Everything we ever experience affects every cell in our body. And we feel that. We’ve all noticed the increase in the rate of our breath when we’re excited or scared, how smooth and calm we breathe when we are relaxed. Sometimes these feelings well up and move freely through us, we process them and feel cleared of their effects. At other times we hold some of the tension in our bodies and the residue of their effects remain. Our muscles, being contractile in nature, are the perfect storage place for tension. Specific muscles tend to accumulate the effects of specific feelings, emotions and attitudes. We have all recognised these patterns in ourselves as well as the people around us. Our body, our posture tell their own unique story.
One muscle that is central to our core both physically and functionally is our thoracic diaphragm. It is our primary muscle of respiration and the one skeletal muscle that works 24/7 to sustain our life. Our heart rests upon our diaphragm. In fact, via its connective tissue sack, called the pericardium, our heart is very strongly adhered to the central tendon of the diaphragm muscle. When we breathe pressures in the thoracic cavity change. These changes stimulate circulation of the blood through the heart. When we inhale venous return to the heart is enhanced. When we exhale this stimulates blood to be pumped out of the heart to the whole of our body. As our emotions directly and succinctly affect our breath, the diaphragm is a common place to hold tension – yes in yogis too! When you have a shock what happens? You take in a sharp inhalation. If you do not fully ‘come down’ from this shock or if you live in a constant state of stress, chances are that your diaphragm is storing tension. Additionally, a common compensation for other weaknesses (physical, mental or emotional) is to hold one’s breath. Unrelenting pressure on the heart from a chronically contracted diaphragm contributes to and perpetuates feelings of stress and anxiety.
Emotions are an equivalent to the fluctuations of our mind experienced and/or expressed as feelings. Emotions arise in our causal or thought bodies as one of our three bodies: physical (matter), astral (energetic) and causal (thought). These emotions become encoded in specific muscles, which then act as reservoirs for these feelings. Our diaphragm is often the site of our unconscious yearning, sadness and grief. However, the diaphragm is unique in that it can act as a catalyst to either express or suppress our emotions. When we ‘keep a lid on it’ we use tension in our diaphragm to suppress our feelings. Long-term suppression of our emotions leads to repression and eventually these feelings become unconscious. Stored emotions alter our movement patterns and deplete our vital energy. For this reason breath-work often releases pent up or unconscious emotional tension. We can also use the calming, comforting caress of our breath to disperse intense feelings and emotions and prevent them from becoming pent-up by encouraging a longer exhalation. This also explains why strong, over-ambitious pranayama advancements can cause emotional and psychological havoc.
Spiritually, a tense diaphragm represents our inability to trust in a greater Goodness and a higher Order. Healing requires that we surrender our need to control to allow the grace of Life to flow. Reflective of the physical and functional role of the diaphragm as the centre of our core, an inability to trust is also the core issue in the realm of suffering, which depends on holding on to our emotions. Much of our suffering is caused by our inability to trust. Let us remember that every breath is a blessing from the Creator, every breath a loving caress from the Divine. May we live our life conscious of this blessing, may we live our life conscious of the grace that keeps us alive. Our breath is a path to Divine Grace that we can follow and trust.
We are in Bali at the moment and I look forward to sharing more on the anatomy of emotions in our 300-hour training.