The diaphragm is a huge
muscle that rests horizontally across the base of the rib cage. Imagine
an oval shaped dinner plate or bowl, turned upside down, and inside your lower
rib cage. The diaphragm is connected in the front, along the sides of
your lower ribs, and also along the back.
is one of the most important
foundation practices for meditation.
On inhalation, the
diaphragm muscle contracts, and pulls downward, such that the ribs flare
out slightly, and pulls the bottom of the lungs downward to bring in
air. On exhalation, this releases and the air goes out. With the Yoga
practice of deep
diaphragmatic breathing, the space just below the breast bone, at the
upper abdomen pushes in slightly so as to exhale more completely.
When the diaphragm
muscle contracts, it pulls the bottom of the lungs downward, causing
them to fill, while the ribs flare outward to the sides. The chest and
abdominal muscles are not used in diaphragmatic breathing. Conscious
diaphragmatic breathing is extremely relaxing to the autonomic nervous
system and is essential preparation for deep meditation.
When the diaphragm is used
for breathing, there is no motion in the lower abdomen, and the upper chest remains
still. However, many of us lead stress-filled lives, and learn bad
breathing habits, using the abdomen and the chest. This creates further
tension that leaves us in a vicious cycle of mental chatter driving bad
breathing and physical tightness, and the bad breathing, in turn,
causing trouble to the mind. While there is no motion of the upper chest
and lower abdomen in proper diaphragmatic breathing, it may take some
time and practice to attain this motionlessness, and to have the motion
occur only in the diaphragm area itself.
(Be sure to scroll
down to see the photos.)
It is important to note
that modern medicine has finally acknowledged what the yogis have known
for thousands of years, that the breath is intimately connected to the
autonomic nervous system and the mind. Even some hospitals and medical
establishments are now willing to train people in breath regulation and
We need to consciously
practice diaphragmatic breathing. This involves a retraining program,
and while another person can teach us how to do it, it is actually a
self-training program. Nobody can do the actual awareness and training
The two keys to proper
diaphragmatic breathing are: 1) to receive proper training, and 2) to
then practice every day.
To set aside a few minutes
in the early morning and a few minutes in the evening to sit quietly and
consciously breathe diaphragmatically is a very
useful thing to do. To practice diaphragmatic breathing a few more times during the day is even more
Breathe with the
diaphragm, allowing the ribs to slightly flare out to the sides,
while the shoulders, upper chest and abdomen remain motionless.
allowing no jerkiness or irregularities to disturb the steady
but within your comfortable capacity, not straining or getting
Breathe at a
comfortable depth; deeply, not shallow, but also not
exaggerating the depth.
Allow breath to
flow continuously, with no pause allowed between the breaths,
either between inhalation and exhalation, or between exhalation
Breathe evenly, so
that exhalation and inhalation are of the same duration. Once
that is comfortable, allow the exhalation to be twice as long as
the inhalation during the practice time.
First, be aware of the motion of the diaphragm, allowing the
upper chest and the abdomen to be still. Then, after a few minutes,
bring your attention to the feel of the air moving in the nostrils
(still doing diaphragmatic breathing). It
is the cognitive sense of touch. Continue to breath smoothly and slowly,
with no jerkiness or pauses. Continue this for several more minutes.
This practice can be done as a complete breathing practice itself, or as
a part of a complete meditation practice, where the subtler meditation
follows the diaphragmatic breathing practice.
While it should be
self-evident, it needs to be pointed out that the human body is
designed to use the nose for breathing, not the mouth.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of advice circulated that one should
breathe through the mouth. Noses are meant for breathing.
breathing is the foundation training in preparation for the balancing
and vigorous breathing practices. The benefits of learning and
practicing diaphragmatic breathing are immense. Without it, it is
unlikely that one will progress in meditation as a spiritual pursuit.
of the feel of the breath at the bridge of the nostrils is a
very simple, straightforward, and highly effective
meditation practice. It is the cognitive sense of touch, as
the air is literally felt to come and go. To allow the
breath to slow on exhalation is a further refinement,
whereby exhalation is as much as twice the duration as
inhalation. For even finer experience, allow there to be no
pause between the breaths, with exhalation gently flowing
into inhalation, and inhalation gently flowing into
exhalation. This is excellent preparation for the subtler,
more advanced practices.
The greatest difficulty in
learning Diaphragmatic Breathing
The biggest single problem
in learning proper diaphragmatic breathing is in knowing where the
diaphragm is located. The pictures below should help you find the
It is common to see both
long-time students and teachers of hatha Yoga and diaphragmatic
breathing actively moving the muscles in the abdominal (belly), thoracic
(chest), and clavicle (the horizontal bones at the shoulders) regions and calling these muscle movements
diaphragmatic breathing. Belly breathing, chest breathing, and shoulder
breathing are simply not diaphragmatic breathing (people often report
shoulder or neck pains which come from using the neck and shoulder
muscles some 20,000 times a day in this way for which they are not
designed). One of the main problems with all forms of breath training,
whether for meditation or clinical reasons, seems to be a
misunderstanding of the precise location of the diaphragm. If one does
not know where to find the diaphragm, it is difficult to train oneself
or others in proper diaphragmatic breathing.
The greatest challenges in learning and teaching
diaphragmatic breathing are understanding
the location of the diaphragm, and that it is
NOT the same as the abdomen or the chest.
It would be of tremendous
benefit if the many teachers of hatha Yoga and yogic breathing, along
with respiratory therapists, occupational therapists, counselors,
psychologists, physicians, and other professionals would learn and teach
proper diaphragmatic breathing. It is of tremendous benefit not only to
seekers of deep meditation for spiritual awakening or Self-Realization,
but also those only wishing to "manage" their inner stress.
