Learning to Feel And Control The Respiratory Diaphragm

Anatomy for Yoga Teachers
by: Neil Keleher
Published: 2011 04 02
Updated: 2019 08 13

The respiratory diaphragm is an umbrella shaped muscle situated directly beneath the lungs and heart. It attaches to the lumbar spine and lower ribs and sits directly on top of the liver, stomach, spleen and kidneys.

With a very basic understanding of the diaphragm, you can learn to feel your diaphragm while doing belly breathing or while going to the bathroom

Respiratory diaphragm and transverse abdominus, anatomy for yoga teachers, neil keleher, sensational yoga poses.

Respiratory Diaphragm and Transverse Abdominus.

Respiratory Diaphragm, TOC

1. Respiratory Diaphragm Attachment Points

At the back the respiratory diaphragm can be viewed as forming a continuous sheath with the transverse abdominus muscle. It also attaches to the facia that covers the front of the psoas major muscle and quadratus lumborum muscle.

Its has fibers that attach at the back to either side of the lumbar spine to the upper two vertebrae as well as to the lowermost thoracic vertebra.

At the sides it attaches to the ends of ribs 12 and 11 and 10 and to the costal cartilage of ribs and to ribs 9, and 8 and 7.

Ribs are numbered from the top downwards. The uppermost pair of ribs are numbered 1, the lowermost pair are numbered 12.

At the front it attaches, via ligaments, to the xiphoid process and to the costal cartilage of ribs 6 and 5.

2. Forming The Slanted Base of the Ribcage

The Respiratory diaphragm forms a slanting floor for the bottom of the ribcage, so that you could think of the ribcage as a bottle-like structure that houses the lungs.

The diaphragm domes upwards into the volume of the ribcage, much like the bottoms of some types of wine bottles are domed inwards.

Viewed from the side, the line of attachment of the diaphragm to the ribcage slopes downwards from front to back.

3. How the Diaphragm Affects Lung Volume

When the respiratory diaphragm contracts, it tends to press downwards, flattening the bottom of the bottle, at the same time increasing its volume.

If the ribcage and diaphragm were an actual bottle of wine, the effect would be to increase the amount of wine this bottle could hold.

When the diaphragm relaxes and is pushed back upwards, say by the transverse abdominis, lung volume is reduced, causing air (or if you are still in the wine bottle analogy, wine) to be expelled.

4. Pressing Downwards

Because the diaphragm is positioned over the liver, stomach, spleen and kidneys, it actually pushes down on these organs when it contracts downwards. The stomach, liver and small intestines then press forwards on the front of the belly, pushing it forwards when the respiratory diaphragm is contracted downwards.

To reverse this process, the transverse abdominis, the innermost belt like layer of the abdominals, can be used to squeeze inwards on these organs. This them forces them to press upwards against the diaphragm so that the volume of the lungs is reduced. Air can then be forced out of the lungs.

5. Belly Breathing and Other Exercises for Learning to Feel your Diaphragm

A very basic breathing exercise for learning to feel and control your respiratory diaphragm can be called belly breathing (because it makes the belly expand and contract) or diaphragmatic breathing (because it uses the respiratory diaphragm) or even transverse abdominal breathing (because it uses the respiratory diaphragm) or some combination of all three of these.

Nauli kriya is another exercise that makes use of the respiratory diaphragm. (You suck it upwards so that the belly moves inwards. This is done while holding a full exhale.)

You can also develop better diaphragm awareness while on the toilet.

6. Side Effects of Using the Diaphragm

One interesting thing to note about the diaphragm is that it doesn't just sit between the organs, it is attached to them.

It is attached via connective tissue to the bottom of the heart and lungs.

It also supports, via connective tissue or direct connection, the liver, stomach, spleen and kidneys.

It is also connected via connective tissue to the psoas and quadratus lumborum.

By being able to consciously activate and relax the diaphragm (so that you can move it up and down at will) you can lift and lower your internal organs and/or help to pull (and then relax that pull) on the psoas major and the quadratus lumborum.

7. Detecting the Diaphragm

With a very basic understanding of the diaphragm, you can use that understanding to learn to feel your diaphragm while doing belly breathing or while going to the bathroom.

