#BE15for15 – Day 4 – Why does the belly move? The diaphragm!
The reason that the belly moves as we inhale and exhale has to do with a very important muscle for breathing… our diaphragm! The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped sheet of muscle that is located just beneath the ribcage. It’s not only at the front side of the body, but runs all the way through the body from front to back and from side to side. The diaphragm separates the torso into the chest above and the abdomen below. It is also the main muscle used in a full healthy breathing pattern!
As we inhale, our diaphragm pulls downward, changing the pressure in the chest so that air is drawn into the lungs. As we exhale, the diaphragm draws back up to assist in pressing air out of the chest. When the diaphragm draws down as we breathe in, our abdominal organs have to go somewhere to let the diaphragm move fully – that is why the belly relaxes outward as we breathe in. As we exhale, the diaphragm draws back upward and our belly can draw in and up back toward the spine. In the following photos, my hands are placed about where the diaphragm is located to show this motion.
When we don’t allow our diaphragm to move fully because we are holding our belly in tight, this restriction can contribute to pain and dysfunction in several areas of the body. We touched on the way that chest breathing can lead to tension and pain in the neck and upper shoulders, due to the overuse of the accessory breathing muscles like the scalene and sternocleidomastoid muscles. These muscles are designed to be used to help us breathe when we are really physically active and our diaphragm needs a little bit of back up. We may also use those muscles when we are having difficulty breathing due to an illness or a condition like asthma. They are not intended to do the majority of our breathing work, and overuse of these muscles through chest breathing can lead to chronic neck and shoulder pain and tension.
Another area that suffers when we suck in our stomach and don’t allow our diaphragm to move is the low back. There is a correlation established between chronic low back pain and abnormal breathing patterns. When the diaphragm and the belly aren’t allowed to move freely, there is an increase in abdominal pressure as we inhale that can cause an increase in pressure on the spinal structures. This increase in pressure can exacerbate symptoms in people who are managing spinal disc injuries.
The health and function of our pelvic floor can be negatively impacted by always holding the belly tight, too. It is essential for the belly to relax outward and downward as we inhale to prevent excessive pressures from pushing upward into the chest cavity above the diaphragm, backward toward the spinal structures and downward into the pelvic floor. When we hold tension in our abdomen, we also usually hold tension in our pelvic floor. This combination of chronically held tension in the pelvic floor and the abnormal pressure exerted on the pelvic floor when the belly is held rigidly can contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction and urinary leaking.
Let’s try this diaphragmatic or belly breathing now.
Place your hands on your belly and as you inhale, feel your breath moving in and down to fill your hands. This motion is not pushing the belly outward, but rather allowing it to soften passively with your inhale.
As you breathe out, feel your belly draw in and up, toward your spine and away from your hands.
Allow yourself to take five more full breaths like that. You may close your eyes and focus on your breath and sensations if that is helpful to you.
If you feel ready to begin your practice now, set your timer – or press play to begin your guided Daily Breathe Easy practice (included with the Breathe Easy audio book). Allow yourself to continue to observe your breath for 15 minutes. Focus on the easy, gentle movement at your belly during your practice today. Notice any thoughts, sensations, or emotions that reveal themselves to you through this experience. Do not fight them or judge them. Simply notice what shows up and allow it to be. Keep connecting with the movement at your belly.
Maintain this connection to your breath and when you feel ready, gently blink your eyes open if you have closed them.
Notice how you feel after connecting with your breath. If you are using a journal during this process (which I highly recommend), record how you feel after your second 15 minute experience. Did this experience feel challenging? Did it feel easy? What did you notice? Did you notice any movement happening at your belly? Was your practice today different than yesterday? If so, in what way(s)? Remember to be kind and to give yourself the gift of grace. Tomorrow we will discuss more about the process of learning to love the natural movement of the belly, and how that will help us in our breathing practice and life! If you have any thoughts or questions you would like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments section! I’ll do my best to keep up!