Saturday, October 9, 2010


Effective meditation, not to mention day-to-day living, requires, among other things, a form of breathing which is both deep and even.

More specifically, proper breathing - whether for the 'purpose' of meditation or otherwise - involves using your diaphragm ... correctly. Indeed, the principal muscle of diaphragmatic (or deep abdominal) breathing is ... yes, you guessed it, the diaphragm.

The floor of the chest cavity which contains the lungs is made up of the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a great, strong dome of flattish muscle located in the lower rib cage ... that is, at the base of the lungs, or, more exactly, at the bottom of the chest between the lungs and the stomach. The diaphragm separates the chest (or thoracic cavity) and the abdominal cavities. The former contains the heart and lungs; the latter, the digestive, reproductive and excretory organs.
The diaphragm, which is located  approximately at mid-chest (at least in its relaxed dome-shaped state), works like a pump. It has the capacity to move upwards and downwards ... and inwards and outwards ... thereby changing the volume of both the chest cavity and its passive occupants (the lungs). When you breathe with your diaphragm, air is drawn into the lower lung spaces.

Sadly, most people hardly use their diaphragm when breathing. They are shallow breathers. They utilise only a small part of their lung capacity. We all need to learn how to expand the diaphragm and so exercise---yes, exercise---the abdomen. 
Now, this is a bit complicated. There is 'low breathing,' where the lower diaphragm is expanded by using the abdominal muscles [more fully described below], 'middle breathing,' in which the ribs are fully expanded, and 'high breathing' in which the upper lobes of the lungs are filled with air such that you feel the act of breathing even under your collarbones. The 'best' form of breathing encompasses all three of these, but for the moment I wish to focus primarily on the first mentioned kind. In time you can work on developing and improving the other two.
Now, the diaphragm is the principal muscle used for exhaling. It rises as you exhale ... making the chest cavity shorter again.
Use your abdominal muscles in this way to control your breathing. During inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and flattens. That causes your upper abdominal muscles to relax and extend slightly. Your abdomen thus moves forward, and the lower 'floating' ribs flare or expand slightly outward to the side. However, the diaphragm itself is a muscle you can't see, so you have to focus on the muscles in front.
One way of doing that is as follows ... If somebody is about to hit you in the abdomen, what do you ordinarily do?
You tense your abdominal muscles ... that's what.
Do so now ... slightly tense your abdominal muscles.
At the same time, push your abdomen outwards as you breathe in.
The diaphragm descends ('lowers') and the ribs move upwards and outwards ... making the chest cavity longer and larger. Indeed, as the lungs expand, a partial vacuum is created, drawing air into the chest cavity.
The diaphragm and the intercostal muscles ...the muscles between the ribs ... should be used to take the in-breath to the middle and lower parts of the lungs.
When we exhale, the diaphragm - in an upward movement - relaxes and returns to its "normal" dome-shaped position. What happens here is the upper abdominal muscles contract, and air (in the form of carbon dioxide) is expelled - in fact, forced out - from the lungs.
Another thing. Most people are 'chest breathers.' In other words, they use only the top portion of their lungs. They don't fill up the bottom part. Chest breathing is a very 'shallow' and ordinarily haphazard and non-rhythmic form of breathing, with almost all the outward movement being confined to the upper chest. One of the results of chest breathing is that the lungs are never filled completely, so the body rarely, if ever, receives sufficient oxygen. That is not good.

Mouth breathers are invariably chest breathers, but chest breathers aren't confined to mouth breathers. When you breathe with your chest, the neck, shoulders and upper rib muscles are all 'engaged' as your chest 'elevates' toward your chin when breathing inwards. The result? Well, the result can be chronic neck and shoulder tension - and even pain. Worse, over time there can be postural changes, including a forward shift in the head and a rounding of the shoulders. More bad stuff.
When we breath, we should fill our entire lungs with air. It helps if you breathe through the nose - sorry, mouth breathers - making the out-breath longer than the in-breath. This will also assist with your posture. It also relaxes both the body and the mind. In addition, the regular up-and-down movement of the diaphragm massages the abdominal organs.
If we breathe correctly, we will use the bottom of our lungs as well as the top ... the same way we automatically breathe whilst asleep.
Be mindful, that is, ever alert and aware, of your breathing at all times. Notice, without judging, whether it is fast or slow, deep or shallow.
You will be amazed at the insight you can gain from just observing your breathing. Not only that, more fulsome breathing guarantees you a wholesome supply of oxygen to your system. That alone will improve your overall health, and will also quicken your perceptiveness and degree of awareness, focus and attention. All of those things are essential in mindfulness---and in everyday living.

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