Look for a "pressing down" feeling while in contracts and while it pushes your belly forwards.

However, this ignores the fact that the diaphragm attaches to the lower part of the ribcage.

When the Diaphragm Presses Down It Also

When the diaphragm contracts downwards it presses down on the organs of the belly and causes the abdominal organs to press the belly forwards. However, at the same time it also pulls upwards on the ribs.

(Dropping through the atmosphere, a parachute presses down on the air it is travelling through. However, to the person it is supporting, it feels like it is pulling upwards. A kite flyer pulls down on a kite but at the same time the wind pulls the kite upwards so that the flier feels an upwards pull.)

You can learn to feel your respiratory diaphragm by feeling its upward pull on your ribs.

Where on your ribs? The outer tips of ribs 12 and 11, and from there along an upwards sweeping curve that follows your ribcage around to the front of your body and along the "costal arch" that frames your abdominal muscles.

This is a rough guide, but from there you can move your awareness around and look for "pulling" sensations that you can then recognize as the fibers of your diaphragm pulling upwards.

8. Fascicles of the Diaphragm

Just because the diaphragm has one name, the "diaphragm" or "the respiratory diaphragm" doesn't mean that it is a single muscle that can't be broken down into parts.

The individual fascicles, or muscle units, each of which attaches to individual ribs (as well as to the sides of the lumbar spine) may be independently controllable.

As you develop awareness and control of your respiratory diaphragm, what you may find is that you can activate all fascicles of the diaphragm so that you can increase your ability to breath deeper while using your diaphragm.

9. Lifting Your Kidneys

One of the ways that I learned to better control my diaphragm is via the kidneys. This was after first learning to belly breathe.

The assumption is that the diaphragm, kidneys and 12th rib are all connected. By lifting and expanding the back of your kidneys you are actually contracting the fibers of the diaphragm that support the kidneys and attach to the 12th rib.

Of course to do this it helps if you have a rough idea of where your kidneys are, particularly the top of the kidneys and the back.

10. Locating Your Kidneys

The best "general" description I can think of for the position of your kidneys is that they are in the area of your lower back, but upwards from there so that they are half in and half out of the bottom of your ribcage.

If you put your fists into your lower back and then moved them half a fist up, that would be the approximate height of your kidneys, though the right kidney is usually lower than the left (because of the liver.)

The kidneys are in front of the 12th ribs. To activate the fibers of the respiratory diaphragm that attach to these ribs, focus on lifting and/or expanding the back of your kidneys (so that your bottom ribs feel like they are expanding both backwards and upwards at the same time.... you could also try expanding them out to the side also while inhaling.) Relax this feeling when you exhale.

11. Lifting the Bottom Rim of Your Ribcage

Once you've got this feeling (and it may take some practice) you can then work at pulling up on ribs 11, 10, 9 and 8 while inhaling. Relax while exhaling.

The feeling you may get (and this is subtle) is that you are "flaring" the bottom of your ribcage when you do this action.

For myself what I find is that if I try to focus on just pushing down on the diaphragm, my inhales aren't always that deep. However, when I simultaneously focus on pulling up on these ribs (only slightly) while at the same time pushing down with the respiratory diaphragm, my inhales can be longer, as if I am activating more of the respiratory diaphragm.

A Different Feeling that Costal Breathing

Note that if you are already used to costal breathing (using the intercostals) and also if you are used to lifting your entire back ribcage using levator costalis, the feeling when activating the diaphragm in this way is quite a bit different.

When using the levator costalis the feeling is of the entire back of the ribcage lifting and expanding.
When using the intercostals the feeling is of the entire front and sides of the ribcage expanding... while inhaling.

The feeling when using just the respiratory diaphragm is more like you are pulling up on the bottom rim of the ribcage when inhaling.

When using this method, you may find that you don't have to "deliberately" exhale. You can simply relax, and either the weight of the ribs, or the elasticity of the abdominal wall and ribcage helps to reduce the volume of the lungs and cause an exhale.

12. The Transverse Abdominis

If you haven't done so already, a good compliment to feeling and controlling your diaphragm is learning to feel and control your Transverse Abdominis.