The Importance of the Diaphragm
If you practice yoga regularly, you may be familiar with the expression “breathe toward your lower back”, often used during many yoga poses. Perhaps at some point, at the beginning of your practice, you were wondering how on earth could you breathe towards your back. Maybe you still wonder.
At a Lower Back conference a few years ago, one of the speakers, a chiropractor from the US, made a strong recommendation to therapists to teach their patients to breathe correctly in order to prevent any serious lower back problems. I noticed some audience members looking a bit confused: breathing to save your back? How could that be?
Breathing and the health of your lower spine are connected, but how?
Mechanically speaking, in passive breathing (that means, when we are not consciously controlling our breath such as in a breathing exercise), the main elements involved are:
- the diaphragm
- the intercostal muscles.
The diaphragm is the key to all this. It has a shape of an umbrella and it is made of muscle and tendon fiber, attached to the inside of the ribs and at the back to the lumbar vertebrae.
Plus, the top of the diaphragm is joined to the base of the pericardium, (the muscle surrounding the heart).
The action of the diaphragm is complex, but just to simplify, during the inhalation the diaphragm drops down. This expands the lungs toward their base, therefore they fill up with air.
Conversely , during exhalation, the opposite occurs. The diaphragm moves upward , pulling the lungs as they return to their original size and therefore expulsing the air out.
So the main respiratory muscle, the diaphragm, is directly connected with the lumbar spine and the muscle surrounding the heart.
This means that every time we breathe, as the diaphragm moves up and down, it has a direct, physical effect on the lumbar spine AND the heart.
“Even further, the movements of the diaphragm are associated with other functions such as digestion, circulation, coughing, and speaking. In particular, the diaphragm’s movements join those of other muscles in the following acts of expulsion:
- urination (if need be)
- in the final phase of delivery”
It seems that the diaphragm is a rather important member of our bodies! And this also means that your yoga teacher is not totally crazy. You can actually “breathe towards the lower back”.
In fact, when we do diaphragmatic breathing (using the diaphragm as the main respiratory muscle), we invariably move the area attached to the lower spine.
The diaphragm is the one important structure that helps integrate lumbar stability. While many practitioners focus on the ability of the diaphragm to maintain an adequate breath, they forget it plays an integral part in providing stability and mobility to the lumbar vertebrae. This attachment goes as low as the L1-L3, so that’s a pretty far reach when we breathe.
Just in case you were wondering again, not all breathing is purely diaphragmatic. During high intensity exercise we use other muscles called the accessory or secondary respiratory muscles.
One clear example of this is at the end of a race. The natural reaction is to lean forward, to hold on to something or rest the hands on the knees. It is then that the secondary muscles tighten and pull to create extra space and lift the chest to its maximum capacity.
In this month’s breathing exercises video, we will take you through some simple diaphragmatic breathing exercises for you to practice at your own pace. Do them, and notice the connection between the movement of your breath, and your lower back, and use it as a tool to stay healthy, from your lower back to your heart.