Sunday, August 3, 2008

Breathing

Feldenkrais breathing ideas are opposite to what I used to believe. I was more than a little upset about that in my Feldenkrais Training - my world was turned upside down - because I had used so much effort, over so many years to breathe in what I thought was the correct way. 

Feldenkrais means back to basics, things we should have learned when younger, and the things we should not have learned. That means re-visiting developmental movements,  having a playful, exploratory attitude with many choices, and looking at our unnecessary holdings, wrong ideas etc before doing "more advanced" activities like standing, walking, breathing exercises. This is a common Feldenkrais theme.    

Because of my Feldenkrais involvement, after many years, I reluctantly faced the fact that all the meditation breathing techniques, my ordinary posture, sports activities (running,  hiking, Bikram Yoga, gym workouts), yoga breathing exercises etc, were skewed - away from what was natural, healthy and normal. That's hard, after 3 decades!  The bottom line? I did not get optimal results, that is all. I wasted a lot of time. I used lots of unnecessary effort.  I held so many mistaken ideas about breathing and posture - and those ideas hurt me emotionally and spiritually as well. I'm not alone; such ideas are pervasive today. I don't see many people who are free of them. 

Would you like to know what they are?  OK, but this will  be along post. 

For years I took breathing for granted, and assumed it was a pretty simple - inhale and exhale - and that what I understood was true, right and the only way to look at it. I knew about yoga, and relaxing to breathe easier. I thought that abdominal breathing - inhale and the belly expands, exhale and it goes it - was the best way to breathe, and that, really and truly, I should be breathing that way all the time. After all, babies breathe that way, and they are relaxed! They're natural, if anything is natural!   Anything else is an aberration. Abdominal breathing, after all, relaxes your belly, and if the belly is tense it means we are stressed. It seemed like good logic at the time. 

Also, I believed that a long pause after the exhale meant I was very relaxed - especially while meditating - and it was absolutely a good thing. Further, I thought that to "take a deep breath" of course meant to immediately inhale strongly, forcing air into the chest. I believed that was something everyone should do quite often, to get enough air. After all, so many people teach that, can they all be wrong? I thought that abdominal breathing meant that on the inhale, the belly should protrude mostly to the front. I now know I was mistaken, misinformed or under-educated on each of these points. 

I thought I understood about breathing in three parts, inhaling first to expand the abdomen, then the mid-torso and ribs, and then the upper chest. But, I was always confused as to what should happen next on the exhale. Does it go in reverse order? And was I supposed to breathe this way all the time? Is that really the correct way to breathe? That seemed to be the unspoken implication.

In my Feldenkrais Training, when these beliefs were turned upside down, I was confused, almost shocked, and emotionally blind-sided  - I wanted to be angry, but who could I be angry at? I could feel in my own body - while doing guided movement and breathing lessons - the truth of these new ideas about breathing.  All I could do was "go spinning" into a state of confusion, of knowing  that I did not know what I thought I knew, and hope that at some point I would land on solid ground. I've come to recognize that "spinning into the space of not knowing" as a rich learning and growth opportunity. Still, I don't quite like it, especially when I am taken unawares like that. 

What first "got" me was a thing called "reverse breathing."  When you exhale, you expand the abdomen  and belly (in 3 dimensions, not just to the front), and when you inhale, let whatever happens, happen. That's the general idea. It has many virtues, not least being that it creates a little space between the stomach and diaphragm, alleviating tendency toward hiatal hernia. It seems to be contrary to the physiology of breathing, yet this is how many martial artists breathe,  and in Japan and other countries, many people breathe in this fashion their entire lives, at least so I  have been told. In order to punch a punching bag, to open a heavy door, to push or lift heavy weights - we must have a strong core. No weight lifter in his right mind would do the heavy work on an inhalation! No, always on the exhale - and you can be sure they are not trying to do abdominal breathing, letting the belly soften and contract on the exhale. No! They'd collapse. 

If you are confused right now, join the club. It gets worse, or better, depending on how you look at it. I was confused for many years. I am still sorting things out. If  you let popular culture and casual inquiry mold your ideas about breathing, you might be in the same boat as I was. 

If  you can bring yourself to read the strange, dense prose that follows, it might give you some interesting things to think about and explore.  

