Breathing is driven by the Autonomic Nervous System so it just happens naturally and with little effort. It is controlled by the medulla oblongata in the lower part of the brain. Its automatic action is initiated the moment blood passes through the medulla oblongata telling the brain that there is too much carbon dioxide in the body.
Remember that breathe may be influenced by emotional states and bodily movements. These are either voluntary or involuntary.
If you have participated in a Pilates or Yoga class you will have noticed that the instructor will emphasise the importance of breathing at certain times during each exercise. This is because breath facilitates movement.
Let’s first look at diaphragmatic breathing. The principle muscle involved during breathing is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped structure of muscle and tendon that sits directly under the rib cage and is considered the dividing line of the abdominal cavity and the thoracic cavity. The origins of the diaphragm are found along the lumbar vertebra in the spine and the inferior border of the ribs and sternum.
There are openings in the diaphragm to allow the oesophagus, phrenic and vagus nerves, descending aorta, and inferior vena cava to pass from the thoracic cavity into the abdominal cavity.
The heart rests on top of the diaphragm and the liver, stomach and spleen are immediately beneath its under surface. All of these organs are connected to the diaphragm by connective tissue otherwise known as fascia.
When you breathe deep, slowly and calmly, the diaphragm massages the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys so learning how to breathe correctly can actually help reduce stress.
When you breathe in the diaphragm muscle contracts and moves down to allow the lungs to inflate to pull in oxygen. The intercostal muscles, which are between each rib start to expand as your chest inflates. As you exhale, the lungs return to their original size and your ribcage returns to its resting position.
The diaphragm is one of four muscles used during exhalation. The others are the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus and lumbar multifidus. All work together like an accordion and help the body remain calm.
If however you live life in a constant state of stress, it is likely that you have adopted what we call accessory breathing. This means that your diaphragm is moving less effectively and you may be over using muscles in the neck and shoulders namely anterior cervical muscles, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid and upper trapezius.
Accessory breathing may cause tightness in your head, neck and shoulders and perhaps even headaches.