As Andrew Weil MD says, in ancient China there were two symbols conjoined to indicate the word “breath”. So, presumably, to an ancient Chinese person if they were told to take a breath, or take a deep breath, they’d first exhale and relax, the let the air come easily and effortlessly with the inhale, no effort attached. There are more and stronger muscles to facilitate an exhalation than an inhale. It is obviously what Nature intended.
I surmise that the same would have been true for ancient Vedic India, and perhaps other ancient cultures, like Egypt and Israel, But I don’t know this. I would be interested in finding out about this if anybody knows.
But what do we modern westerners do? We think of inhaling with effort, as in “take a deep breath” we tense the torso and belly and chest and try to force air in the lungs. This is deeply engrained into the western psyche. Even if we just THINK of breathing there is stress and effort attached, due partly to this factor.
In my case, as with many other people, my pediatrician at my birth was rushed and did not wait even a minute to cut the cord and spank me hanging by the heels. What a way to take a first breath! Is that stress free! And because he did not first give me time to clear or cough out the lungs of amniotic fluid, I had “water in my lungs” and had to come back soon to the hospital with a serious lung condition not long after birth: so my mother told me. This also reinforced a subconscious belief that “I don’t even have time to take one relaxed breath. Maybe I will keep somebody waiting and that is not allowed.” I find it remarkable sometimes what I find inside myself using a little introspection. This is one thing I found!
This “psychological flaw”, I believe, has been poisoning any attempts I’ve been making to somehow calm the breathing as in meditation breathing techniques (speaking from experience) or even Buteyko practices. There is a deep feeling of stress and lack of permission and being rushed, just thinking about or working consciously with the breathing. This may not be true for everyone but it is certainly true for me.
And to compound the problem, we have western culture where we are taught to take a breath by force, tensing, without first exhaling. This is rushing, it is not taking time to be natural. This belief has perpetuated my stressful psychological attitude about breathing, all these years (I am now 69). Inhaling by force while tensing the torso (to “make an honest effort”, you see) is like blowing up a balloon while clenching the fist around the balloon at the same time. So I have spent much of my life subconsciously associating breathing with effort and strain. To breathe deeply MORE effort is needed. That is a recipe for hyperventilation. Because of this, even the exhale is not as easy as it should be. Do I really relax and let the elastic recoil of the lungs do the work? Or am I too tense? Usually I am too tense.
SO I explain like that (to clients and at workshops) with some variations and examples and have them do it both ways.
Then I tell them I have been doing a slow inhale breath each morning. And they can do this too. I first consider that as I exhale first, fully but relaxed. Then I consider and visualize (before I begin the breath) how the body can be like a flower softly and slowly opening with the incoming air on an inhalation. It is all about learning to relax while inhaling, with minimal effort, VERY slowly, as slowly as you can. There must be some effort and will to facilitate this. I inhale VERY slowly allowing the body to receive and open. Yes it is a big breath and maybe not appropriate in Buteyko thinking, but the purpose is to teach how the inhale can be and should be and feels better to be — letting the body softly open to receive the expansion of the lungs. It is like reprogramming that wrong belief that we must always inhale with tension, effort and a feeling of being rushed, as if the Universe is never going to even give us time to take ONE unhurried calm breath. Can you imagine living life like that? Most of us westerners do in fact live life like that! If we can learn to let the body open on the inhale, and it is remembered by the body cells, it takes away SO much of the stress and effort and tendency to hyperventilate that any small short term sacrifice due to one big breath in the morning is very minor.
I wake up in the morning and count to about 20 while inhaling slowly. Then I hold for a count of 20, then I relax for a count of 20. Then, I pause and catch my breath and do it again, but the second time I count 50-50-50 more or less. The third breath is often over 100 like 110-110-110. It feels so nice, and effortless (relatively). My ambition is to do 7 breaths each over 100 count. I think I am a long way from that yet.
I’ve just started teaching this and so far have had two feedbacks both very positive. They like it, they want to do more than one breath, and one of them said she wants to do it many times during the day. I was hoping that would be the case, and even expected that it should be so.
It seems to me this little technique, simple and quick as it is, can have a catalytic effect on some people, to reduce hyperventilation, take stress out of breathing, and raise CP effortlessly. It is too soon for me to tell, but in a year or two of teaching this, I’ll have a better idea.
Steven Hamlin, BA, LMT Guild Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner
Steven is a resourceful, veteran bodyworker with 20 years’ intensive training, mentoring and education inFeldenkrais® and Ortho-Bionomy®. With a rich background in yoga, meditation and teaching, he uses movement arts, osteopathic protocols, acupressure and tissue work in his private sessions.
With many years’ experience working in physical therapy settings – Center for Physical Health, Access Physical Health and Naomi Heller Physical Therapy – he’s successfully worked with back, neck, shoulder pain, RSI-carpal tunnel, ankle pain, plantar fasciitis, thoracic outlet syndrome, balance issues, post surgical recovery of function, pain reduction, knee pain, mal-alignment and much more.