Using the Pear-Cone Wave
Why is Diaphragmatic Breathing Important?
Re-learning to breathe using your diaphragm can bring you many benefits for your body and mind. Diaphragmatic breathing encourages full oxygen exchange, slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize high blood pressure. It also shifts our nervous system to a calm state which can help us to heal and repair our bodies after stress. Studies show that diaphragmatic breathing improves cognitive performance and reduces the effects of stress.
Shifting to diaphragmatic breathing can take some practice but the rewards for your health and emotional state will give you a high pay off.
Breathing from the Diaphragm Vs. Chest
To breathe means to change the shape of the rib cage so a vacuum is created in the lungs through which air is pulled in. The shape change is accomplished primarily (but not exclusively) by the diaphragm, our primary breathing muscle.
The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle up inside the ribs which flattens out and moves towards the pelvic floor as it contracts. This causes each and every inhalation we take. As it relaxes it moves back upwards inside the rib cage, producing your exhalation.
The diaphragm sits atop the liver, kidneys, stomach and spleen and below the lungs and the heart. The pericardium of the heart (a fibrous sac which envelops the heart) is continuous with the top of the diaphragm. The linking of the heart to the diaphragm tells us that every time we breath in and out 15-20,000 times a day, our heart rides up and down on our diaphragm, contributing to the momentum of heart movement and blood flow.
The diaphragm is made for constant work. It does not get tired of doing its job so it is what we should be using for breathing, most of the time. It also gets the air you breathe deeper into the lower lobes of the lungs which are enervated with parasympathetic nerve fibers- which means that deep breathing is calming.
Chest Breathing and Secondary Muscles of Respiration
However, when we are under stress, diaphragmatic breathing is minimized in favor of upper chest breathing. This is a reflex in response to a perception of danger. Our sympathetic nervous system prepares us to run or to fight and to do so, we need a big amount of air quickly. It also tenses certain parts of our body in anticipation of getting hit. As our midsection grips, it prevents the full expansion of the diaphragm. The task to breathe-in largely goes up to the secondary muscles of respiration in the chest, neck and shoulders which act on the top two ribs for faster breathing. This is called chest breathing, 'reverse breathing' or paradoxical breathing.
The problem of course is that we respond to quite ordinary, non-lethal stresses with biological systems which respond as if we are going to die. Our interpretation of events and the stress we feel can become "hard-wired" (but re-trainable) as unconscious, habitual way of respiration using too much of the secondary muscles of respiration and not enough of the diaphragm. This can become part of a further vicious cycle of stress, anger, depression and muscle tension as well as increased strain on the heart to do most of the work as a circulatory pump. This habitual, dysfunctional breathing is more common than not, unfortunately.
Belly Breathing in Babies
To counteract the bad effects of habitual chest breathing, is to breathe into the diaphragm more. This is the intention behind belly breathing, a breathing practice to push the belly out on inhalations.
The metaphor often cited is that babies breathe with their bellies and we have "forgotten" how as adults. If you watch a baby before the age of three breathe, you'll indeed see that he or she only does belly breathing. Observe my son Julian modeling it perfectly for you.
But belly breathing isn't necessarily the way adults should breathe. For anyone over the age of two and less than seventy, your diaphragmatic breathing is better done with more chest and rib cage movement than what 'belly breathing' usually accounts for.
The Bucket Handle Effect
In large part, how much anyone is doing belly or chest breathing will depend upon how angled the ribs are. When we inhale, as the diaphragm expands the circumference of the lower ribs, it initiates a bucket-handle like lifting of the lower ribs leading to a lift in the chest.
Imagine if you will, a bucket:
See where the handle attaches at the top of the bucket? Imagine that is where your lowest two ribs are attached from. Visualize that the angle of the bucket handle matches the angle of your ribs. The more angled downwards they are, the more the whole rib cage moves upwards with the breath and the greater the 'bucket handle effect'.
Inhale deeply. Feel how as the diaphragm contracts and flattens, it presses the lower ribs out and the chest up.
