A Misconception About the Diaphragm

I recently had an unusual exchange with a couple of singers about how the diaphragm functions in relation to singing and the human voice. For whatever reason, these people believed that the diaphragm is basically a passive organ, moved down and up mainly by the movement of the lungs and the viscera. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception among many people, and has ramifications in their lives far beyond singing and speaking. Here is a short, highly simplified description of how the diaphragm actually works.

Internal Organs

Lungs Sitting on Diaphragm

The lungs sit on top of the diaphragm, a very powerful muscle which is fixed to the lower ribs, sternum, lumbar vertebrae (via the crura), and so on. When we inhale, and if our diaphragm is in good health, it normally contracts, and the dome of the diaphragm flattens downward (other movements by the diaphragm in other directions take place as well) against the viscera, which allows the lungs to expand to receive fresh air. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes upward (returns as a result of its elasticity) against the lungs, helping to expel used air from them. In other words, when we are breathing well the dome of the diaphragm first contracts downward during inhalation to allow the lungs to expand more fully, and then relaxes upward pushing on the bottom of the lungs and, along with the secondary breathing muscles, helps the lungs empty (except for the residual volume that is necessary to keep them from collapsing). The changing thoracic pressures, greatly influenced by the movements of the diaphragm, help regulate the movement of air in and out of our lungs and, of course, through our vocal cords.

A Tight Belly Impedes Diaphragmatic Movement

If you have a tight belly, one that does not easily and freely expand outward as you inhale, the diaphragm has a more difficult time moving downward because it is being resisted by the contracted abdominal muscles and the viscera (everything touches something else and a movement or constriction in one pace influences everything around it). When you relax your belly and allow it to expand as you inhale, your viscera drop slightly down and out and the diaphragm can more easily contract downward. Then, when exhalation takes place, the diaphragm begins its upward movement of relaxation and elasticity aided by the natural movement of the belly as it returns toward the spine. All of this is called natural diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing.

If your diaphragm is weak, however, or if your abdominal muscles are contracted or held very tightly, you will have less diaphragmatic contraction and movement downward during inhalation and thus less diaphragmatic elasticity and movement upward during exhalation. As an experiment to see how your belly influences your breathing, suck in your belly now and try to inhale deeply (be careful not to do it too strenuously as you can hurt yourself). Then relax your belly, put both hands on it, and allow it to expand as you inhale. Notice any differences. The fact is, with your belly held very tightly there will be much less downward movement of your diaphragm on inhalation since there is so much resistance from the abdominal muscles and viscera to this movement. And, if there is little downward movement on inhalation, there will be little upward movement on exhalation. So you will feel a lot of tension and effort in your breathing, which will often become less efficient, shallower, and faster, driven mainly by the secondary breathing muscles of the chest.

Unnecessary Tension Constricts the Diaphragm

Unfortunately, as a result of more and more perceived mental and emotional stress in our lives, as well as the common image of the flat, hard belly that is so prevalent today, people carry a lot of unnecessary tension in their bellies, and, over time, this, combined with unnecessary tensions in the throat, chest, and back and many other factors that I discuss in┬ámy books and audio program, constricts the diaphragm and makes it difficult for it to move (a lot of this tension is created, of course, by the over stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system–our “flight or fight or freeze” response). Over time, this diminished movement of the diaphragm becomes the norm for many people and the diaphragm in fact weakens and loses its ability to move through its entire potential range of motion (some five to six inches in the vertical direction), which means it often becomes incapable of moving fully downward or fully upward during the in-breath and the out-breath. When the diaphragm is unable to move freely and easily through its entire potential range of vertical motion, both our inhalation and our exhalation suffer and so does our voice, and eventually our health and well-being suffer as well. (Of course, it is not just the movements up and down that become restricted, it is also the horizontal and other movements and the shape and size of the diaphragm that is adversely affected.)

An Interesting Experiment

If one knows how to “listen,” one can hear this diminished functioning in ourselves and others while speaking, singing, chanting, and so on. For the quality and power of the sounds we make depend in large part on the quality and power of our breath. It is an interesting experiment to sense your breathing when you are very emotional and simultaneously listen to the quality, pitch, and so on of the words you speak. Also, notice the tensions in your throat. We often tense our throat muscles to speak when our breathing has become inefficient or disharmonized and we have insufficient breath. We end up with excessive tension in our vocal cords as we try to express ourselves.

Of course, there are many other factors that influence our breathing as well, many of which I discuss in my books and audio program. The important point here is that the diaphragm is not passive; keeping it strong, in good shape, and well-harmonized with the other breathing muscles is paramount to all aspects of your life, including your ability to fully express yourself speaking or singing.

Copyright 2004-15, by Dennis Lewis

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