Qigong Breathing – Moving the Diaphragm Improves Health

Respiratory system
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Qigong and Yoga breathing utilizes the diaphragm to move the air in and out of the lungs. By using this muscle, both practices help practitioners improve their health, live with less stress and have move energy.  However it is important to not use a forced breathing practice.  Diaphragmatic breathing has to develop naturally and gradually.  See the last reference below for a discussion of forced vs. natural diaphragmatic breathing.

I was teaching the mechanics and physiology of respiration to high school students in 10th grade yesterday and was explaining diaphragmatic breathing.  They seemed surprised to know that breathing actually happens because of the movement up and down of the diaphragm muscle that is located in the center of the torso below the lungs.  This fact may be news to most people, because most of us have unlearned the ability to breathe well, and as we were designed to breathe when we are born.

If you look at a baby breathing, you will notice that most of the movement of the torso on the inbreath causes the belly to move outward.  The diaphragm (shown in the figure above) is the upper boundary of the belly, and when it expands downward in abdominal breathing, the belly and the sides of the torso will naturally expand.  Sometime during the learning and maturation process, children unconsciously change their breathing patterns so that the diaphragm works less and the muscles of the rib cage in the chest work more.

Benefits of Diaphragm Breathing Versus Chest Breathing

Qigong and Tai chi practices include diaphragmatic breathing practices that help improve the efficiency of breathing and foster healing.  How does this practice help healing?  First, if you are breathing deeply in a relaxed manner you are improving the efficiency of air exchange in the lungs.  Your body gets more oxygen to its blood and it can get rid of the carbon dioxide wastes produced by your body’s metabolism.  Secondly, when the diaphragm moves up and down it gives an internal massage of the organs of the body, which helps improve circulatory movement within the internal organs and the lymphatic system.  It also improves movement of food and wastes through the intestines. The pericardium and the liver are attached to the diaphragm as well.  Thus, each time you breath in and out with the diaphragm you are  massaging the heart and liver.  Lastly, when you are breathing abdominally, your body’s nervous system is in the parasympathetic mode, a state in which digestion and repair of the body can occur.  People who have the ability to sustain diaphragmatic breathing thus keep the body’s nervous system in the healing mode and are able to prevent damage caused by stress.

Chest breathing also can lead to a deregulation of the normal control of breathing by the brain stem, causing a cascade of nervous system reactions in the body that are associated with stress.  For more information on the physiological effects of chest breathing, see the reference cited below.

With chest breathing, you are lacking all of  these numerous benefits listed above for maintaining your health and energy.  One uses a much smaller percentage of the lung’s capacity to bring in fresh oxygen and expels less of the carbon dioxide wastes.  And, if you have a lung disease, it is extremely helpful to learn how to use more of your lung capacity by using your diaphragm.

Getting the Diaphragm to Move

The diaphragm is located along the bottom of the rib cage, from the sternum and outward to both sides of the torso.   You can monitor the movement of this muscle by placing the fingers of each hand (palm up) at the edge of the ribcage on each side of the sternum.  Move the fingers up and under the ribcage so that you can feel it move as you breath in and out naturally.  You will probably become aware of some tightness or slight discomfort as you breath in.  You may also notice that the pain or discomfort is more on one side or the other.

As you breath in, you the diaphragm moves down, and as you exhale, it moves up.  You may notice that it moves hardly at all.  But the objective is to notice the state of its movement and monitor its changes as you breath in and out naturally.  Learn how to relax this muscle fully and allow the fingers to penetrate more deeply as it relaxes.  Make the sound “Ahhhh” when you breathe out if it helps. As you relax, this muscle will relax as well, releasing more spent air out of the lungs.

Keep your attention on the diaphragm during this exercise.  If your breathing stops due to mental distractions, focus on restoring the exhalation and inhalation cycles in an even and continuous manner.  Do not force either half of the breathing cycle. In fact, it is better if you let go and breathe less deeply to help foster the needed relaxation that will improve the expelling of carbon dioxide from the lungs.  Remember, you have to empty the lungs in order to fill them more fully! A rule to also use is to never go over 70% of your capacity during any qigong exercise. With consistent practice and mindfulness during practice, your 70% will increase over time gradually.

Practice this qigong breathing exercise for 5-10 minutes a day for a couple of weeks or more to help improve the relaxation and movement of the diaphragm.  You will definitely begin to notice an improvement in both your breathing capacity and the facility of your breath within the first week.  Then go on to practicing other breathing exercises that have been mentioned previously, such as following the breath.  To your health!


Good Breathing, Bad Breathing, by
Peter M. Litchfield, Ph.D.  2006

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The Tao Bums. 2012. The Dangers of Forced and Unnatural Breathing Practices. 23 January 2012.


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Practitioner of Qigong and T'ai Chi in the water tradition of Lao Tse since 1995. See my blog entry on asthma to understand my healing journey.
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2 Responses to Qigong Breathing – Moving the Diaphragm Improves Health

  1. Bob Ellal says:

    Qigong—Chinese mind/body exercises–helped me immensely in my successful battles with four bouts of supposedly terminal bone lymphoma cancer in the early nineties. I practiced standing post meditation, one of the most powerful forms of qigong–as an adjunct to chemotherapy, which is how it should always be used.

    Qigong kept me strong in many ways: it calmed my mind–taking me out of the fight-or-flight syndrome, which pumps adrenal hormones into the system that could interfere with healing. The deep abdominal breathing pumped my lymphatic system—a vital component of the immune system. In addition, qigong energized and strengthened my body at a time when I couldn’t do Western exercise such as weight-lifting or jogging–the chemo was too fatiguing. And it empowered my will and reinforced it every day with regular practice. In other words, I contributed to the healing process, instead of just depending solely on the chemo and the doctors. Clear 14 years and still practicing!

    Bob Ellal
    Author, ‘Confronting Cancer with the Qigong Edge’

  2. mary adams says:

    Why, as infants, do we use our diaphragm for breathing then as we mature we do not?

    Qigonghealingarts: Good question, Mary. We all use our diaphragm, whether we consciously realize it or not. The problem is that we use the diaphragm poorly and use it for only a percentage of breathing, depending on the person.

    I cannot say for certain why the change to chest breathing occurs, but I suspect that we begin using the chest muscles as we learn to walk and this is latter reinforced by the heavy emphasis of teaching the children verbal skills, which changes the focus of our energy of intent to the upper part of the body versus the middle part. Part of the changes may also be due to the conscious and subconscious emulation of their parents and older siblings.

    The following reference is interesting in how it discusses the mechanics of upper thoracic breathing and the observed differences between Western culture as opposed to Oriental culture, where they have a greater awareness of the whole body and its functioning as it relates to their vital energy: http://www.bioline.org.br/request?os04023

    I have heard several qigong and Tai chi teachers say frequently that Western culture is entirely too focused in the head, and this aspect of our culture has energetic consequences as well as physical functioning consequences. As an academic myself who has had qigong and Tai chi training, I can attest to the benefits of training our energetic intent to rest in area of the lower dantien so that we can live our lives in better balance with our bodies.

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