If you experiment, you may see, as I did, that "reverse breathing' is a better way to do heavy work, than "abdominal breathing" where the belly and abdomen contract. Yes, with a contracted core, we can tense it and stabilize our core, but this is not as easy, compared to reverse breathing - with a "larger diameter" core. The larger diameter gives us more stability in our torso. When I observe weight lifters, they are not collapsing their abdomen, at least the ones who know what they are doing. Yes, they may pose for a photo shoot with a drawn up belly, expanded chest and tense biceps - but that is not how they lift weights! 

We cannot be collapsed and relaxed in our belly and abdomen, and do heavy work, as is the recommendation for traditional abdominal breathing. Can you argue with that? I could not. If you try this while doing heavy work - watch out, you could hurt yourself. Don't even try it. If you do try to try it, you body probably won't even allow it; your body will know better.  

To recommend abdominal breathing for everyone, all the time, is obviously incorrect. That's true even if it is disguised as "three part breathing." I  like to envision a world where every yoga teacher will understand this obvious truth, as would every MD or PhD who writes some book about the healing power of breathing. 

To make the point more strongly, Moshe points out that animals when they bark, moo, chirp or howl - always do this by expanding the abdomen/belly. They are exhaling, yes, but not collapsing their core as we do with abdominal breathing. One might think, logically, that as one coughs or talks or sings, because the diaphragm is going up to compress air out of the lungs, our belly and abdomen should get smaller in size. Well, it is not necessarily so. Voluntarily, you could do it either way. But instinctively - the abdomen expands! 

I should have learned from my friends who were trained singers. They always told me confusing things about breathing, that I did not want to hear. Such as "we need to keep a full belly and abdomen while singing". That contradicted what I thought I knew about abdominal breathing being the best way to breathe!

In my training they asked us to notice what happens during a  cough. Place a hand on the belly, and cough. My abdomen slightly, and ever-so-quickly, expanded. Just like any animal! Coughing is reflexive, and (I've learned from years of experience with clients) the only time a person will pull in the belly or abs while coughing is if he is thinking too much about it while doing the trial, or he has acquired a strange habit of keeping the belly way-too-tight while vocalizing in any way. The normal, relaxed, organic way to cough is to instantly, quickly, expand slightly the abdomen and/or the belly.  

I  have come to understand the damage I did to myself by spending 30 years of my life thinking that abdominal breathing was the only correct way to breathe. If you are a yoga teacher, and tell me this in your class,  I will want to walk out of your class. If  you are an author or a teacher, I will lose respect for the integrity of anything else you try to teach me. Recommending abdominal breathing - or any of its variations - as the one, only and best way to breathe shows you have not studied breathing, you have not thought about it except simplistically, your advice can damage people in many way, you don't even know how your own body works. Why should I listen to anything else you say?

That's hard-core, but it gives voice to my inner feelings. 

Yes, babies do abdominal breathing. Yes, that kind of breathing is congruent with less stress. Of course it is! Because they are resting doing no hard physical work! Yes, lying down in "corpse pose" in a yoga class with no stress, and a relaxed body, is an appropriate time to practice or experience abdominal breathing.  Likewise, during meditation. Of course, it is congruent with less stress. When you are on vacation, lying in a lounge chair in the sun by the beach - abdominal breathing is wonderful. But, are you sure you can logically conclude from all that "evidence" that therefore we should breathe that way all the time? That in order to reduce stress we should breathe abdominally all the time? That is quite a leap of logic. It is not clear thinking. 

Thirty years correcting myself - for not breathing abdominally - made me feel dis-empowered, wrong and even angry with myself.  WHY could I not do this very basic, best and spiritual kind of "wonderful, full easy" breathing I was supposed to do all the time? It dis-empowered me - physically for sure. How can you have personal power and assertiveness in daily life, when with every exhale you are trying to collapse your center and draw-in and relax your abdominal cavity? How? There was all kinds of crazy compensations I was making, over-tense and lifted shoulders, pulling them back, rock-hard back muscles holding me from slumping as I collapsed my center, and more.

OK, so I took this whole breathing thing too seriously, but that is how I was. That's why I am writing about this with such passion.  Maybe there are a few other people who may someday read this who can learn my lesson before 30 years go by.

