The Mystery of the Breath (for health and healing)
A few months ago my mother told me that she witnessed my father terrifying me with a vacuum cleaner when I was about two years old. When she asked what he was doing, he said he was going to make a man out of me. At seven I took the wrong street home from Sunday School arriving home on time. An hour later my paternal grandmother returned after going up the right street to meet me. She went to the cupboard, returned with a double razor strap, and beat me with it for a very long time yelling something about paying attention to instructions.
Four years later my fifth grade teacher had the class sing every morning for forty five minutes. Life was wonderful, I was receiving mostly A grades, and was even asked by my teacher to sing for the entire school!
Over the next few years as a result of accumulating demerits by not making my bed, taking out the trash, feeding the dog, or doing the dishes, I received from my father several beatings that went beyond the point where I could scream. I also experienced several random traumatic experiences involving my ability to breathe. At thirty-three, after enduring a numbing sense of loss from a devastating divorce and loss of the presence of my beautiful three-year-old son, I realized that my life felt very empty — at an all-time low. I remembered that singing used to make me feel great, but I could no longer hold or match a tone vocally and I instinctively sensed this might connect to my grief and confusion. I sought a singing teacher and found one who, as chance or destiny would have it, was receiving a form of transformational breath training. She recommended I do the same.
Now, at fifty-four, I feel much younger and my life is much different. Relationships guide my priorities. I feel worthwhile and am treating myself accordingly. Though some hearing loss challenges my patience at times, I am most often at peace — even when those near me are not.
Without becoming a yogi or a spiritual master there is a great deal that can be done very simply through balanced breathing, conscious exercise, and nutrition. Here we explore the mystery of the breath.
Breathing is the physical, mechanical act that brings air into the body. Breath is the air or life force that is taken in. We are born with the instinct to breathe, though most of us use only a fraction of our breathing strength. This natural ability may have been compromised in the womb, during birth, infancy, or later. It is further compromised by air and water pollution, devitalized and toxic foods, stress, chronic muscular tensions, toxic belief systems, and chronic fear, shame, and guilt.
How we breathe affects our health, the way we look and feel, our resistance to disease, and our life span. Few people really know how to breathe optimally and fewer yet can sustain a full-bodied breath for more than a few moments before experiencing dizziness, confusion, and spaciness. Sore, tight muscles, hyper- or sub-inhalation/ventilation, trauma re-stimulation, and toxin recirculation also result.
A normal, relaxed, fully functional, and balanced breath is like a wave. The breath wave must be able to freely transition up and down between the abdominal, mid-, and high-chest breath. To better understand this breath wave, imagine lying down at the beach, on your back, with your feet pointed toward the water. Watch the rise of the ocean out about fifty yards. This is like your breath at your belly. Watch the calm, surf less water rise and come forward where it meets the uppermost part of the shore (the back of the top of your head), then recede back towards the depths of the ocean (your belly). Think of the water as your life force. Imagine your chin as a rubber raft that is gently raised as the water approaches the uppermost part of the shore (the top of the back of your head). That’s the inhalation. For the exhalation imagine the water receding and dropping somewhat evenly overall and slightly faster in the chest area. If you’ve watched waves rush in and recede, you will know what I mean. If you’ve never been near the ocean, for twenty minutes watch the breathing pattern of a two-month-old baby in deep sleep, imagining it in slow motion. Feel your back softly flatten into the surface on which you are lying as your pelvis rocks gently forward — like a gentle sexual thrust or extension. Feel your pelvis rock backward and out of the way as your back arches slightly to express the rising belly. To allow the tip of the wave to raise the jaw and move the occiput, try the breath wave in a sitting position or with the head at a lower level than the surface on which you lie.
The breath wave may go out of balance. For instance, instead of rising and coming forward to raise the belly, chest, and chin, it may stay level or sink downward as if some one were pressing down, not allowing it to rise or fall. It may halt, then push upward again, having lost momentum and its smooth transition. We experience this as feeling breathless or stuck.
A major obstruction to a balanced breath wave is a locked-up diaphragm. I call the diaphragm the speed bump of life. This speed bump functions like a breakwater which restricts the natural ebb and flow of the breath. It may appear as a hitch or shuddering movement as the breathwave travels erratically upward or downward within a breath cycle. The degree to which the breath cannot transition is the degree to which we get stuck emotionally and mentally, feeling anxiety or fear.
