Last week, we discussed the Psoas and how it related to voice-use so the natural next progression (for me at least) is to focus on the diaphragm.  Most of us have heard of the diaphragm if only from a well-meaning choir teacher encouraging us to breathe from it. Still, my experience is that most people are hard-pressed to tell me where it is, what it is and how it works.  So here it is:

Structure-of-the-Diaphragm

 

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Wait, a minute Gina; there are two separate muscle groups pictured here in three graphics!  You caught me, there is more than one diaphragm in the body.  Actually, there are four and they all affect breath and voice use.  If you know about the diaphragm at all you probably know about the thoracic diaphragm.  Most of us are blissfully ignorant of the other three.  The urogenital diaphragm, which not surprisingly is slightly different in female and male physiology.  The cranial and cervical diaphragms which are also deeply involved in breath and sound production. So, let’s meet our diaphragms:

A diaphragm is simply a membrane, ligament or sheet of muscles which separates one cavity from another.  The four diaphragms of the body are:

Cranial – Composed of differentiated connective tissues in the skull called the Falx Cerebrii and the Tentorum Cerebelli.  This diaphragm may be more affected by breathing patterns than it affects breathing patterns.  We do not have discrete control of this diaphragm.

Cervical – composed of the tongue, the muscles of the hyoid bone, and scalene muscles.  This diaphragm is rarely referred as such. We will deal with the tongue and scalenes separately in another post.  Adding confusion, there is a popular method of birth control of the same name.

Thoracic – The most common and well-known diaphragm, separates the thoracic cage from the abdomen with the lung above and several organs nested below it.

Urogenital –  Commonly referred to as the pelvic floor.  This diaphragm links the sacrum to the pelvis.

We will discuss the Cranial and Cervical diaphragms in a future blog post.  For our purposes today, we will delve into the thoracic and urogenital diaphragms.

The thoracic diaphragm is most actively involved in the breathing process. When you inhale the thoracic diaphragm contracts and moves downward, displacing the organs that rest just below it and expanding the available space for the lungs to expand.  It is this displacement and expansion of the chest cavity that causes the entry of air to the lower lungs.  The diaphragm is not the only method of expansion for the lungs as the ribcage also expands but it is important for the downward expansion.  The action of the thoracic diaphragm as it pushes the viscera downward toward the pelvis is often called belly breathing.   It is belly breathing that people may be referring to when they say you should breathe from your diaphragm.  This process is largely involuntary.

When the diaphragm relaxes, air is exhaled by elastic recoil of the lung and the tissues lining the thoracic cavity.  Again, the ribcage and its musculature are also involved in this process.  It is important to note that the diaphragm wants to recoil immediately and that is is possible to suspend or delay that recoil.  It is here that we have the potential for misinformation and misuse. There are methods for interfering with this process muscularly that are discussed in some few schools of thought.  I have also encountered fitness related posts suggesting that one should “train” the diaphragm as you would any muscle.  While it is possible to manipulate this muscle (in part, as again, it is largely involuntary), there is much to lose and not much to gain in terms of efficient breathing for voice use.  While it is important that we acknowledge the diaphragm, I strongly suggest you not try to interfere with its process.  There are more gains in breath control to be had in the abdominal muscles and in the responsiveness of your pelvic floor.  Importantly, the diaphragm has non-respiratory responsibilities in your body among which is keeping acid in your stomach thereby preventing acid reflux which can be extremely damaging to the voice. Misuse of the diaphragm can lead to larger problems down on the road.

While it is important that we acknowledge the diaphragm, I strongly suggest you not try to interfere with its process.  There are more gains in breath control to be had in the abdominal muscles and in the responsiveness of your pelvic floor.  Importantly, the diaphragm has non-respiratory responsibilities in your body among which is keeping acid in your stomach thereby preventing acid reflux which can be extremely damaging to the voice. Misuse of the diaphragm can lead to larger problems down on the road.

There are methods for interfering with this process muscularly that are discussed in some few schools of thought.  I have also encountered fitness related posts suggesting that one should “train” the diaphragm as you would any muscle.  While it is possible to manipulate this muscle (in part, as it is largely involuntary), there is much to lose and not much to gain in terms of efficient breathing for voice use.  While it is important that we acknowledge the diaphragm, I strongly suggest you not try to interfere with its process.  There are more gains in breath control to be had in the abdominal muscles and in the responsiveness of your pelvic floor.  Importantly, the diaphragm has non-respiratory responsibilities in your body among which is keeping acid in your stomach thereby preventing acid reflux which can be extremely damaging to the voice. Misuse of the diaphragm can lead to larger problems down on the road.

While it is important that we acknowledge the diaphragm, I strongly suggest you not try to interfere with its process.  There are more gains in breath control to be had in the abdominal muscles and in the responsiveness of your pelvic floor.  Importantly, the diaphragm has non-respiratory responsibilities in your body among which is maintaining the esophageal pressure that keeps acid in your stomach thereby preventing acid reflux.  Acid reflux can be extremely damaging to the voice. I repeat, misuse of the thoracic diaphragm can lead to larger problems down on the road.

The urogenital diaphragm provides support for the viscera that is displaced by the action of the thoracic diaphragm.  When we are in motion, such as while walking, the pelvis rocks forward and back slightly which creates dynamic support.  Remembering this dynamic motion as we stand and use our voices can provide a more active, and a more tangible vocal support than focusing on the movements of the thoracic diaphragm.  It is this low sensation that we tend to associate with feeling breath support.  The pelvic diaphragm is also responsive to the movements of the abdominal muscles in particular with the transverse abdominus which is crucial to breathing for voice use.

In summary, the thoracic diaphragm is a primary player in the action of inhalation and exhalation but we need not meddle in its processes to sing or speak well.  The urogenital or pelvic diaphragm is the supporting (literally) actor of the respiration process. While we don’t have discrete control over what it is doing, it gives us the most tangible feedback for breathing support.

Both of these muscle groups tie into the psoas and with the fascia of the body.  If you missed last week’s Friday Focus of the Psoas, go check it out.  Even if you read the blog post last week, you might go back and watch one of the two provided videos again with this new information on the diaphragms fresh in your mind.

Importantly, no one expects that you become a wiz at anatomy in order to be a talented voice user.  I am just hoping to help you map your instrument so you know what it is you are playing and what it can do.   Next week, we will discuss breathing more directly with a Friday Focus on the action of breath.

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