The diaphragm is one of the most unique muscles in the body and serves as the crucial actor in one of its most essential functions: breathing. What we might not always realize is that the diaphragm holds great significance beyond its essential role in facilitating the rhythm of breath.
Unique in both form and function, the diaphragm creates an umbrella-like dome that sits over the abdominal organs, attaching to the inner surface of the ribs and lumbar vertebrae. When we inhale, the diaphragm flattens downward, putting gentle pressure on the belly’s organs, creating a vacuum that pulls air into the lungs. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, releasing pressure on the organs, allowing the lungs to deflate.
Without the diaphragm’s presence, the lungs would remain lifeless pieces of tissue. But with the magic of this special muscle’s movements, the lungs come to life and fill with oxygen for the body to use.
On a physical level, this the diaphragm critically assists the body in the inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of carbon dioxide. On an energetic level, this process has deeper meaning.
The act of breathing is evidence of our interdependent relationship with the world beyond ourselves. While breathing, we receive the oxygen from our environment and, in turn, offer carbon dioxide back out where it is absorbed by plants, trees and other microorganisms. From this perspective, breathing is more than just an act of individual survival; it is part of the ongoing processes of co-creation and communion with the world we inhabit.
The yogi sees this process as an ongoing exchange of prana—the universal life force which flows through us all, driving our every action and sustaining life on our planet. This continuous exchange begins with our very first breath of life and ends with the last. From the moment we are born to the moment we transition, our breath is vital in making the world go ‘round.
For this remarkable act of interconnectedness, we have the diaphragm to thank. The unique muscle is located within the realm of the fourth chakra—anahata, the heart chakra. This is the place in the body where primal and self-centric instincts begin to drive us toward connections with others, taking us beyond our physical, emotional and mental bodies. (Though the first and second chakras correlate to our physical/sexual interactions, the driving force behind these desires—procreation and selfish pleasure—are primal in nature.)
Additionally, the fourth chakra and diaphragm reside at the half-way point between the crown chakra and the first chakra regions. The inferior (lower) bodily functions are innately primitive, and the superior (upper) functions are esoteric and intellectual. The region of the fourth chakra then, becomes the point of balance between what exists within (for us personally) and our outward environment.
Our ability to interact with the world and the quality of those interactions are evident in the way we breathe. The diaphragm, incredibly powerful yet sensitive enough to detect the subtleties of life, bears the imprints of any emotional, energetic and physical disturbances or highlights we experience. For instance, when we are tense, we tend to shorten or quicken the breath, but when we are relaxed or at ease, our breath is slower and more rhythmic. The breath can be considered a storehouse of memories, showcasing our interactions and personal habits in our breathing patterns.
Consider observing your own breathing throughout the day and notice how the environment around you affects it, with special attention to the movement of your diaphragm. If you are in a stressful meeting, is the pace of your breath affected? When you see a familiar face, do you hear yourself take a sigh of relief? Try observing for a few days or a week and see what you discover.