Perform at least 3 minutes of controlled diaphragmatic breathing each day. You should be able to take 5 diaphragmatic breaths with minimal movement of the chest and shoulders before progressing.
The diaphragm is an abdominal muscle that is responsible for breathing and core stability. If the diaphragm is underactive, the other abdominal muscles are harder to activate, and the body recruits the muscles of the neck and shoulders to draw breath. This can lead to stiffness and tension throughout the back.
By consciously engaging the diaphragm to breathe, we facilitate activation of the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles and reduce tension on the neck and shoulders. Activation of the abdominal and pelvic muscles is an essential part of improving strength throughout the lower limbs.
Additionally, a focus on breathing with the diaphragm can help to quiet the mind and prepare the body for sleep.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor. Place a hand on your belly button, and a hand on your chest. Take a slow, deep breath through your nose so that the hand over the belly button rises while the hand on the chest stays flat. Imagine expanding the bottom of your rib cage and filling it with air. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that contracts downwards as you inhale, displacing the abdominal organs outwards, which is why your belly rises.
• Inhaling through the mouth. The diaphragm can still be activated when breathing through the mouth, but breathing through the nose will make it easier.
• Lifting the chest and shoulders. If the hand on the chest is rising before the hand on the belly, it’s likely that you’re using the muscles of the upper trunk to draw air in. These muscles are normally only used to draw breath in times of exertion when the body’s oxygen demand is high. If you’re finding it difficult to make the belly rise independently, try placing a small weight such as a cell phone or tissue box on the belly button and make it rise by drawing breath with the diaphragm. The weight will provide sensory feedback and give you something to push against.
• Arching the lower back to lift the belly. Initially, when the diaphragm is hard to control, you may find yourself trying to compensate by arching the lower back to lift the belly. To counter this, make sure the lower back stays close to the surface you’re lying on and doesn’t move excessively as you breathe.
You should be able to take five diaphragmatic breaths while lying on your back, with minimal movement of the chest and shoulders before progressing to the next exercise.