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The Secret of Breath

By Rose Bergen

Humans come into the world the least developed of all mammals. Because the nervous system is not sufficiently developed at birth for infants to use the upper chest muscles as breathing muscles, they cannot be chest breathers. Infants can only breathe diaphragmatically. Since everyone is born a diaphragmatic breather, we are merely reestablishing what we have already experienced— what we already “know.”

If you observe an infant breathe while lying on its back, it is easy to see that the area around the navel rises with inhalation and falls with the exhalation, but the upper chest does not rise and fall. Also note that with each inhalation not only does the area around the navel rise, but the lower ribs, which are attached to diaphragm by connective tissue (fascia), flare out slightly to accommodate the inflow of breath. With each exhalation the navel region falls, and the lower ribs retract, assisting the lungs to expel the air. To observe a baby breathe is to witness diaphragmatic breath- ing—the way the body is optimally designed to breathe.

You may also observe that a baby’s respiration rate is more rapid than yours—around 40 to 50 times per minute. And you may notice jerks and noises in an infant’s breath especially when the startle reflex gets tripped, which happens frequently in newborns.

Trying Times

Some of us remain diaphragmatic breathers throughout life. Others maintain only a shadow of proficient diaphragmatic breathing. And some become habituated chest breathers or worse. But how?

In childhood, if you go through trying times that you are too young to deal with, you may (like me) subconsciously figure out that if you breathe shallowly, you won’t feel as much. You won’t be as connected to the hurt, anger, fear, confusion, and pain. To cope with distress in childhood, some of us learn to use breath in a counterproductive way.

The diaphragm unlocks some of the unprocessed “stuff” so we can release it, heal, move on, and be free.

Those who do so use shallow chest breathing and a rigid diaphragm as a defense mechanism to shut down emotions and “separate” from circumstances that are overwhelming. They use the diaphragm as a “lid” to lock down emotions and keep them at bay. On that level, breath seeks to protect and help us cope. It keeps painful, shocking, fearful, confusing, or overwhelming conditions at bay temporarily so we can get through the crisis. And it keeps unprocessed “stuff” locked up, controlled, buried low—so we can continue to function. And many of us do so at a high level. Thus, some fall into the habit of chest breathing as a strategy to cope with ongoing distress. It works, but it’s limiting.

Brutal Crags

While restricting the breath may seem expedient and necessary to “detach from” or “control” the situation, the result is increased anxiety and tension, not to mention a host of other problems.

For those who have “frozen” the diaphragm to navigate the brutal crags, returning to diaphragmatic breathing can be a challenging ride. Unlocking the diaphragm also unlocks some of the unprocessed “stuff” so we can release it, heal, move on, and be free. Because free-flowing diaphragmatic breathing frees us from deep-seated conditioning, we also get increased confidence, competence, awareness, better results, and much more. The payoff is huge.

Even though many of us emerge from childhood with an intact diaphragmatic breath pattern, there is still much to be done to hone, refine, and develop a relationship with breath. But breath is a worthy teacher. It takes us on an exploration into our greater potential.


Breath has an energetic component that influences and is reflected in our posture.

Whatever breath pattern we developed in childhood gets habituated, conditioned, “wired” into the brain and neuromuscular system, and a breathing habit that is as individual as a fingerprint crystallizes. Then, our bodies form around our energetic breath pattern.

We get locked into a conditioned pattern of breathing, which affects us physically, emotionally, and mentally. Posture, body language, moods, thoughts, and behavior are affected by the habitual breath pattern developed in youth.

Unfortunately, when we grow up and want to respond differently, this entrenched breathing habit continues to play out, affecting thoughts, moods, behaviors, actions, relationships, and results.

Nervous System: Quick Overview

Diaphragmatic breathing initiates a higher level of cognitive functioning, which helps us break free of the wired-in programming. Below is an explanation.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) consists of two main parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which gears us up; and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which calms us down. In her article, “Tapping into the Power of the Vagus Nerve—How Breath can Change your Relationships,” B. Grace Bullock, Ph.D., explains how the opposing but complementary branches of the autonomic nervous system have a profound effect on state of mind and physiology:

The SNS is often equated to a physiological “gas pedal.” When an organism perceives threat, the SNS dumps a cascade of stress hormones into the blood stream that increase heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, contract muscle, and depress all nonessential functions like digestion.

In this state, the brain’s fear circuitry, which resides in the limbic system, is also dominant, drawing important resources away from the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain where planning, reasoning and effective communication occur. When the SNS is dominant, social behavior becomes limited to survival strategies such as aggression, avoidance or withdrawal.

