The Diaphragm – the gate of the heart

by Adarsh Williams

The first breath we take marks our entry into the world, and the last breath signals our departure, how we manage the breaths in between has much to do with the quality of life that we lead.

If you watch a baby breathing, you will notice an easy natural flow throughout the body. Her belly will be full with the inhale, the chest soft and expanded. In the exhale, she shrinks and becomes small again. It seems as though her entire spine and skeleton are in harmony with the breath.

Now observe the breathing of most adults and yourself. Notice how the breath travels – does it expand throughout the body? Do the ribs move? Is the stomach soft? Is the breath free? Is it stuck?

Although 46 muscles are involved in the breathing process, the primary is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle separating thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. This dome shaped muscle shares attachment to the pericardium (heart sac), the iliopsoas muscle (hip flexor), and the pelvic floor – via its central tendon.

It is vital to breathing, heart rate, posture, and digestion amongst other functions.

When looking at the position of the respiratory diaphragm in terms of the subtle anatomy – the diaphragm rests just below the anahata (heart center) and above the manipura (solar plexus). This is the meeting place of the conscious and unconscious and the ascending and descending within the energy system.

Just like any muscle, the diaphragm can become tight, weak, or function poorly, often it is restricted because of deep held emotions. This can easily be observed in children. When the emotions are too hard to deal with, the diaphragm, upper stomach and throat become tense. The crying or deep sobbing are biological ways in which the muscle releases again. If the muscle is not able to fully release, the tension can begin to store and accumulate.

Yoga practices such as kriya, pranayama, and asana help train the diaphragm. In addition, it can be effectively released through bodywork or acupuncture. As the diaphragm opens, it can bring about release of deep held emotions which are sometimes accompanied with involuntary laughter or crying.

A simple exercise in breathing with diaphragm awareness:

First, visualize the location of the diaphragm shaped like an open umbrella just inside the lower ribcage.

When inhaling, the diaphragm contracts and presses downward causing the contents of the abdomen to expand – this is why it is called “belly breathing”. You will feel expansion around the belly and kidneys – filling the lower, middle, then upper lung in three dimensions.

Exhale and allow the breath to empty in reverse. The diaphragm now relaxes and softens upward, toward the heart.

Make sure that you exhale completely – this will create a reflex in which the inhale will again flow into the lungs with ease.

With this simple breathing exercise, you can begin habituating your breathing toward full diaphragmatic breath. The rhythmic pumping of the diaphragm when breathing directly massages the heart and contents of the abdomen all the way down to the PC muscles.

With practice, it is possible to relearn and regain the natural flow of the baby breath.