giving gift a dangerous lack of control to the mind and the fluctuations of thought states. A muscle highly worthy of exploration.


Health issues relating to the Diaphragm  

The idea of there being something ‘wrong’ with the diaphragm is scary given its central role in giving life. Therefore, anxiety related issues are strongly connected to diaphragmatic imbalances. But there are other aspects to consider that impact daily living.

To confirm physiological damage medical tests are required, especially if related to pulmonary (heart and circulation) or neurological conduction issues. See a doctor if there you have sustained an abdominal or chest injury that could have affected the diaphragm, or you have nausea or vomiting.

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 Physical Issues

The physical symptoms for diaphragm imbalances include:

  • Discomfort or difficulty breathing

  • A stitch in the side during exercise

  • Cramps and spasms that cause a shortness of breath

  • Pain in the chest, ribs or abdominal area at the back, side or abdomen

  • Hypoxemia (lack of oxygen in the blood)

  • Issues with breathing during pregnancy

  • Panic attacks

  • Heart burn

  • Hiatal hernia where the upper abdomen bulges through the oesophageal entrance through the diaphragm

Energy Issues

Issues in the diaphragm are a block in accessing higher emotions and energy such as compassion, tolerance, acceptance and joy.

Diaphragm issues are a sign of a separation from physical life and a larger unified connection, or spirituality for some.

When in disharmony symptoms may manifest physically, but might also result in:

  • face flushing

  • a fever

  • elbow tension

  • fluid retention

Emotional Issues

Anxiety is not to be underrated as an issue. If they proceed to panic attacks these feel life threatening at the time and are immensely scary. Other emotional impacts of diaphragm imbalances include:

  • Anxiety problems

  • Depression

  • Dry mouth

  • Fatigue

  • Attention Deficit Disorder and ADHD


Anatomy of the Diaphragm

The Diaphragm muscle and its Partners

The diaphragm structure

The diaphragm structure

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that is the base of the thoracic cavity in a complete circle. It starts at the front of the thorax near the xiphoid process of the sternum. The diaphragm separates the torso between chest and abdomen, but the muscle connects front, back and side torso. The front of the diaphragm is higher in the body than the back of the diaphragm, where it attaches to the top two lumbar vertebrae by the quadratus lumborum and psoas in the posterior of the 12th rib.

The breath & its muscles

The breath & its muscles

The central tendon runs through the diaphragm at the front of the chest and attaches to the heart’s membrane and vena cava deeply connecting the diaphragm to heart function. The medial accurate ligament that connects the diaphragm to the spine also wraps around the psoas and connects to the aorta of the heart. This ligament is the deep anatomical connection of the spine, heart and breath through the diaphragm.

‘Diaphragmatic breath’ is the natural action of the diaphragm in breathing. On the inhale the diaphragm contracts and moves down into the abdomen, so the belly expands. On the exhale the diaphragm relaxes and lifts up into the ribcage. The exhale can be supported by the abdominal muscles as they contract in.

Accessory muscles for breath include the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) to contract and expand the ribcage for air to move in and out. The neck muscles - scalenes and sternocleidmastoid - support the inhalation by lifting the collar bones upwards and allowing more space for chest expansion. These muscles connect all the way into the occiput at the skull.

A weak diaphragm will cause the accessory muscles in the neck and chest to overwork increasing shoulder and neck tension. In the chest the pectorals, upper trapezius and levator scapula might tense and it is this tension that can lead to headaches and jaw tension.

Various hernias can occur through the diaphragm. The diaphragm communicates between the thorax and abdomen for their function.

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Nerves of Breath

There are two mixed motor and sensory nerves (“phrenic nerve”), one for left and right of the heart that both enter the diaphragm at the central tendon that supply to the corresponding side of the diaphragm.  Damage to either of these nerves in the neck are what leads to the need for a ventilator to support breathing. These nerves manage reflux, oesophageal distention and vomiting from breathing. The phrenic nerves are also involved in vocalisation, deglutination and expelling waste from airways.

The thoracic spinal nerve forms the intercostal nerves (between the ribs) that branch to different ribs to support breathing. They extend down into the posterior of the abdomen which is important in core stabilisation, and is why breathing can be compromised with prolapsed discs further down the spine. These nerves do not appear to send messages to the diaphragm directly.

The thoracolumbar junction is called the ‘celiac plexus’ because of the bundle of nerves at this point that. The celiac plexus is important in the control of elimination both upwards and downwards in the body.

 
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Fascia

The diaphragm’s fibres connect the head and trunk through its circular shape in the thorax, but also split out into the arms. These fibres form part of the Deep Front Line and Deep Front Arm Lines on each side, so the the front arms are an expression of the Deep Front Line. The Deep Front Line connects up into the posterior neck muscle longus capitis, but also through the oesophagus, pharynx and into the occiput along with the accessory muscles of breathing.  All of these aspects for the Deep Front Line connect at the back of the sternum. This can be called a ‘heart loop’.

The Deep Front Line is important in stability of the legs, deep aspects of the face and neck. This is due to the fascia’s overlap with the psoas, quadratus lumborum and iliacus that stabilise the pelvis. The ‘hinge’ point is the T11-L1 vertebrae (12th rib) that connects the upper and lower body or ‘ thoracolumbar junction’. This origin is where the diaphragm and psoas meet, in the middle of the spine. This major spinal joint is central for support and function in the human body, and can often be a cause of back or shoulder pain.

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As a deep muscle of the body, the diaphragm connects with all fascial lines at the time of embryonic development when the fascial net forms. In only the second week of an embryo’s development it unfolds from the same layer of cells, the “mesoderm” to create the vertebral discs, ribs, abdominal muscles and pelvis, and back up into the skull and palate of the mouth.

