The term diaphragmatic breathing refers to a type of breathing in which the focus is engaging the diaphragm as fully as possible and expanding the rib cage and muscles of the abdomen. This enables the diaphragm to fully descend and rescind during the breathing cycle.
This can be seen as an expansion (ballooning) of the abdomen during inhalation, and a contraction (flattening) of the abdomen during exhalation. Because of these visible changes, diaphragmatic breathing is also commonly referred to as abdominal breathing.
Here’s an example of how diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress and remedy uncomfortable body mechanics. Imagine this: you suddenly feel back pain while working. In response, your breathing becomes accelerated and shallow. By becoming aware of your breathing pattern and slowly bringing it back to the deep, slowed respirations characteristic of diaphragmatic breathing, you bring awareness to your body mechanics and reduce your back pain.
It is essential that your breathing support you in this way no matter what you are doing: applying deep pressure, moving around your table, or simply initiating your touch. To develop a supportive breathing pattern, you need to become mindful of when your breathing is interrupted because of stress or pain, and then consciously return to diaphragmatic breathing. The following self-observation will guide you through a simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise.
Mindful Diaphragmatic Breathing
Action. Sit in a comfortable position or lie down on the floor. If lying down, spread your legs hip-width apart and, if you like, put a bolster under your knees. Allow your arms to rest comfortably by your sides. If needed, use a small towel or pillow under your head. Once you are comfortable, allow yourself to feel the floor supporting your weight.
Feel. Now bring your attention to your breathing. Don’t change anything about how you breathe, just become more aware of it.
Ask. Do you breathe deeply or shallowly? Slowly or quickly? Do you breathe from your abdomen, chest, or both? Do you expand or contract your chest as you inhale? Do you expand or contract your abdomen as you inhale?
Action. Place your hands on your chest. This will help you kinesthetically feel how your chest moves with each inhalation. Bring your attention to your breathing, and as you inhale, allow your chest (rib cage) to expand. As you exhale, allow your chest to resume its shape.
Slowly begin expanding only the part of your chest that feels accessible. Then, continue to expand your chest, allowing the sides to expand, then the lower parts, then the upper part until you feel the entire rib cage expanding with each inhalation.
Each time your rib cage expands, feel how the rest of your body responds. With each exhalation, allow your body to relax and let go. The expansion and contraction of your chest should not feel effortful. If it does, make smaller, more comfortable movements.
Rest for a moment.
Action. Now place your hands on your abdomen. Bring your attention to your inhalation. As you inhale, allow your abdomen to expand. As you exhale, allow your abdomen to return to its flatter shape. As you did with your chest, start slowly and expand only the parts of your abdomen that feel accessible. Allow the upper abdomen, the middle, and the lower abdomen to expand with each inhalation as you continue. As the expansion gets easier, begin to feel how the entire abdomen can expand as you inhale.
Action. Now, place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Each time you inhale, expand both simultaneously. Each time you exhale, allow each to resume its shape. If this is an unfamiliar way of breathing, go slowly and don’t push yourself.
Be sure to rest when you need to.
Continue this diaphragmatic breathing pattern, sensing how your body can breathe effortlessly, yet efficiently. Discover how breathing in this manner does not require you to contract or tighten, but instead helps you to expand and relax.
When you are finished, slowly stand up. Because of how gravity acts on your body when upright, you may find it a bit more challenging to sense how your abdomen and chest move when you’re standing. Nonetheless, take a few minutes in a standing position to feel your breathing cycle.
Practice mindful diaphragmatic breathing and utilize it to support you in every aspect of your work. By breathing fully and freely, you’ll increase your body’s ability to move effortlessly and decrease the chance of injury. Your body thrives on oxygen, so breathe and enjoy every breath you take!
Give yourself some feedback. How did your body respond to expanding the chest and abdomen while inhaling? How can you incorporate diaphragmatic breathing into your body mechanics?
By Barb Frye a massage educator and therapist since 1990. She coordinated IBM’s body mechanics program and authored Body Mechanics for Manual Therapists: A Functional Approach to Self-Care (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010). She has a massage and Feldenkrais practice at the Pluspunkt Center for Therapy and Advanced Studies near Zurich, Switzerland. Contact her at email@example.com.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, January/February 2011. Copyright 2011. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
- Video: Using “Belly Biofeedback” App for Diaphragmatic Breathing (psychcentral.com)
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