Dancer Wellness: Free Your Breath and Free Your Pain with Diaphragm Release


Have you ever considered that all that “puling up” and “holding your center” could be causing you neck, back, chest, jaw or rib pain? Do you run out of breath easily? This may be caused by tension in your diaphragm.


Breathing is a sequential dance between the muscles of the belly, ribs, and diaphragm. 

The respiratory diaphragm is a dome-like muscle that divides the thoracic cavity (lungs and heart) from the abdominal cavity (liver, pancreas, stomach, intestines, etc). It has attachment points to the lower ribs, bottom of the breastbone, and lumbar spine (low back), and is connected via connective tissue (fascia) to the abdominals, all of the organs, the psoas (a deep-lying hip flexor), all of the spine, and deep neck musculature. When we inhale, the dome flattens horizontally, the abdominal contents – your guts – lower, each rib moves, and air is vacuumed into the lungs because of the change of pressure in your thorax (ribcage). A normal exhale is the release of the diaphragm and ribs, and a gentle compression of the abs. All of this happens without our thinking about it.


Dancing asks us to actively engage our midsection musculature and maintain excessive tension to “hold the core” which many times is taught as tucking the butt under, sucking in the belly, and holding down the ribs and shoulder blades.


Abdominal tension created by “pulling up” compresses the abdominal contents against the diaphragm, which restricts its ability to flatten and create an inhalation. As a result, muscles in the neck and chest lift the ribs to expand the upper part of the rib cage to make room for more air. The lower ribs, which should flare during the inhale, are restricted by the overuse of the abs, and find themselves in a tug of war. The muscles of the mid-back and upper back often also shorten, to create room in the chest for the essential oxygen. Movement of the arms exacerbates the tension load in the neck, chest, and back muscles, which in this scenario are also being used to assist in breathing. Tension is also created because the oxygen supply that enters the blood stream through the lungs is in short supply for those hard working muscles.


So if you’ve ever left class with a raging headache, muscle cramps, a tweaked chest or shoulder, jaw pain, back pain, dizziness or digestive issues – one thing to consider is how you were or were not using your breath. If you can’t hold your breath for more than 40 seconds, it’s likely your diaphragm needs release.

Fortunately, being forewarned is being forearmed! You can use stretching and manual release methods to open up the musculature of the ribs, abdominals, and diaphragm on your own.


For example:
1. Use a large exercise ball: (A foam roller can be used if it is not too firm. You can accomplish this by wrapping it with a cushy exercise mat or towel. Be gentle!) Lie on your back over the ball or roller. Breathe into your ribs and allow them and your abs to expand. Use the arc created to lengthen the front of the body. Then lie over the ball or roller on your belly and then ribs. Allow your spine to lengthen and sense your breath moving into your back. You can also lie on your sides and allow the gentle compression and your breath to create a wonderful massage.
2. Stretch your side waist by lifting your arm over head and moving your rib cage in a lateral C-curve to lengthen your side waist. Do both sides.
3. Yoga provides not only essential stretches for the waist and ribs (cobra, spinal twists, back bends, child’s pose etc) but encourages that each movement is timed with the breath. This is a great way to syncopate your movement with your breath and realign with this natural rhythm.
4. Self-massage:
a. Firmly place your left hand under the center of your ribcage between your ribs and navel, with your right hand on top of it. With your hands flat, pull your elbows close to your body so you are hugging your midsection.
b. Inhale deeply and push your body toward your hands, while your hands push against your body. Hold your breath and push hard for a few seconds.
c. Release your breath naturally as you relax your hands. Repeat a and b two more times.
d. Inhale as you reach your right hand across you and around the left side of your waist with the fingers spread. Exhale as you pull your fingers across to your navel with pressure against your abs. Repeat several times on this side.
e. Repeat d several more times with your left hand crossing your right side.
f. Gently massage points along the length of your breastbone (sternum)


If you feel like you need some more help, bodywork can certainly get into these primary and secondary areas of concern and provide relief for tangled up musculature. (write me at and I’ll help you!)

Paying attention to how much you hold your core, time your breathing, and provide yourself relief with self-care can benefit you tremendously. Breath connects you to your inner environment and a sense of grounding, provides oxygen for your muscles and brain, and links you with timing and phrasing which are key to musicality and artistic expression.

Hope this helps and happy dancing!!!


Energy Medicine, by Donna Eden; Anatomy Trains by Thomas W. Meyers; Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain