Locating the Cause of Poor Breathing: Frozen Diaphragm Syndrome

by Tai Chi Master Bruce Frantzis

Magical Sunsets in Crete

Magical Sunsets in Crete by Wolfgang Staudt

The simple fact is that most people do not breathe well. There are numerous studies on the effects of poor breathing on your health.

If a person doesn’t breathe well then it contract their body and induces tension and stress…so learning to breath well is very important to solve this major health problem. But why do we breathe poorly and what is the cause?

First we must explore the basics of breathing. How does your body actually take a breathe? From your lungs? You actually don’t start your breathing from your lungs. The lungs are the sacs that fill up with air as your diaphragm is pushing in or out. It is actually your diaphragm that CAUSES the air to go in and out of your lungs.

As you probably know as people age their breathing tends to get worse. Many years of habitual shallow breathing causes the diaphragm to spasm. It’s similar to a hand that tenses and spasms. The diaphragm for most people isn’t a smooth running muscle. Instead it’s under immense tension, and very often it flutters.

When the diaphragm flutters it causes you to involuntarily hold your breath. Most of the time you don’t even know you’re doing it.

There are many other causes for holding of the breath. When we have strong emotional outbursts or tensions we can easily recognize that we hold our breath. But what is interesting is that many people hold their breath while they go about their normal activities. It’s due in part to diaphragm spasms and due also to lack of awareness on how to properly breath.

So an important component of breath training is getting your diaphragm to relax by working on it sufficiently, and by consciously making the motion of the diaphragm comfortable and smooth. This takes practice.

So the movement of the diaphragm is critical to having good general breathing, and is absolutely necessary for breathing with your lower belly in Taoist Longevity Breathing. If your diaphragm is extremely tense, your breath will not penetrate your internal organs and go all the way to the bottom of your belly, and then move on to your sides and your kidneys. It definitely won’t happen while you have involuntary spasms.

The degree to which you can release these involuntary spasms the better will be your breathing. It can become dramatically better just by working the diaphragm more and making your breath comfortable and smooth. A positive feedback loop is also created as the ability of your body to naturally relax will also be enhanced.

So to get the diaphragm involved in Longevity Breathing, put your fingers on your diaphragm–right at the bottom of your sternum and where your ribcage starts. With your fingers in place breathe in and breathe out. You might feel that there is a short, stop-start-stop-start. Just become aware of it and try to overcome it. Put your awareness in your diaphragm. Slow down your breathing and breathe in less.

You still inhale and exhale without stopping, but each time you consciously relax your diaphragm. Keep practicing until the pain or the pressure you feel from your fingers on your diaphragm begins to naturally diminish.

If you want to make this a habit then you will want to do this practice over and over again until your fingers being in your diaphragm no longer causes pain. Do it over and over again until the motion doesn’t have a start-stop quality as your diaphragm goes up and down.

Eventually the motion will become smooth and comfortable. Getting your diaphragm moving properly is one of the most important things you can do for your health and for life.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Merlin Matthews April 23, 2010 at 3:54 am

Hi, thanks for that.

Firstly, please be more specific on how we’re putting the fingers on the diaphragm, are we pushing in under the ribs, and if so (to get pain!), how far?

Breathing is super important, you can live for 2 weeks without food, 2 days without water though only 2 minutes without air.

Thanks, Merlin


Tai Chi Master Bruce Frantzis Reply:

You are pushing the fingers in below the ribs (where the diaphragm is) deep enough to where you can feel the pressure differential between the diaphragm and the skin. You could use the side of your hand, your fingers, or any other part as long as you can get in deep enough.


Gregory M Lichtenson Reply:

Very GOOD to know my friend :) > I have this problem ..but have been working on it for a few months!! it REALLy works!! I did it because My LOWER BACK and tail bone were in pain…felt like a Warm Tingling/burning Sensation!! I’m curious When breathing in thru the Nose…how long should i hold my breath..until i exhale out of my mouth..someone told me 7 seconds inhale then hold for 10 seconds…


Rob Krucek April 23, 2010 at 10:26 am

Thanks for sharing this useful information on breathing. I often watch how others breathe and notice their shallow breath. Is there a website or journal where I can get more information on the American Medical Association statistics on breathe as mention at the beginning of your blog? I am a medical social worker and would like to use the information when I teach tai chi/qigong to staff and patients. Thanks.


richard Reply:

Hi Rob,
Bruce mentioned he heard this on a PBS special (3 or 4 times) but we have been unable to find the exact source so we have removed the reference. If you google breathing research and studies there are numerous studies on the net. In terms of the AMA we were able to find studies relating to asthma and other diseases…
Website moderator
On behalf of Bruce


Merlin Matthews May 15, 2010 at 6:11 am

Looks like you need a bigger surf board :)


david August 11, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Master BK
Im beginning to learn the Hun Gar Tiger Crane form
Would You be so Kind as to give Me Your opinion on the essence of Tiger Movement ,Breathing and energy.
Thank You


Bob September 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Excellent piece – short, pithy, useful. I am convinced that, for me, there is an absolute one-to-one correlation between tension in the body and lousy feelings – depression (to which I’m unfortunately prone), anxiety (less prone but still get a fair amount of it), fear, etc. I’ve learned that if I can disconnect the tension I can disconnect some of the lousy feelings. Just now I was feeling very sluggish. I found some massive tension in my diaphragm and focused on my breath and relaxing that tension. My mood lifted very quickly. I’m definitely just a beginner at breathwork/bodywork (well, let’s say, an intermediate) but I certainly see the value. Maybe in my next lifetime I’ll get going on this stuff in my teens rather than my 40s!


digilant January 2, 2013 at 10:58 am

May I also suggest magnesium supplementation, as well as Bruce’s touch sensing? Magnesium relaxes smooth muscle, and the diaphragm is a very large smooth muscle. Most people are lacking in magnesium, especially as they grow older.
Be warned that magnesium has a laxative effect, which is why it is often used for constipation. (Milk of Magnesia, anyone?). It works because the intestines are also composed of smooth muscle.
Magnesium is usually combined with Calcium and Zinc (also lacking in modern diets), and sold as “Cal-Mag-Zinc.”


Amy Hazelrigg July 7, 2013 at 8:31 am

I don’t understand what you mean by feeling the “pressure differential between the diaphragm and the skin.” Could you please explain? And are the fingers supposed to feel this? Thanks.


jan July 13, 2013 at 1:52 am

my partner has a paralyzed diaphragm on one side …will ti chi help to to re start it told?


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