UNDERSTANDING BREATHING PERSPECTIVES
There is more and more evidence associating healthy pulmonary
function with long life. On his website at:
http://www.breathing.com, Michael Grant White cites the classic Framingham study which showed this. The findings of another study that I recently discovered "suggest that pulmonary function impairment may be associated with cognitive impairment in later life." This study can be found in the American Journal of Epidemiology 1996 April 15;143(8):750-6. This should not be surprising to anyone who has thought about this subject, since poor long-term pulmonary functioning would certainly influence oxygen flow to the brain and thus our cognitive abilities.
ACID REFLUX DISEASE
Watch television for even a few moments, and you will see ads for various prescription and non-prescription drugs to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of heartburn, a fast-growing medical complaint. Many people are unaware that heartburn, especially chronic heartburn, is often associated with a serious medical problem: acid reflux disease.
Those people suffering from acid reflux disease, which is related to the inappropriate relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter, will be interested to know that how we breathe may well influence this disease. A study published in The American Journal of Physiology (May 30, 1995), for example, discussed the relationship of partial expiration and hyperventilation on the gastroesophageal junction. The abstract of the study concluded by stating: "The breathing patterns of partial expiration and hyperventilation have significant influence on esophageal motor function. Abnormal breathing pattern may be involved in the pathogenesis of esophageal motor dysfunction." Another study at the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville concluded that the inhibition of the "crural diaphragm during transient lower esophageal sphincter relaxation may play an important role in facilitating flow across the gastroesophageal junction." In other words, when the crural diaphragm (the part of the diaphragm composed of muscular strands that attach to the lumbar spine) gets overly tight, there is evidence that this causes inappropriate relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter.
To understand the possible significance of these studies it is important to remember, first of all, that the esophagus traverses an opening in the diaphragm to reach the stomach, and that there is a sphincter at the entrance to the stomach that must relax for the food to enter the stomach. Relaxation of this sphincter takes place mainly when we swallow and when food is traveling through our esophagus into our stomach. Relaxation of the sphincter at other times allows flow from the stomach upward, which can cause inflammation of the esophagus and throat. If left untreated, ongoing inflammation can have many serious effects on our health, including ulceration and cancer of the esophagus. The studies seem to suggest that restrictions in our breathing or poor breathing habits may well be involved in acid reflux disease.
QUOTE OF THE MONTH
"Because interferences with breathing vary as much as individuals do, breathing work has to be geared to individual needs. There is no set routine to be followed. Whatever you do to help your breathing has to fit your very personal condition at the moment. ... An immense variety of approaches are necessary for successful breathing work."--Ways to Better Breathing, by Carola Speads.
SEVEN CATEGORIES OF BREATHING WORK--PART 1
Work with breathing has a great power to transform our health and our lives. Unfortunately, some of us undertake breathing exercises and practices that are inappropriate, even dangerous, for us. Breathing exercises come in many different varieties, all of them with different strengths and weaknesses, and some with serious "side effects." In general, when we start doing breathing exercises it is extremely important to understand whether the particular exercises we are doing are appropriate for our physical, emotional, and mental condition at that particular time.
There are, of course, many ways to categorize work with breathing. In this and the next issue of Breathing Perspectives, I will explore one of these ways, one that I have been developing for some time and that I believe is particularly helpful in understanding the wide array of breathing exercises and work being offered today.
"Who cares about categorization," you might say. "It's not the categories that matter, it's the practices, the experiences, and the results." And you'd be right, to a point. But you would also be wrong, since what you don't know can hurt you when you start working with your breath. The "wisdom of the body" is such that a change in one place, especially a change in breathing, brings about changes in other places--all in the name of "homeostasis." And not all of the changes that take place are beneficial for the long term. What's more, it's not just the exercises themselves that influence us. The very way we do the exercises can create bad breathing habits and ultimately restrict our breathing even more than when we started.
In short, the very breathing exercises that bring immediate benefits can also, in many cases, cause long-term problems. It is crucial for anyone who is considering undertaking breathwork, therefore, to understand something about the different kinds of breathwork that are available--not so much the "brand names" and personalities, which come and go, but rather the basic approaches and principles.
In exploring this important subject, I have found it efficacious to view work with breathing from the standpoint of seven basic categories: Conscious Breathing, Focused Breathing, Controlled Breathing, Movement-Supported Breathing, Position-Supported Breathing, Touch-Supported Breathing, and Sound-Supported Breathing. These categories are not meant to be all-inclusive but rather to give us a practical framework within which to better understand the majority of the self-directed breathing exercises and practices being offered today, and help us choose the best approaches for ourselves.
In reality, many of the practices that we undertake will undoubtedly combine a number of these different approaches to bring about positive results in a faster, more-effective, or more-complete way. Nonetheless, these different categories represent different approaches to working with the breath, approaches that can bring very different results depending on our situation.
CONSCIOUS BREATHING (BREATH AWARENESS)
The beginning of all self-directed breathwork is (or, at least, should be) conscious breathing, or breath awareness. By learning to be aware of our breath, to be able to follow the movements of our breath consciously in ourselves without any kind of manipulation, we can begin to learn in depth about the relationship of breathing to our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual lives. To follow our breath requires that we become quiet inside, that we learn to be "present" to ourselves in a nonjudgmental, nonanalytical way.