Abdominal breathing  all the time is a prescription for molding the personality to be easily controlled, to be submissive, to be peaceful and non-violent and passive, to be overly-agreeable rather than appropriately assertive, even in those moments of life when strong action, strength and powerful assertiveness are urgently needed. Often I have wished I had had some kind of martial arts training as a young child, since in the martial arts, abdominal breathing is put into its proper perspective. I suspect, but don't know for sure, that abdominal breathing would be most enthusiastically taught by those persons who are somehow invested in maintaining some kind of control - keeping their students passively well-behaved. But that's a leap of logic I don't want to make. It is just a question.  

Moshe Feldenkrais did not teach that abdominal breathing is wrong, only that we need many choices to be fully human. That applies to breathing as much as anything else. That's the fundamentally appropriate way to look at everything related to breathing. It's a functional perspective - it fits with living life, meeting variety and challenges.  

There are many other ways to breathe as well, as you would soon discover if you got more involved in doing ATM classes. None of them are right or wrong, they are all human options. 

What I see in the media, and in many books, is an espousal of one particular kind of breathing, to solve all problems. It is not always abdominal breathing.  I am now so cautious about such claims. Really, we do need choices, and anybody who says one way is the only way, is certainly not seeing the big picture. There is nothing harmful in doing breathing exercises, say 10 sets three times a day, as some people do, or some books recommend.  If you have never learned abdominal breathing, such a practice can be life-transforming and healing for you. But, please, don't then go out preaching that abdominal breathing is the one and only best and perfect way to breathe, for everyone, always - as some persons do. 

True, abdominal breathing may be the best way to breathe while meditating. I agree. And, abdominal breathing is a wonderful way to breathe during much of the day, when we are not doing physical work, and are in a resting mode, more or less. Yes, as a person learns to relax and manage stress and improves their balance and movement skills, abdominal breathing can become more predominant. Yes, that is congruent with less stress. 

The fact remains that other types of breathing always need to be available; we need choices, it is how our brains are constructed: to learn, to discriminate, to understand and make good choices. To be open to respond freely, appropriately. To be self-constrained to only one way - in any aspect of movement and posture and breathing - can lead to dogmatic attitudes, constricted self-image, neurosis or worse, and unwillingness to explore other ideas. 

If, as indeed is true, the brain and nervous system is mostly about movement and posture - what will be the effect of dogmatic ideas related to breathing or posture? Certainly one's cognition will take on a similar flavoring. It is the same nervous system operating! If you want to change somebody's long held dogmatic belief about something - send them to a four year Feldenkrais Training. I am a living example. The body (as a "brain") has its own logic, and at the heart of  that "logic" is an organic-competent sense of intelligent freedom to do what is needed at the moment, to balance, move, speak and breathe appropriately.  

It's heavy interference to keep telling  ourselves that a particular way of holding our body, or a particular way of breathing is the only true or correct way to be. Our low brain (or our CNS - central nervous system, or however you choose to label the innate intelligence that runs the workings of the body), which orchestrates all the physiological functions of the body, has a huge job, and our little conscious minds cannot by any means understand the complexities involved. For instance, some scientists have spent their entire careers studying one or two minerals, and how the body interacts with them - they discover incredible complexity there! The low brain is keeping track of all the minerals, and much much more. All the many systems of the body are being coordinated simultaneously, including breathing as an integral part. We have no idea!

Because breathing can be controlled voluntarily, as well as instinctively, we may think our voluntary control is more intelligent. That's ego. We need to rethink this. Voluntary control usually involves too much tension and effort and habitual body-organization. How we live our life, how we move our bodies -  that is exactly how we will do any kind of deliberate breathing or breathing interventions or exercises - even just watching the breath, unless you are taking ATM classes or are doing those exercises under the personal guidance of a competent teacher. In India there is a saying "pranayama breathing techniques are best learned directly from a Guru." There is wisdom in that. That's the voice of thousands of years of cultural experience speaking.

Both voluntary breathing and instinctive breathing have their place It is certainly obvious that Nature did not intend for us to always be vigilantly attempting to breathe in a certain way - it is meant to be most-of-the-time on automatic pilot. Our main job ought to be to clear out the debris of excess tension, wrong ideas, bad habits etc that interfere with easy appropriate breathing. Voluntary breathing explorations certainly have a place in that arena. Then you can learn and practice all kinds of other breathing styles, meditation breathing practices, exercises, etc and truly benefit and keep it all in perspective. 