We resist unwanted information and related feelings by holding or reducing our breath. So, if someone is saying something and it seems logical but you notice your breath becoming slower, more shallow, faster, or deeper, you probably have an issue, positive or negative, with the information. It will pay off to become more conscious of your breath, body sensations, and the situation.
To deny our body responses and somatic awareness is to suppress millions of years of somatic evolution and survival mechanisms. For example, the next time you feel your breath catching or find yourself suppressing it, you might think of it as a message. Notice if you are afraid, anxious, at a loss for words, or in some way disempowered. Then take one or more long, slow, deep breaths. Start in your belly and maintain a foundation there while letting the breath move up to the top of the chest. Then exhale by letting go.
Some indicators of unbalanced breathing are: tightness in the chest; chronic illness; fear or depression; frequent colds; poor attention; sighing or yawning; poor posture; can’t catch breath. An irregular breathing pattern is a tipoff. Repeating a poor breathing pattern over time will restrict or lock up the diaphragm and the musculature of the pelvis, stomach, back, chest, throat, jaw, and eyes.
If breathing more fully causes you to feel uncomfortably dizzy, spacy, or confused, it’s probably because your breathing is habitually imbalanced or too shallow. At first you may feel energy in the form of buzzing, streaming currents or breeze like sensations. I used to feel dizzy and occasionally still do, but as I am able to tolerate more breath, the dizziness subsides and I become energized and relaxed just by breathing in a balanced way for a few minutes. Many clients have reported increased relaxation, intense sexual feelings, bliss, and even mystical experiences from the breath work!
Breathing Based Stress Management.
We encounter emotional, physical, mental, and environmental stresses daily. Burnout, fatigue, guilt, lack of control and helplessness, epidemic-scale autoimmune disease, food allergies, chemical hypersensitivities, mental weakness, and confusion plague our society. Responding rather than reacting is a primary goal of body-centered stress management. How you breathe impacts all of these. Strategies for handling distress often tempt us to rely on cognitive or thinking processes. We try to substitute information for experience and intuition. If heeded, one’s body will prompt one to respect its vulnerability, listen to and trust its
messages, exercise and feed it wisely, allow it to rest and heal. This is the basis of intuition!
Shallow breathers poison themselves, says Paul Bragg. Take lots of long, slow, deep breaths and you will live longer. By not breathing sufficiently, toxins remain in our bodies, running through the entire elimination system and back into circulation again. Good breathing practice can release over 70% of your toxins! Dr. Sheldon Hendler states in his book, The Oxygen Breakthrough, that Breathing is the first place, not the last, one should look when fatigue, disease, or other evidence of disordered energy presents itself.
Correct respiration reduces negative stress, helps to balance the brain hemispheres and blood PH, strengthens the immune system, improves brain blood circulation, memory function, metabolic activity, muscle and vascular tone, lymphatic drainage, arterial blood flow, and psychological functioning. Nerve and hormone responses such as secretions of adrenaline, neuropeptides, endorphins, epinephrine, norepinephrine, insulin, glucose, and others come under more dependable control. This has enormous relevance in self-regulation and stress management. It is also the basis for deep emotional release, self discovery and _expression, internal power, and spiritual experience.
My son was ten years old and was afraid to go on the Santa Cruz roller coaster with me. He finally relented when I reminded him of all the great foods he’d learned to enjoy because he had been willing to take a little risk. I told him I would remind him to breathe. With the first run his face and knuckles turned bone white and he finished visibly shaken. On the second ride I kept up the reminders to breathe. On the third ride we rode in the front car joyfully whooping and hollering as we both held our hands triumphantly in the air during the entire ride.
Breathing into fear and resistance; breathing and consciously surrendering, letting go, and trusting; breathing during times of threatening stress – these are moments of extreme power and transformation. Control your breathing and you control your life!
How you breathe and what you eat influence your life more than almost anything else. You may have previously realized the importance of the food you eat, but remember: anything you do 7,000 to 30,000 times a day has to affect you in many, many ways!
Conscious breathing has deeply affected the core of my personal evolution, my thoughts, feelings, and actions. I’ve even learned to like myself! I have also forgiven my father. He is gone now, to his next _expression. I know that he loved me. What he did to me was done to him, and there’s no one left to blame. His ring is my most valued possession and I wear it proudly.
Michael Grant White is creator of Balanced BreathingTM, a Somatic Education System, is certified in Radiance Breath work and Rebirthing, and is a member of the steering committee of the AHP Somatics and Wellness Community.