Breath awareness not only provides a solid foundation for all the other kinds of breathwork, but it is also, in itself, transformational. Through becoming aware of how we actually breathe from moment to moment, to sense and feel how our breath shapes and is shaped by our emotions, our attitudes, and our inner and outer tensions, we liberate the wisdom of our body and brain to bring about subtle beneficial changes without any manipulation on our part. Direct internal awareness of our breath can by itself, for example, help slow down our breathing if we are breathing too fast for the circumstances at hand or alter the length of the inhalation, exhalation, or pauses between.
Moreover, our breath provides a pathway into a deeper awareness of body and spirit. Pure breath awareness is practiced in the world's great spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. To remember now and here that we are "breathing beings" in the face of the great mystery of existence is one of the most important practices that we can undertake on behalf of our own physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
The major downside of "conscious breathing" has to do with the way in which many of us who hear about this idea equate consciousness with thought, and end up thinking about our breathing instead of actually experiencing it. Too much thinking about or concentration on our breathing can disturb our breath in an unhealthy way and create tensions throughout our body and mind.
The key to conscious breathing, especially at the beginning, is to undertake it for no more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time in quiet conditions. As you gain more experience with simply following your breath for short periods of time in quiet conditions, you will find yourself "spontaneously" becoming aware of your breath at other moments throughout the day when it is really important to do so--for example, in the midst of stressful circumstances. The very awareness of your breath in these circumstances, the growing ability to follow your breath and see how it is related to your thoughts, emotions, postures, and so on, will gradually transform the way you face stress and other difficulties.
In focused breathing we direct the inner and outer movements and energies of our breath to particular parts of our body using only our mind and attention. Focused breathing requires no physical or emotional effort. We do not intentionally alter the rhythm or depth of our breathing. We simply sense or visualize a part of our body and consciously "direct" our breath into that area. Then, for at least a few minutes, we allow our inhalations and exhalations to proceed "as if" from that area. Clearly the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange continues to take place in our lungs, but we allow the physical and energetic movements of our breath to be sensed or visualized in the specific area of the body that we are working with.
Focused breathing is especially useful in self-healing. If we have digestive problems, for example, we can use our attention to sense our belly and allow the movement and energy of our breath to begin to engage and fill our belly. Our breath can easily follow our attention, so the first step in focused breathing is to learn to be "attentive to" and "sense" the different parts of ourselves, our skin, muscles, fascia, organs, bones, and so on.
Focused breathing can help open up the various "breathing spaces" of the body, thus contributing to a fuller, more complete breath. Through conscious breathing (as described above), through following our breath, we will discover places in our body that are collapsed or rigid, places (which could be experienced as spaces) where the movement of our breath is not reaching. Such areas might include our belly, our lower ribs, our lower, middle, or upper back, our chest, and so on. Once we discover where we're not breathing, we can begin to focus on these areas, allowing our breath to engage them.
The danger inherent in focused breathing is that we may narrow our focus too much or focus too long on one part of ourselves. This can further restrict the movement of our diaphragm and other breathing muscles. It can also create imbalances in our body/mind. Nonetheless, focused breathing is a powerful tool in the breathwork panoply.
When most of us think of breathwork or breathing exercises, it is generally breath control exercises that we think of. These exercises, which are perhaps most highly developed in the pranayama exercises of India, rely on willfully controlling our breath to bring about some kind of beneficial change. This control is generally brought about by altering, sometimes dramatically, the speed of our breath or the length of the inhalation, exhalation, and pauses between in order to bring about chemical, energetic, or other changes in our body, emotions, mind, or consciousness.
Breath control exercises are beginning to be used by some in the medical establishment, since they function almost like medications in bringing about specific chemical changes. In his newsletter Self Healing (September 1999, p. 3), Dr. Andrew Weil, for example, recounts the story of a man who used one of Weil's breath control exercises to help reduce his blood pressure. In this exercise, which Weil calls the "Relaxing Breath," one inhales for four counts, then holds one's breath for seven counts, and finally exhales for eight counts. Clearly, this exercise will increase the level of carbon dioxide in the body, which, in this age of anxiety and hyperventilation, can help to slow the nervous system down and allow more oxygen to reach the cells.
Another doctor, Dr. Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, who has done a lot of research in Russia regarding the relationship of breathing to asthma and other medical conditions, claims that many of us have become too sensitive to carbon dioxide in our bodies and, as a result, end up breathing "too much" in the effort to eliminate the carbon dioxide and take in more oxygen. His solution is to breathe less, to go on what I suppose could be called a "breathing diet." He prescribes specific breath control exercises, mostly based on breath holding at the end of the exhalation, to raise the carbon dioxide level.
Though breath control exercises can have immediate and powerful effects, over a period of time they--especially those involving breath holding--can cause many restrictions in our breathing muscles and tissues. As I have pointed out in previous issues, healthy breathing is not just a matter of the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the body, but is also related to the free, spontaneous rhythms and movements of breath in our muscles, fascia, bones (including the spine), organs, fluids, and energy channels. It is the full, free expression of these rhythms and movements that helps support our overall health and animate our being. When working with breath-control exercises, therefore, it is extremely important not to do so at the expense of these rhythms and movements.
In the next issue of Breathing Perspectives, we will discuss Movement-Supported Breathing, Position-Supported Breathing, Touch-Supported Breathing, and Sound-Supported Breathing. Again, to reiterate, the seven categories we are outlining here and in the next issue are not meant to be all-inclusive. They do, however, reflect the main methods and principles of self-directed breathing work.
A WORD OF CAUTION
Any practices or advice given in this publication are not intended to replace the services of your physician, or to provide an alternative to professional medical treatment.