The Mysterious and Misunderstood Diaphragm
“Sing from your diaphragm!” the choir teacher exhorts. The diligent students nod, and try to sing…louder? More diaphragmily?
“Let’s do some nice, deep, diaphragmatic breathing,” coaches your yoga teacher. She knows what she’s doing. So you breathe…deeper? Louder, maybe?
Despite being frequently invoked by professionals who work with breathing, the diaphragm remains a mystery to most. And that’s a shame, because understanding the role of your diaphragm can lead to a-ha moments of improvement for your core, pelvic floor health, sports endurance, and functional fitness–even your anxiety levels.
Something I’ve realized is that unless you were pre-med (which I wasn’t), that you, like me, walk around with a limited knowledge of anatomy. I laugh at people who don’t know where the Azores are (because I just learned) or who think that Canada is a US state (it will be if enough of us vote for it–kidding), but that’s just because I lord it on the things I do know to cover up for the vast reams of things I don’t know.
But let me share with you what I’ve learned since discovering the extent of my ignorance.
What and where is the diaphragm?
Picture your rib cage as an egg-shaped, um, cage. This cage is like two concerned hands protecting your heart and lungs. This cage has a big slice of pie removed from the bottom. That’s the soft area in the center of your torso, below your breastbone and above your belly button. Now, your diaphragm is a muscle shaped something like an uneven, upside-down bowl. I made a similar one in my ceramics class. It was also blood-red. The diaphragm hangs in its bat-like, dome-shaped way right here, at the bottom of the rib cage.
How does your body inhale?
The diaphragm bowl flattens itself out, into more of a diaphragm plate. This downward movement creates a vacuum. The lungs, pulled inexorably by the power of air pressure, expand up, out, and down into the space, pushing your ribs out, forcing those protective hands to separate and spread their fingers a little.
How does your body exhale?
The diaphragm relaxes, boinging back up into the bowl shape. The pressure is released, and the lungs deflate.
By the way, this is part of the reason an inhale is energizing (it creates pressure, like an editor growling at a journalist, “we’re going to press in twenty minutes, with or without that quote”) and an exhale is relaxing (the pressure’s off; happy hour is here).
Some things can go wrong. A few that are frequently relevant for postpartum women:
- your diaphragm has to do extra work as a spinal stabilizer, and it can’t free itself to give you the deep breaths you need.
- recurring or chronic back pain tamps down the firing of your deep core muscles, leaving your diaphragm stuck doing the emergency measure of holding your breath every time you move your core.
- you get locked into a shallow, thoracic breathing pattern, and your ribs lose mobility, recommitting you to that same shallow breathing pattern.
- a shallow breathing pattern or a mouth-based inhale habit means your vagus nerve is constantly triggered, sending you into a chronic parasympathetic (fight-or-flight reaction, giving you constant low-level anxiety
it’s just so loud in here
Another way to visualize it is to think of your thorax as a disco. (Oh, your thorax is the upper half of your torso, above your abdomen, ant-person.) Back to the disco. It’s dark, there’s this thumping, incessant beat, and it’s really hot–like practically 100 degrees–and so crowded. Your spine is the back wall, and your ribs are the side and front walls.
So it’s like a Viking, blood-and-bone-themed disco. And the floor is crazy! (It’s your diaphragm.) The dance floor is on the top of a dome in the middle of the room, but every five seconds or so the dome sucks itself down and everybody’s like whoooa. And then running into you, which is annoying.
Your puffy, spongy lungs are some kind of larger-than-life floor show, inflating and deflating in time with the moving floor. And the walls are moving in and out with each exhale and inhale you take as well. There are obviously no windows. No natural light. Just some electrical pulses and of course, everybody’s phones.
Every time the floor goes down, the walls move out, and your lungs puff up to fill up the extra space. Then the floor shoots back up, you almost hit your head on the ceiling, and everyone’s stepping on your feet and getting their sweat on you. And your ears are popping like crazy, because of the constantly changing air pressure.
Hey, you love this song, right?
Well, I still do, and I see some cuties out there. Let’s dance!
Oops. Sorry, fellas.
I guess it was their first time at this club. There are three big holes in the moving floor. You didn’t know? That’s like, what everyone says on Twitter about this place. I feel like they should have known that before they just cut loose on the dance floor like fools. It’s not my fault that they don’t use the internet like normal humans.
The holes? One’s for your esophagus, an elevator that ferries your food from mouth to stomach. I hope the guys didn’t fall through that one. If they did, well, they’re swiftly dissolving in gastric fluids next to some spicy eggplant you had at the Thai place last night.
Let’s hope they went down the other tubes. Those are for your aorta and vena cava. Riding platelet inner tubes down a lazy river of richly oxygenated blood, or, in the case of the vena cava, creepy blue-black blood? Now I wish I fell down there. Well, not really. I want to finish this drink. It cost, like, $17.
But, hey, isn’t that one of the guys that went down the tube? Yeah, right over there next to the lady really pulling off those high-waisted camo jeans. Huh, cool look. Anyway, I think it’s the same guy, just, with a beard now?
Hey! How are ya? I totally didn’t realize I was knocking you down that hole when I was showing you my floss dance. Sorry!
You did fall down the esophageal opening? Wow. Super sorry. How did you, um, you know, survive it?
You managed to grab onto the vagus nerve? That’s right, that powerful regulating nerve does run through the same hole as the esophagus. They’re together so that your body can quit doing that drudge work of digestion on a moment’s notice if you see a tiger or a vampire or something and need all your energy just to run for your life.
So you just ziplined your way over the bubbling pits of stomach acid. How did you keep ahold of the vagus nerve, Tarzan? You must have incredible upper body strength. Can I feel your biceps? Oh, yeah, maybe later, that’s cool.
The vagus nerve, man, that’s like the Appalachian Trail of the body. They call it the Wanderer. It goes to like, all of the cool organs. Even the spleen, which is one of those speakeasy places where you have to knock, and like, know the password to get let in.
Oh. So you saw inside. Is it really amazing? Oh my gosh. I would love to see that. No, I didn’t mean–it’s cool. I’ll probably just go later, anyway, with my other friend who knows a lot of people.
Someday I’m going to travel the whole vagus nerve. By the way, can you take some deep breaths? I can see you got pretty anxious about that whole I-almost-killed-someone-with-my-energetic-dancing thing, so some deep breaths will help you relax. No, it’s not just yoga mumbo-jumbo. This is science, baby! Why do you think the vagus nerve goes through the diaphragm? The diaphragm’s bowl squishing down to a plate routine, well, the vagus nerve senses how that’s going. It freaks out when you do those hoppy little shallow breaths, like when you saw that scorpion in your backpack. And no, before you start on that again, I did not put it there. I would never do that (to a scorpion).
Anyway, deep, slow contractions of the diaphragm, let’s get some of those going. See, now the vagus nerve is calming you down, sending you into rest-and-digest mode. There you go. You’ve forgotten all about the near murder and the scorpion incident.
Oh, you guys are going? Okay. Again, glad you didn’t get digested.
Are you ready to go? It’s just really loud in here. Um, hope you don’t mind, but to get out we just have to–ahh, there we go–trigger the diaphragm to make you vomit. Yeah, it does that, too. Oh, there you go. Great. You have a really responsive system. Dang, this eggplant is still really spicy. Thanks again for lending me your shoes tonight. They’re probably going to need a little wash now, though.