The thoracic diaphragm is a dome shaped internal skeletal muscle with the tendinous crest of the dome curving upward in the thoracic cavity like an open parachute. The outside bottom edge of the “dome” attaches to the xiphoid process, ribs 6-12 and the basal body of the vertebrae T12, and it has two tendinous appendages that attach to vertebrae L1 and L2. The muscle fibers of the thoracic diaphragm are longer in the back of the body than in the front.
The diaphragm can be seen as a sheet of internal skeletal muscle extending across the bottom of the thoracic cavity separating (or connecting – depending on its state of relaxation) the thoracic cavity containing the heart and lungs from the abdominal cavity containing the other organs. There are three larger openings (the esophageal hiatus, the caval opening, and the aortic hiatus) in the tendinous crest of the diaphragm as well as some smaller openings. The three larger openings allow the passage of food (via the esophagus), and blood (via the vena cava and the aorta) between the thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity.
The thoracic diaphragm is the main muscle responsible for the respiratory function of inspiration – literally breathing in and I believe, figuratively (more on that later).
In an easy natural breath, as the diaphragm contracts, it flattens downward expanding the volume of the thoracic cavity and drawing oxygen rich air into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes, it returns to the dome shape with the crest curving upward, decreasing the volume of the thoracic cavity and expelling oxygen poor air from the lungs.
A well functioning diaphragm has a “swinging” motion between the relaxed dome shape to the contracted flattened shape and back again. In this scenario, the diaphragm can be seen as a connecting structure from thoracic cavity to abdominal cavity because it swings up into the thoracic cavity and contracts down.
When the diaphragm was relaxed and functioning in this way, Marion Rosen, PT, the founder of Rosen Method, felt that the diaphragm connected us to trust, the feeling that we did not have to “do it all by ourselves” and the support of our pelvic bowl. Conversely, when the diaphragm was habitually contracted, she felt it held anxiety.
When the diaphragm is chronically held, it does not swing as much, and we experience a shallow breath that is difficult to take in. It remains more flattened downward (instead of relaxing upward), the muscle fibers thickening as they shorten, creating a dense barrier separating the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity and the support of the pelvis. This also decreases the size of the openings in the diaphragm hindering the passage of food and blood through the openings.
You may be able to understand that if your diaphragm is constricted chronically with anxiety, that that tension will limit inspiration both literally and figuratively. It takes effort to breathe when the main muscle for breathing is frozen in contraction, and it is difficult to feel inspired or creative about life when much of your mental energy is consumed with wondering what is going to happen next.
Do you ever wonder why breathing is the focus for so many mindfulness practices?
The thoracic diaphragm is enervated by both autonomic nervous system (responsible for regulating the body’s unconscious actions) and the somatic nervous system (associated with voluntary control of body movement). This means that one can “perform” one’s breath consciously (somatic nervous system), as we do when blowing out a candle, singing, meditating, doing yoga, and taking three deep breaths to calm ourselves, or the breath can breathe itself (autonomic nervous system) when we are sleeping or performing other tasks that require our attention.
If we had to watch our breath all the time, we would never have energy or time to notice anything else.
Because the thoracic diaphragm, the main muscle that powers inspiration – or breathing in, is enervated by both these branches of the nervous system, the breath receives a lot of attention from many body mind disciplines as a gateway to the unconscious.
We can make what was unconscious conscious by following the breath and seeing what arises. And when we become more conscious, we have more choice to live our lives in a more meaningful way.
What makes Rosen Method different from most other disciplines is that as Rosen Method Bodywork Practitioners, we are more interested in the “unperformed” breath, or the unconscious breath. We do not wish to bring attention to the breath or ask our clients to consciously change their breathing as a meditation or yoga student might.
We use the “unperformed” breath as a reflection of the statement made in the body about what is lived and un-lived in our clients’ lives – because as humans, we are pronounced alive with our first breath and dead with our last. When the breath moves easily throughout the body, Rosen Method Bodyworkers see this as an easiness in life.
And where we have muscular tension, the body does not reflect the movement of the breath. We tend to see this as a lack of aliveness, a stillness, or a frozen attitude.
Tension anywhere in the body shortens the muscle fibers (contraction) and tension in the upper back and chest make the thoracic cavity smaller (less voluminous), and similarly, tension in the lower back and abdomen makes abdominal cavities smaller, literally holding the breath (or aliveness) out. And because we exist in three dimensions, our breath, too, can be breathed in breadth, depth, and length.
I’ll give you a couple of examples of what I mean.
If we are held from left side to right side in our thoracic cavity, and our breath doesn’t move our rib cage in that dimension much (because the tension makes us narrower than we could be), it could be said that “we don’t allow the full breadth of ourselves”. Perhaps we have had to hold ourselves together or it wasn’t safe to be seen, so we make ourselves narrow to remain invisible.
Or if we have a shallow breath, it might be said that “we don’t allow our full depth”.
In both these examples, there could be more of us available than we currently show.
We also know that our breath is impacted by our thoughts, so the breath could be different in every moment, reflecting each thought. If while watching the “unperformed” breath, we notice that the intake and the exhale are controlled and steady – always the same, a Rosen Method Practitioner might wonder if the client has had to watch herself with every breath she takes, because she can’t allow her spontaneity for some reason (no doubt at some point it was a very good reason – the question now is wether this particular form of protection is still needed in her life).
When we watch the unperformed breath for the unconscious statement in the body and speak it aloud to our clients, we make what was unconscious conscious through the body. So, it is not just a cognitive understanding, it is an experience.
We have an opportunity drop into the bodily sensations and feelings associated with the reason we originally needed to protect ourselves with our tension and stop our aliveness.
When we feel it, we discover what is important in our lives and we let the hurt go. We deepen our capacity to be with ourselves and others. When we become more conscious we have more choice around how we want to live our lives.
We can move toward what is meaningful and bring that meaning into our lives.
Contact Meg at (805) 684-0356 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a 10 to 15 minute conversation to see if this work is right for you (Rosen Method is contraindicated for some individuals).