When we breathe, we draw air in through our mouth or nose, down through our trachea and into our lungs where we can absorb oxygen into our blood and also expel waste gases from the blood to be breathed back out again.
Our lungs sit inside our ribcage, which being made of bones, does not expand very easily. So the easiest way to create the expansion required to create the vacuum which will draw the air down into our lungs, is actually to expand the abdomen which sits beneath the ribcage. This area is not surrounded by bones, and so (provided everything is healthy) is much more flexible and easier to expand and contract.
The main muscles involved in moving the abdomen in this way are the Diaphragm and the Transversus Abdominus muscles. To some extent all of the muscles of the abdomen and lower back will be involved in allowing the expansion required for healthy abdominal breathing, but the primary action is a result of these two muscles working together in a co-ordinated way.
The Diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that sits directly below the lungs, up under the ribcage. The Transversus Abdominus is also quite dome shaped and is the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles and goes all the way from the back around to the front of the body. When the Diaphragm muscle contracts, the dome under the ribs pulls downwards, creating a vacuum and space for the lungs to expand into as the air is drawn down through the trachea into them. To accommodate this downward movement the Transversus Abdominus muscle relaxes and allows the abdomen to expand outwards. To breathe out, this process is reversed, the Transversus Abdominus muscle contracts to pull the abdomen in, which allows the diaphragm to relax and move upwards, compressing the lungs and expelling the air back up through the trachea and out through the mouth or nose.
These dome shaped muscles are incredibly efficient. When they are functioning well it is estimated that they use about 3% of available energy to do their work. That means that 97% of the energy is able to be used for other functions in the body. Breathing by using our Diaphragm and Transversus Abdominus muscles efficiently helps us to relax and feel calm and at ease as we are not straining unneccesarily with our breathing.
To help us to breathe effectively with our abdomen, there are several breathing exercises for you to practice.
For this exercise, simply sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly about where your belly button is. As you inhale through your nose let your belly expand, but try to have very little movement in your chest area. As you exhale through your nose let your belly contract back in, again there should be very little movement in your chest area.
Repeat for ten or more breaths
For some of you this will be your natural pattern of breathing when you are in a relaxed state, so this will be very easy for you, which is great! For others you may find this breathing difficult to begin with as during your life you may have developed a pattern of breathing with your ribs or even your shoulders, even while you are resting. Don’t worry, with practice this breathing pattern will become easier and you will find that once you have the hang of it, it is very relaxing.
Identifying the Diaphragm Muscle
Lie down on your back with your feet flat on the floor by your buttocks. Place a moderately heavy flat object (a telephone book, wheat bag, bag of rice or similar) on your belly about where your belly button is. As you inhale through your nose, push your belly out so that the weight on your belly rises, as you exhale through your nose, let the weight lower back down and your belly relax in.
Repeat for ten or more breaths
If you found the abdominal breathing difficult, it may be because you are not activating your diaphragm muscle effectively. The weight on your belly will help to activate the diaphragm muscle as it gives it more resistance to push against and thus a clearer stronger stimulus to the muscle.
Strengthening and Stretching the Diaphragm Muscle
Lie down on your back with your feet flat on the floor by your buttocks. Breathe all the way out so that your belly draws in. Hold your belly in and breathe in through your nose so that mainly your chest and ribs expand. Hold your breath and push your tummy out and in as many times as you comfortably can on that breath before pulling your tummy back in and breathing out through your mouth. Resume normal breathing.
Repeat two – three times taking a few normal breaths in between each time as a rest.
This repeated in and out movement of the belly will greatly strengthen the diaphragm and make it more flexible. Its range of motion will improve and in so doing the space available for the lungs to expand into as you breathe will also increase leading to greater lung capacity. This exercise will also improve the co-ordination between the Diaphragm and Transversus Abdominus. An additional benefit of this exercise is that these movements will massage and stimulate the digestion organs and can be useful in assisting with elimination.
Strengthening the Transversus Abdominus (exhaling in three stages)
For this exercise sit in a comfortable position with your body upright, not leaning on anything (sit towards the front away from the back of the chair if you are sitting in a chair, do not lean on a wall if you are sitting on the floor). Take a normal breath in through your nose, then breathe out normally through your mouth, pause (do not inhale in between), breathe out again through your mouth, pause (do not inhale in between), breathe out again through your mouth. Breathe in again normally through your nose.
Repeat three to five times.
For many of us due to poor breathing habits, lack of physical activity and bad postural habits, our Transversus Abdominus muscles have become weak and inactive. They don’t mind expanding outward but have difficulty drawing inwards. This exercise helps to identify the action of this muscle. You should feel a strong contraction of the deep abdominal muscles on the second or third exhalation as the Transversus Abdominus muscle engages to support the upward movement of the diaphragm and fully empty the lungs.
Practice Sessions This Week:
Spend five or more minutes on each of the exercises in the section during each of your practice sessions this week. If you have difficulty with any of the exercises, you will likely find that it becomes easier as the week progresses as the muscles become stronger and more co-ordinated from all the different exercises working together.
- Abdominal Breathing – 5 minutes
- Identifying the Diaphragm Muscle – 5 minutes
- Strengthening and Stretching the Diaphragm Muscle – 5 minutes
- Strengthening the Transversus Abdominus – 5 minutes