For instance, I once had a client who spent her entire life pulling her shoulders back forcefully, since she was taught as a little girl that was the way to have "good posture". She was about 70 years old, and a complete wreck - neurotic, loud spoken, always concerned and talking about her aches and pains and doctor appointments and medications - her mind was always buzzing out of control with all these things. In my heart, I knew it was related - or caused - by her preoccupation with the insane idea of pulling shoulders back constantly. But I could not find a way to change that habit with her. It was so deeply ingrained! If you want more insight on that, please read my posts on shoulders. 

Another example - early in my Feldenkrais training, there was an elderly man who loved to do yoga poses, especially the headstand and shoulder stand. Instead of practicing movement lessons, he would often be doing yoga poses. He was quite good, and proud of it, too, a little bit of smugness there, as if he knew better than the rest of us.  It was a bit of a disruption to the class. His idea - "you can't teach me anything, what I know is better than what you know". But it was obvious to everyone in the room, that was not so.   The Feldenkrais trainers spent much time in difficult conversation with him, but he would not bend. He was, in fact, holding lots of tension to keep his ribs and spine admirably, stiffly erect in standing and sitting. Only doing yoga, would he create some artificially imposed suppleness. The whole Feldenkrais thing was more than he could swallow.  He left the training about the middle of the first year. 

Before my Feldenkrais Training, I was like that with breathing - that I knew more good things, more true things than most other people. Yes, it was ego.  The Feldenkrais experience, the new perspectives, have been such an eye-opener. I am so grateful to Moshe Feldenkrais and the Feldenkrais Trainers for introducing me to this amazing new world - so rich and diverse and playfully engrossing - and it's all true! 

