While The World Holds Its Breath

The longer I work, the more I’m convinced health all comes down to knowing how to breathe.  It may be this plague for our times is caused simply by the inability to remember to breathe in and out, gently, slowly, uniformly and often.  This plague could be and has been identified in many ways:  panic or anxiety, fibromyalgia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, repetitive motion disorders, or as John Sarno calls this condition in The Divided Mind (Harper, NY, London, Toronto, Sydney), TMS or Tension Myositis Syndrome.  To me, all are signals that something has taken one’s ability to breathe away.  One is either holding their breath, forgetting to breathe, or waiting to exhale.  Too many of us forget the simple procedure known as breathing.

If we subscribe to the concept that the world feels unsafe to most of us, you can see why we might be holding our breath.  Perhaps it’s as simple as childhood abuse issues that caused one to hold their breath and try to be invisible.  Perhaps it’s watching too much TV news and feeling unsafe in one’s neighborhood or world.  Perhaps it’s being in a relationship where one feels unheard, misunderstood, or threatened.  For whichever of many reasons (nearly as many reasons as there are people on the planet) too many of us are afraid to take a deep and cleansing in and out breath.

Recently a student in one course asked me what I thought of people who seem to be locked at the top of an inhale:  what I call an ‘inspired’ person.  His question was basically, what do we do to help them?  My answer is simple:  teach them to inhale, but also to exhale.  This led me to remember that many people are what I think of as ‘expired’ people; those who never bother to bring any air in beyond a small and essential minimum.  Again, we must teach our clients, and ourselves, to breathe!

A new client presented himself to me this week; he’s been having a series of good bodywork from a well known therapist whose work is highly respected, and rightly so.  Yet after many sessions, this man had no concept of how to breathe, and so hadn’t made much progress towards releasing or resolving the tension in his body.  In one session, I quickly saw that his inbreath reached a count of two.  As I worked I coaxed him into longer breaths, with very little success.  Finally, deciding he was an achiever, I challenged him to bring in breath to a count of five instead of two.  It worked!  Fairly quickly, he was learning to take long, nurturing inhales and exhales, which he’d never bothered to do in the past.  We made remarkable progress in one hour, predicated on his learning to breathe in and out.  First and foremost.

My brother-in-law Dr. Ralph Harvey, a family practitioner and adjunct faculty member at Michigan State University, sent me a recent message about the work he’s been doing as he experiments with alternative techniques.  I found this piece exciting:

“~Slow breathing- ~ 6 breaths/minute brings down sympathetic tone, (which allows parasympathetic tone to rise)


~slow breathing/decreased sympathetic tone is accomplished by the Vagus nerve and the signal is bi-directional. One of the outcomes is increased Heart Rate Variability ( HRV). Increase in HRV can be seen as a marker for other body changes…like overall decrease in inflammation


~ increasing HRV is associated with:

~ Improved cardiac function- marked improvement in patients with severe end stage heart disease.

~relaxed brain wave patterns… increase in 12-15 hz over the sensory motor cortex

~decrease in LDL bad cholesterol

~decrease in stress hormones, including decrease in cortisol…(which may indirectly improve diabetic control via hepatic glucose output)

~decreased release of Tumor Necrosis Factor from the spleen in inflammatory disorders ( think rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease.)”


In other words, think of nearly any condition in the body, and realize that a good breath may be the beginning of correcting the underlying cause of the problem!

I’ve just worked my way through In An Unspoken Voice by Peter Levine (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA 2010) in which he claims that much of what we see as problems in the body can nearly be traced to PTSD or posttraumatic stress syndrome.  He believes much of what’s wrong with us could be alleviated if we’d simply learn to revisit the frozen parts, slowly and with breath.  While it’s more complex than that, in general his ideas are simple, yet profound.

I’ve long tried to convince my patrons to learn to expand their breath capacity and their ability to exchange oxygen by breathing out even longer than they breathe in…so for example, if they can breathe in for a count of 8, in invite them to try to breathe out for a count of 12, which insures a cleansing of the lungs.  It works.  And slow, long breath is very possibly one of the keys to a good and long life.  So simply pointing out to our patrons, clients, patients that they don’t breathe, and challenging them to learn how to breathe, could very well put us out of business!  This is something we all should want to achieve.

How about you?  Are you inspired?  Do you refuse to exhale?  Or are you expired?  Do you refuse to inhale?  Or are you stuck somewhere in between, or inhaling only tiny blips of breath which keep you minimally alive?  Are you ready to make a change, and help those you help to help themselves?

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