In my work as a yoga therapist, I have had the opportunity to observe many bodies breathe and it is striking to see the many different variations. Some individuals breathe shallow, fast breaths into the chest, sometimes people hold their breath and many individuals draw their stomach in on the inhale and out on the exhale. These are all examples of dysfunctional breath patterns that can alter the way a person feels and the amount of energy that they have. What is most fascinating is how fast people can find relief from many ailments by taking a proper full breath.
To start with, it is important to note that there are three diaphragms in the body at the throat, chest and pelvic floor. All of them work together to direct the flow of breath throughout the body. Basically a diaphragm is a circular domed muscle that expands and constricts. Not only do they direct the breath through the body, but there movement massages the organs around them which circulates fluids and keeps things active internally. Just as it is important to stay active externally, we want to keep things moving internally as well.
In order to keep things simple, I am going to focus on the diaphragm at the chest to explain the mechanics of breathing. When taking a full deep breath into the depths of the lungs they begin to blow up like balloons. This growing volume in the lungs allows the circular diaphragm to expand 360 degrees around the body and the dome begins to press down becoming more like the shape of a bowl. This downward expanding motion allows the belly (and back) to protrude with the expanding volume. As you exhale the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its normal shape which helps to expel the air up and out.
A great way to practice diaphragmatic breathing is to put a strap around the body right under the breast bone, at the level of the diaphragm. As you breathe, focus on expanding into the strap 360 degrees around the body. Then place your hands around the lower rib cage and check to see that there is some expansion in the belly and mid-lower back. This, in a nutshell, is a full breath!
The latter step is important because it is very common to see people suck their belly in as they inhale, which causes the diaphragm to stay domed and creates a backwards flow of air, like a vacuum. This habitual pattern of breath called Reverse breathing causes confusion in the respiratory system which can lead to a confused and anxious state of mind. Many times, reverse breathers also carry a lot of tension and stress in the upper body, neck and shoulder area.
It is important to note that it takes time and effort to change a dysfunctional breathing habit. By trying the activity above, you can get a sense of how it feels to breathe deeply, but like any other habit, it takes a lot of practice and dedication to make the change become the new norm.