Here's a collection of more things I did not know before my training:
  1. Whatever it is I think I know about breathing is certainly incomplete, or even false. That's true for everything I have written here. It's got to be true even after many years of study - because the discovery process is never ending. I cannot deny that; staying involved in The Feldenkrais Method keeps bringing up new improvements, refinements, ideas, insights. Moshe himself said there is no end. I cannot see an end.  There's an essential mystery to breathing that any kind of intellectual arrogance will inevitably distort.  It's got to be true even after many years of study -  because the discovery process is never ending.  I did Feldenkrais hoping to discover the real, true, correct way to breathe and boy, was I frustrated - such a thing does not exist. I thought there was a conspiracy by  the Trainers to not tell anybody directly the correct way to breathe - better to let them discover it on their own! Well, it's not like that.  It's disconcerting, but also exciting. I know I have many amazing new insights and world-shaking discoveries (my world) about breathing yet to uncover. 
  2. To "take a deep breath", I now first exhale forcefully first, then inhale. The muscles of exhalation are more developed than those of inhalation. When my lungs are fully empty, the inhale comes easily, fully. If I inhale without first exhaling, it is strained. 
  3. I often remind myself that any effort or strain on the inhale means muscle contraction - less space in the torso for the lungs to expand. Paradoxically, the more heroic my effort to inhale quickly and  fully, the harder I work against myself. So I slow it down and give my ribs and belly and back a little time to soften and open. Otherwise, I am forcing air into a progresively getting-smaller-and-tighter container. I still have to watch what I do when someone tells me "take a deep breath". That crazy thing -immediately inhaling with force is such a deeply ingrained habit.  How did it every become that way? 
  4. Having spent a lifetime talking - using the voice with forceful exhalation of air - it is wonderfully refreshing to learn to use the voice without rushing, without forceful exhalation. This restores more natural, easy exhalations throughout my day. For sure it reduces my stress. The sound "ah" is very easy to make, and can be done almost sub-vocally, so I almost don't hear it. I make the "ah" sound only by waiting for the natural exhale - no forcing. In the Alexander Teaching, in fact, a variation of this is actually something people practice, and can spend many hours refining it. It also involves dropping the jaw slightly, letting it relax downward so the teeth are slightly separated. 
  5. For years I've done a meditation breathing practice where I am instructed to "not control" the breath. I can now see why I had been largely unsuccessful. Foolish use of will means control. Skill and strategy were needed more than will. Instead of "trying to not control the breath"  I now imagine unhurried, natural rhythm, light, easy, soft, full and  slow and appropriate breathing - just a hint of thinking like that at the start of my practice, that is all. I do less work, not more. But I use more awareness and skill.  I have done, and still do Feldenkrais work to move, sit and stand with minimal tension and better support, better balance. That's key. I make sure my awareness, my sensing ability, is free to travel to the low back, the floor of the pelvis, the upper back, and the side of the ribs - if I don't sense those areas, they won't move with the breath, they will be holding tense, and that is very clearly, heavy control of breathing. For too many years already, I have dong that! - especially holding up unconsciously the floor of the pelvis. I never had any breathing movement low-down in the abdomen near the pubic bone, I was so tense there. That should have been a clue.  I know if I chant a mantra or affirmation with the breath rhythm I may be forcing my exhale, since I have had had a lifetime of talking, forcing my exhale every time I vocalized a word. Awareness of this helps me moderate the tendency. I begin my practice by setting the intention "be free to take all the time I need to exhale - no rushing, no forcing the breath as in talking. Let the exhale float slowly down taking it's own time." What a difference!
  6. LESS or "light, easy, soft and slow" is a motto I now remember whenever I want to take a deep breath, or whenever I want to attend to my breathing. Fuller breathing, with no effort, will be the automatic result. This is like living in a much kinder, more gentle universe compared to instead thinking "take a deep breath" as I used to do! 
  7. Holding the belly continually uptight is heavy interference with natural breathing, and stress inducing, as well. Drawing up the gut momentarily is perhaps a good practice, yes, as a little exercise to firm the abdomen. But then, can you relax it completely? Becoming fit, watching the diet etc can create a trim belly, yes, but that is not the same as continually, stubbornly, vainly and also unconsciously sucking up the gut, as I used to do for so many years. My mother, when I was an infant and toddler  - should have let me keep my big little belly instead of telling me to suck it up, or toilet train me too early, so my entire lower torso became uptight  for a lifetime. It took me many months of telling myself "soft belly" or "let the belly hang"  and "relax downward the floor of the pelvis, let it all hang" in addition to Feldenkrais work involving the belly and pelvis to shed this noxious habit. I am still working on it! What helped me most was to look at ancient art and statuary - from any country, from any age - and notice the men and women (young or old) had ample bellies. Apparently their idea of beauty was different than ours. Consider the Venus De Milo statue. I've always felt ancient cultures have things to teach us - what ideas are really true, and "pan out" after thousands of years of cultural sifting. People in  ancient cultures, I think, had to struggle more to survive that we do, and any ideas or customs that were not helpful, were discarded. 
  8. Another basic breathing practice I use - in the meditative tradition - helps to  slow down my mind; it's simply watching the breath. I don't jump in with my hyperactive and vigilant mind and start telling my breath what to do. Thirty years of doing that was absolutely an exercise in frustration! Instead, I let the breath teach my mind to slow down, listen and settle. Buddha taught this.  Many meditation protocols teach this. I  have to take on a little attitude of humility and loosen my hold on my intellect, my busy mind. My mind can race all day, and my breath tries to keep up - so I never once, all day, take an unhurried breath. I even say "I have all the time I need to inhale, I have all the time I need to exhale". It often initially feels to me like a waste of time, too simple, etc to watch the breath - that 's just my ego. But the results can be profound. I like to check in with my natural breath rhythm at least once a day - I know I have lost so many of my other natural rhythms in this harried and hurried modern world. 
