Ode to the Diaphragm
This is how I know I’ve become a geek over the respiratory system: I got EXTREMELY excited to see this article last week in the New York Times: “Behind Each Breath, an Underappreciated Muscle.” As a person who has been appreciating the diaphragm for some time, I was delighted to see it having its day in the news:
“…deep inside all of us, a sheet of muscle does heroic work in obscurity.
In order to breathe in, we must flatten the dome-shaped diaphragm; to breath out, we let it relax again. The diaphragm delivers oxygen to us a dozen times or more each minute, a half-billion times during an 80-year life.
“We are completely dependent on the diaphragm,” said Gabrielle Kardon, a biologist at the University of Utah. “But we take it for granted every moment we’re breathing.”
FYI, a dozen times a minute works out to over 17,000 times a day that the diaphragm brings fresh oxygenation into our bodies – WOW! Most of us never even think about it, because it happens automatically. As an Alexander Technique teacher, I think about it a lot. I have many students come in feeling heavy, sluggish, and over-labored in their breathing looking for relief. Singers train for years to develop the “breath control” required to sustain the exquisite demands of their musical phrases, but then feel bound up with abdominal effort. Other people are completely amazed by the idea that when you speak, your breath is moving out in an exhalation – they’ve just simply never considered what was happening physiologically to make sound and to release stale carbon dioxide so oxygen can come into their lungs. No matter where you lie along this spectrum of self-awareness, we all benefit from some attention to breathing. My world was turned upside down several years into my Alexander Technique studies when I encountered the work of Carl Stough, a pioneer in the field of respiratory science, who developed a method called “Breathing Coordination.” Stough said “life begins with the exhale” – this simple yet profound idea that we must stop holding our breath and that that will begin to activate a more efficient, easeful and vital coordination that uses the whole of our 3-dimensional torso for respiratory wellbeing. He recognized the diaphragm in all its glory as the source of this “heroic work.” It needed to be free to rise and fall within your torso in its “excursion” so that there would be maximum turnover of air with minimal effort of muscular squeezing or holding, and the way we could influence that was by exhaling fully. I spend my days working with people to find this freedom and ease, and time and again I see calm, poised, powerful, grounded beings emerge before my eyes as their habitual effort subsides.
I am thankful to my teachers who helped me appreciate the diaphragm: voice teacher Irene Gubrud who helped me find a more natural singing approach, Alexander Technique teachers Gwen Ellison & Tom Vasiliades who helped enlighten me on the work of Carl Stough, and Jessica Wolf for her profound work “The Art of Breathing”(which rests on the pillars of the Alexander Technique and Breathing Coordination). “The Art of Breathing” has influenced me deeply as a teacher and as a person.
I recently overheard some singers talking about “breathing coaches.” I would like to put forth that you are your own best breathing coach: simply pay attention to your breathing for a few moments. Lie down on your back on the floor with your head on a couple of inches of books, and your feet flat on the floor, knees pointed up to the ceiling. Rest your hands on your torso and be aware of the subtle movement beneath them that is the motion of the breath. Notice air flowing out between your lips, and returning with ease. It’s simple: wish for breath holding to let go and voila, the breath moves. The diaphragm will continue its faithful journey to take care of the rest.