The counterbalance to the SNS, the PNS, is often thought of as a physiological “brake pedal.” Under conditions of safety, the PNS initiates a relaxation response, which depresses heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, reduces muscle tone/contraction, and allows the organism to engage in reparative and restorative functions such as digestion. In this state, the brain’s fear circuitry is no longer mobilized, freeing up higher order cognitive functioning and enabling a wider and more flexible range of behavior.

Diaphragmatic breathing not only activates the vagus nerve (the tenth cranial nerve), which reduces stress, it also activates a “higher order cognitive functioning,” which opens options that impact results. When we feel threatened, survival behaviors kick in. When in survival mode, options are limited to actions that protect. We run, attack, or shut down (vacate). It is a predictable script. But we have a direct pathway to moderate activity in the amygdala—the center in the brain’s limbic system that fuels emotions. Through breath, we can disarm the brain’s fear circuitry (which triggers fight or flight and fuels aggression or avoidance) and calm the survival anxieties.

Whatever breath pattern we developed in childhood gets habituated, conditioned, “wired” into the brain and neuromuscular system, and a breathing habit that is as individual as a fingerprint crystallizes. Then, our bodies form around our energetic breath pattern.

Diaphragmatic breathing initiates a higher order of cognitive functioning, opens options, and positively influences relationships and results. And it can do so in a minute. All we need to do is partner with it.

Vagus Nerve

One reason diaphragmatic breathing is so effective is because it fires up and tones the vagus nerve, which calms us down and reduces stress. The vagus nerve is often referred to as the wandering nerve or the gut-brain super highway. Wandering from the brain to the gut, it enervates internal organs like the lungs, larynx, heart, pancreas, liver, and digestive system.

In “Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve,” Christopher Bergland explains:

Diaphragmatic breathing…is something you can do anytime and anywhere to instantly stimulate your vagus nerve and lower stress responses associated with “fight-or-flight” mechanisms. Deep breathing also improves heart rate variability (HRV), which is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals.

For millennia, yogis and sages from Eastern cultures have understood the importance of diaphragmatic breathing.

In an article explaining how to hack the vagus nerve, Bergland further explains:

During the inhalation phase of a breathing cycle, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) facilitates a brief acceleration of heart rate; during exhalation, the vagus nerve secretes a transmitter substance (ACh), which causes deceleration within beat-to-beat intervals via the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

HRV [Heart Rate Variability] is used to index the robustness of someone’s vagus nerve responses and vagal tone (VT). Higher HRV is associated with stronger vagus nerve function, lower chronic stress levels, better overall health, and improved cognition.

Breath is wired into both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. Inhalation fires the sympathetic, while exhalation fires the parasympathetic. So, it is easy to see how conscious use of breath has the power to balance the nervous system.

Diaphragmatic breathing not only balances the nervous system, it also lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and tension. Thus, it prevents fight, flight, or freeze reactions, and promotes relaxation and focus.

Fluid diaphragmatic breathing contributes to health and well-being, but chronic, shallow chest breathing diminishes it. Not only does chronic chest breathing increase tension, it restricts movement of the diaphragm, which reduces oxygenation and lymph flow. This contributes to a host of other problems—both physical and psychological.

Developing a relationship with breath is profoundly beneficial for both body and mind. It also supports and advances personal development. As you repeatedly turn attention to flow of breath, the practice of diaphragmatic refines, embeds itself in the neuromuscular system, and habituates. Then it gets easy because when you forget, your neuromuscular system remembers.


Breath is a treasure we can tap into at any moment. It is under our nose. Right here. Right now. Our constant companion. Always with us. Always available. Always willing to serve. It is like an unceasing endowment we can cash in anytime. All we need do is partner with it. Partnering with the breath does not take an act of faith. It is not a belief system. It does not take a degree. It does not take fancy or expensive equipment. It takes a bit of accurate instruction. A willingness to practice. Persistence. And that is about it.

The goal is to develop an underlying habit of smooth-flowing diaphragmatic breathing along with an ongoing subliminal awareness of breath that you can bring into conscious awareness, partner with, and use for your benefit at any time.

Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

There are so many benefits to the simple life skill practice of diaphragmatic breathing that it is worth the effort to partner with breath and become a proficient diaphragmatic breather.

Diaphragmatic breathing is scientifically proven to enhance and improve:

  • calmness
  • relaxation
  • focus
  • concentration
  • memory
  • immune function
  • lymph flow
  • oxygenation
  • asthmatic conditions
  • digestion
  • detoxification
  • healing (both physiological and psychological)
  • well-being

Diaphragmatic breathing is also proven to reduce:

  • tension
  • stress anxiety
  • panic attacks 
  • heart rate