It is important to note
that speaking of diaphragmatic breathing does not negate the many
balancing and invigorating practices, which can be quite useful. Rather,
proper diaphragmatic breathing forms a foundation for those other
All pictures below are from Color Atlas of
5th edition, by Rohen, Yokichi, and Lutjen-Drecoll
Figure 1: Locating the Diaphragm:
The horizontal purple area in the
right-hand picture below (Figure 1) is the location of the diaphragm. In
the left-hand picture, it is the horizontal red area.
On inhalation the diaphragm contracts
and moves down,
as the rib cage (lower thoracic cage) expands slightly outward to the sides
(laterally). As the diaphragm moves down with
inhalation, the lower thoracic cage (chest) also moves forward,
but only very slightly.
Upper chest does not move:
With diaphragmatic breathing the upper thoracic cage (chest) does NOT move either upward or outward. With proper
diaphragmatic breathing, the upper thoracic cage (chest) remains
motionless. Some will say that the upper chest muscles move
slightly, but this is not true; such motion is an indication of
insufficient training and practice.
Lower abdomen does not move:
With diaphragmatic breathing the lower
abdomen also does NOT move outward. Many people teach that the abdomen moves
outward, but that comes from abdominal breathing, NOT from proper
On exhalation the diaphragm releases,
and the lower thoracic cage (chest) naturally comes inward from the
sides and front. Once again, there is no motion whatsoever in the upper
thoracic cage (chest) or the abdomen when one is properly doing
diaphragmatic breathing. With conscious, practiced
diaphragmatic breathing, both the upper chest and the abdomen are still.
Along with practicing steady, smooth breathing, without any pause
between breaths, there comes a natural quieting of the mind and the
Figure 2: View from Right
The diaphragm is the large,
oval-shaped object (item #20) at the bottom of this photo (Figure 2). The
view in this photo is from the right side of the body. The right side of
the rib cage, the right lung and the pleura (lining of the lung) have been
removed for this view.
Notice that the heart (#19)
is resting on top of the diaphragm. This is one of the visible ways we can
easily see how diaphragmatic breathing has such an intimate relation with
the functioning of the heart. It is also interesting to note that the
right vagus nerve is visible at the top of the photo (#13), as this nerve
is critical in physical relaxation of the autonomic nervous system (the
right vagus nerve is also visible in Figure 6).
Figure 3: View of Right Cutaway
This view (Figure 3) is of the right
side of the body, with only a portion of the right side having been
removed. Part of the muscle tissue of the diaphragm is visible at the
left side of the picture (#8) and another part of the diaphragm is visible at the
right side of the picture (#20).
Figure 4: View from Left
The diaphragm is quite visible (#23)
in this left view of the body (Figure 4). Notice the heart (#7, #10) immediately
above the diaphragm. The left lung would rest immediately on top of
the diaphragm, although it has been removed for this picture. It is
clear how the diaphragm pulling down on contraction (during proper
diaphragmatic breathing) would cause
inhalation by pulling the bottom of the lung downward. Exhalation
would come by the release of that contraction and the resulting return
of the diaphragm to a more upper, dome-like shape. The bottom of the
lung would then naturally rise, allowing exhalation.
Figure 5: Frontal View
The right side of the diaphragm (which
is the left side of the photo; #4) is shown in this picture
(Figure 5). The heart is visible positioned on top of the diaphragm (#2, #3,
#10, #12, #13).
Notice the white inverted-v shaped bone
(#5), which is the lower edge of the rib cage, defining the lower part
(costal margin) of the thorax (chest). The rest
of the rib cage has been removed for viewing, as have the lungs (it may
appear that lungs are in the photo, but that is actually the back of the
abdominal cavity). It is especially important to notice how the
diaphragm is in alignment with the bottom of the rib cage, but actually
is tucked nicely up into the chest cavity. With inhalation during
diaphragmatic breathing, the
diaphragm muscle contracts, and pulls downward, which also draws the
bottom of the lungs downward, causing them to fill with air. When the
contraction of the diaphragm is released, the diaphragm naturally
returns up into the thoracic cavity.
Figure 6: Frontal View
without Heart and Lungs
In this view (Figure 6),
the heart and lungs have been removed. The dome shape of the diaphragm
(#11, #12, #26) is quite clear in this photo. As the muscle tissue of the
diaphragm contracts during proper diaphragmatic breathing, it draws itself downward, which also pulls the
bottom of the lungs downward, causing inhalation. On relaxation of the
diaphragm there is the a natural exhalation, as the diaphragm returns
to its more dome-like shape. As mentioned above (Figure 2), the right vagus nerve is critical in physical relaxation of the autonomic
nervous system; it is also visible in the photo below (#9).
Figure 7: Upper view of Diaphragm
The diaphragm (#7 and
#8) is seen here (Figure 7) to completely fill the chest cavity from
left to right, and from front to back. The upper chest has been
removed just above the diaphragm. The view is from above, looking
downward at the diaphragm. Notice the striations in the muscle
tissue and how these would contract during diaphragmatic breathing in such a way as to expand the
chest cavity slightly, allowing the diaphragm to gently pull the
bottom of the lungs downward, bringing air inward for exhalation.
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Joy that comes from the Realization in direct experience of the
center of consciousness, the Self, the Atman or Purusha, which is
one and the same with the Absolute Reality.
This Self-Realization comes through Yoga meditation of the Yoga
Sutras, the contemplative insight of Advaita Vedanta, and the
intense devotion of Samaya Sri Vidya Tantra, the three of which
complement one another like fingers on a hand.
We employ the classical approaches of Raja, Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti
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