Julian, like all other babies up to the age of around two years, have ribs which are just about horizontal which produces very little of the 'bucket handle effect' As we develop, our ribs begin to angle downwards and generally speaking, a woman's ribs angle downward more than men's. This means typically, women gain more lung volume when using chest breathing.
As we get much older, past the age of 70, we once again return to more belly breathing as our rib cage cartilage stiffens, returning our ribs to a more horizontal position. This also means a diminished lung volume, unfortunately.
A Better Way to Belly Breathe
While belly breathing can help to get the diaphragm moving, if it is not taught correctly, it can be limiting to a full breath. If the belly is simply pushed outwards while inhaling, it will require a stiffening of the rib cage- a restraining of the natural bucket handle effect. Don't be afraid of 'chest breathing'- simply make sure you use your diaphragm as much as possible and as little of your secondary breathing muscles as possible.
Instead of belly breathing, I teach the Pear-Cone Wave technique which can help you to expand the lower ribs and lift the breathing from the bottom to the top, making for a fuller breath.This complete breathing technique imagines the breath starting from the 'bottom' in the belly and pelvic floor and rising to the 'top' up to the collar bones.
Imagine there is a giant 'pear' inside your rib cage, hanging from your collarbones. This pear represents your diaphragm. As you start to inhale, the pear slides down in sync with your diaphragm. Because the pear is in three dimensions, it also widens the lower ribs as it drops down. Once the diaphragm has pushed as far as it goes, which is approximately 70% of your deep inhale, the cone appears.
Picking up from where the pear left off, the cone arises from level of the where your chest bone begins, just above the soft flesh (xiphoid process). From here you continue inhaling, bringing the breath upwards into the chest. Let your collarbones lift. This completes the inhalation for the next 30% of your breath.
As the pear drops and turns into a rising cone, there is a movement from bottom to top which can be described as a wave. Observing the belly rise, and then flatten slightly as the chest rises in a smooth wave-like action is an indication of healthy breathing. In contrast, when the body movements look jagged (think of crying or coughing or labored breathing) with regular respiration, it reflects an unhealthy breathing pattern. Therefore it is ideal to train your breathing to engage each section of the body smoothly.
Going Further - Move Your Bones With Breath
When we breathe in and out, our rib cage, spine and pelvis subtly move with the breathing. As you inhale deeply, as the 'pear' drops, try to feel how the left and right ilium (the top ridges of your pelvis) move away from each other while the sitting bones move closer together.
On exhalations, the pelvis moves in the opposite way- the ilium moves medially and the sitting bones move away from each other.
Feeling this as you breathe can help you breathe more deeply.
Breathing From the Top Down
When it comes to diaphragmatic breathing techniques, it is breathing from the 'bottom-up'. Some teachers give visualizations to "fill" the lungs like one was pouring water into a vessel, from the bottom to the top. Of course, lungs are not like glasses and air is not water. So in essence we are using these as ways to control the body.
One thing you may notice is that when you breathe from the bottom up, as with the pear-cone wave, there may be slight pauses in the breath which can be challenging to smooth out.
Another way of approaching breath is to inhale from the top to the bottom. This breath is energizing - it highlights the upper lungs which is enervated with sympathetic nerves. It can also help you to fill the lungs more completely, and works the spine continuously with no gaps or breaks.
Inhale into the chest with minimal engagement of your neck muscles
Keep the lower navel firm while allowing the diaphragm to press downwards as you imagine the breath reaching to your tailbone.
These are the actions of mula bandha, a key muscular action in yoga for stability and energy control.
As the breath descends from top to bottom, you can possibly feel the movement of energy rising up the Sushumna channel in the spine.
This video is of BKS Iyengar, one of the 20th centuries most accomplished and recognized yogis. He is using ujjayi breathing (that is the sound of his breath) and most definitely breathing deeply into his diaphragm. Notice that his belly hardly expands at all.
For years I have been captivated by his performance, unable to match his lung power until I began applying some of the things that you have been learning in this article. Now I can match his breathing, which I use as evidence of these methods working for me.