The abdomen’s formation creates the rings of the transverse abdominis similar in costal fibres to the diaphragm. At the same time, the pelvic floor and perineal body of the anus form to create the pressurised abdominal cavity. There is a connection between these two domes in the body that move in synchronicity together with the breath and create the pressurised abdominal support of the pelvic floor and diaphragm for overall health.


Energetics of the Diaphragm

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, all 14 Chinese meridians pass through the diaphragm and is considered a regulator for the yin and yang qualities in the body. In yoga, the diaphragm muscle crosses over the heart chakra (anahata) and solar plexus (manipura) chakras. It is the bridge where negative energies of wounding, grief and emotional tension are held before raising to higher vibrations of love and connection.   

The thoracolumbar junction is the location of the manipura chakra (solar plexus) and celiac plexus. The manipura chakra is associated with the fire element to transform substances in the abdomen, and processes in life. Diaphragmatic issues require clearing and detoxification, and this ‘gut reaction’ may lead to vomiting. It is often why in deep spiritual cleansing there is a degree of ‘purging’ that occurs to clear this chakra and allow the energy from the lower body to lift up into the heart, and raise its vibration to one of love. This chakra is the seat of will, power and discipline.  

Anahata is the bridge of body and mind, or physical material and consciousness oneness. When the energy passes through the heart it is a discovery of compassion, forgiveness and acceptance. This process lifts the energy to the higher chakras that are considered more attuned to the higher universal vibrations of oneness. To lift the energy through the diaphragm and allow the heart chakra to heal, is to lift up into communicating and living in a more connected way from a deep sense of unconditional love.  

In the beauty of the body we can see the physical connection of diaphragm to psoas for walking is at the manipura chakra, that is personal power and will in life. If a step is hard to breathe through, then the heart is not being heard in life direction. The breath should be synchronous with the foot steps taken for balance in body, emotion and energy.

 
Heart loop of diaphragm - follow the blue arrows to lift & open the heart

Heart loop of diaphragm - follow the blue arrows to lift & open the heart


Consciously connecting to your Diaphragm

To balance the diaphragm there are two aspects to consider – nourish the diaphragm and strengthening the core. This should be at all levels of the body, mind and energy systems for the whole person to raise their energetic vibrations and fully connect their living body to a more connected sense of living. Feelings that move us away from anxiety, depression and towards purposeful living. There are many overlaps in the following approaches as it is about bringing the breath into harmony with the physical and energy bodies.

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Physical Connection

Simple actionable steps in daily life:

  • Detoxify from irritating foods that cause heart burn.

  • Eat smaller portions to allow for more abdominal space.

  • Exercise within the body’s limits and do not ‘push’ through causing strain on the diaphragm.

  • Adopt ‘neutral’ posture with a tall spine to make space for the diaphragm to move into the abdomen.

  • Use the roll down or hip rolls to practice synchronising the breath with movement.

The medial accurate ligament’s connection to the psoas and heart, shows the importance of breath during walking. This is why walking is often evidenced as highly beneficial for healing, especially when done consciously like meditation walking where the breath synchronises with the movement.

Deep full three-dimensional breath of the entire ribcage will ensure that the diaphragm is strong and that the accessory muscles do not overwork. This results in less neck and shoulder tension, and possible headaches.

KEY NOTE:

Bring your attention to the synchronicity of the breath with the movement to ensure the diaphragm has the correct tone to support all movements, whatever your choice of practice or daily movement.

 

Emotional Connection

That slightly irritating suggestion of ‘reduce stress’. This means ‘clear out’ unnecessary or negative people and things in your life that add stress. A supportive process for this can be forgiveness exercises that release the blocks around the heart and diaphragm. Begin all forgiveness work with a soothing diaphragmatic breath that relaxes the mind and body.  

When you feel stressed, try the ‘Resonant breath’ which is slowing the breath to 6 breaths per minute (6 seconds in & then 6 seconds out). This is proven to improve heart variability which lifts to a more positive mood and can reduce blood pressure.

Once calm the diaphragm wants to be strengthened, and this is where a more ‘fire’ breath should be utilised. This will energise and focus the mind to deal with stress in a calm, relaxed and toned manner.

Energy Connection

The balance of release and tone in the diaphragm muscle can feel like an art to master. This is the art of energy that creates the muscle tone.

  • Relax the abdomen to allow full breath. Think of the ‘Buddha belly’ look.

  • Drop essential oil clove into a diffuser or carrier oil, it helps to open both the solar plexus and heart chakras. It is fabulous when meditating to get clarity on communication and connection issues.

  • Deep Front Line fascia work is often seen most in Pilates movements due to their core stabilisation focus. Full three-dimensional thoracic breathing is important to balance the energy of the diaphragm as it moves the muscle in all its directions for full energetic balance.

  • Singing is a fabulous way to physically tone the diaphragm, connect with others and it clears the mind as the whole vibration of the tones affect the system at all levels. Start singing in the shower!

 

Our Breathe into Alignment retreat in 2018 explored the use of the diaphragm over five nights and was a uplifting and loving experience for all. We encourage you to delve into this discovery for your body, mind and life.

If you want to explore more ways to deepen the balance of your diaphragm then contact us.

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Additional Resources for reference

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3731110/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255790543_Anatomic_connections_of_the_diaphragm_Influence_of_respiration_on_the_body_system

Books:

  1. Anatomy Trains with Tom Myers

  2. Fascia by Robert Schleip

  3. Muscles and Meridians by Phillip Beach