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Deconstructing the Diaphragmatic Breath

Breathing is an under-appreciated aspect of our playing, posture, and daily lives. On average, humans take approximately 20,000+ breaths a day. Given that our body is constantly adapting and breathing quality and capacity has an impact on the shape of our bodies, one can see that this action could have influences and implications on our posture.

In my opinion, breathing can be classified movement - it has a full range of motion (aka the inhale and exhale)! Like any movement, you want to be able to access a full range of motion or compensation may occur. As the body adapts to daily life, performances, and other factors of being a musician, the body and breath start to adapt.

If you start to lose full expansion of your inhale then tension, tightness, and other movement adaptations will eventually follow. This can compromise your ability to align your rib cage, take a relaxed breath, connect to your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and recovery switch), and also affect shoulder health. It will also negatively impact your practice, performance and life.

As a musician injury coach, addressing breathing mechanics has been the biggest difference maker in helping people improve their posture (alignment) and quality of movement. Many people who come to me with back pain or shoulder pain, for example, are surprised on how quickly things improve when their breathing mechanics and patterns are working FOR them and not against them.

So without further ado - let's dive in!

What is a diaphragmatic breath?

To simplify, a diaphragmatic breath is an inhale that expands in the thorax and abdomen in all directions at the same time (thank you Bill Hartman for this definition - The ribcage will have a pump handle movement and a bucket handle movement. Essentially, your ribcage will expand laterally (left and right) and out and up.

Why is the diaphragmatic breath important?

  • It can influence posture, therefore influencing movement quality

  • It influences motor learning and programming

  • It can bias the body in a “fight or flight” state, compromising your ability to down-regulate in a high-stress performance situation.

How so?

To answer this question we have to look at the nervous system’s role in breathing. The nervous system is comprised of two major subdivisions:

The central nervous system (CNS): this system is made up by the brain and spinal cord. One of the roles of the CNS is to control our involuntary function to breathe. Although we have some control over our breath, this happens automatically.

Peripheral nervous system (PNS) : a system made up of axons (also called nerves) that carry messages back and forth between the CNS and the muscles, organs, and senses of the body.

If we take a further look at the peripheral nervous system, we can divide it into two categories:

Autonomic nervous system: system responsible for control of bodily functions that are outside of voluntary control such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes.

Somatic nervous system: system associated with voluntary control of body movements via the use of skeletal muscles.

We can then divide the autonomic nervous system (ANS) into two more categories:

Parasympathetic nervous system: known for the “rest, recovery, and digestion” role. The basic goal of this system is to conserve energy to be used for later while regulating bodily functions such as digestion and urination.

Sympathetic nervous system: also known as “fight or flight” mode. This system is responsible for the involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. If we reflect on human existence, this is was a necessary evolution for the survival of our species. It would protect a hunter if they accidentally stumbled upon a nest of lions or if they took a wrong step and almost fell off a cliff.

Here is a picture that sums up the autonomic nervous system