  9. The ancient Chinese script symbol for "breath" was actually two conjoined symbols: the first meant "exhale" and the second "inhale". In the West, we think of the breath cycle as first the inhale, then the exhale. I find if I turn this idea around, and instead cognize my breathing as consisting of cycles of exhaling followed by inhaling, my breathing automatically is softer, easier and without all my usual efforts. Just 30 seconds of trying out this idea, once or twice a month maybe, has a profound and ongoing effect on me. Whenever a somatic idea has that kind of staying power, I know there is truth there. 
  10. I often remind myself there is no correct way to breath. I say to myself "I can trust my natural breath to do the right thing". I have to remind myself, since I spent so many years doing the opposite! Every moment of life is unique - my body position, the biochemistry of my blood and body, my emotional state, my state of readiness, the environment. My body calculates all of that, and comes up with an appropriate breathing style for that moment - so why would I want to interfere with ideas about what is "correct"? Often, I need to breath much less than I think I do. Sedentary work, for example, means my breath can be very shallow and slow, and that is appropriate. I now know that does not mean tense and shallow and slow - that's a form of anxiety-driven chest breathing. It means deeply relaxed, with lots of hidden reserve capacity not being used at the moment. 
  11. We truly breathe with our whole bodies. Our bodies are a collection of little fluid filled cells - if you expand one area (as in breathing), the repercussions go everywhere. If you jiggle a box full of water balloons, all the balloons jiggle! Any tension anywhere means restricted breathing. I know that to refine, clarify, improve my breathing - I need to work with movement, posture, awareness and self-image, and I do that in the Feldenkrais Method. If I am always holding my right foot too tense when I sit and stand (I still do this), I know I am restricting my breathing space. If I hold my jaw too tight,  I am restricting the easy flow of my breathing. If my idea of sitting up in good posture means stiffening my chest and tightening  my back (like most people) - I'll never experience natural, relaxed breathing - at least not while sitting like that! Can a person learn to sit without slumping, with a fully relaxed torso? Yes - but that takes some doing. Read my posts on chairs and sitting posture. 
  12. My goal is not necessarily to take in more oxygen, but to make the breathing process organic, natural, easy, well-oiled with many choices, so my body can spontaneously choose what it needs unhindered. I want breathing like a 16 cylinder cruising car - lots of hidden power available even if it is only going 20 miles per hour. 
  13. If there is a long pause at the end of my exhalation - that most likely means too much tension in my belly and abdomen (not that I am so spiritually advanced that I am learning to live without breathing!). It means my body has to rest a moment and gather strength to breathe against unnatural resistance. It means perhaps that my style of over-forceful breathing, too fast and muscle driven against resistance - causes hyperventilation, reducing the necessary levels of carbon in my blood (for more on that, investigate The Buteyko Method). So then my body wants to slow me down - before inhaling again. While I still believe that a long pause after the exhale can be a sign of advanced spirituality, a prelude to going into the "breathless state of samadhi" - I know I am not there yet!  In my case I first suspect my usual incredible "hold-up-the-belly-keep-it-flat" tension there. 
  14. Conversely, if there is no pause at the top of my inhalation, that can mean too much tension in my torso. My body cannot easily keep the lungs fully open, even for a second; it is just plain too much work. So I begin to think, "how can I encourage my rib cage to be softer and your back and shoulder muscles to be more supple?  I ask myself, "is my sitting posture too muscle driven, and not skeletally supported with minimal fine-tuning muscular adjustments? Is my pelvis knowing how to balance my torso, and am I using a hard, flat-surfaced chair? If I find someone who can naturally, effortlessly pause their breath at the top of their inhale - I know I have found a special person. I know I can learn something from him or her. I'll try to make friends with them. I'll surreptitiously study how they sit or stand. 
  15. My self-image - I know this for sure, now - controls my breathing. What I am used to - my habits, good or bad are what seems normal to me. Anything I do - sports, breathing exercises etc - will be in that context. And the more I do those things, using mostly will power and not sensitively using my innate body skills - the more my self-image stays the same, the more I get  invested in what already is.  To change my self image,I know I need to "go down and slow down" to the more primitive brain functions, where the foundations of movement and self-image are created. That means early childhood developmental movements - I get a lot of that in Feldenkrais ATM. That means attending to and sensing areas that are not usually sensed. It means using the imagination in new ways.
  16. For example, I may imagine that I have "breathing spaces" in the air around my body. This can be as large as I can imagine.  I loosen the grip of my mind on the body-bound idea that breathing is just restricted to the space of my little body. I learned restricted breathing partly because I know too much about  the anatomy and physiology of breathing, and I began to think that was all there was to it. Well, I remind myself now, I am a sprit and a soul, not just a physical body,  so why can't I feel my breath as part of larger, more universal rhythms?  OK - so it is all in my imagination, perhaps, but I can definitely feel good results in how my breathing changes, in my improved mental state. I love to study The Mittendorf Method of breath work; it has many ideas like this.   
  17. Another example, when I take a breath (I often ask myself), do I sense pressure or expansion in my low back, the floor of my pelvis, the sides of my ribs, or my upper back? What about any other area of my body? No? Is that because it was not happening or because I am simply too used to the idea that breathing is all about the front of my body - the belly and chest and abdomen? If that is all I sense, that is all that will move (most people are like this).  Overly-frontal is a very common self-image - and for me it is still a habit I must contend with -  and it can lead to unnaturally large frontal distention of the belly in abdominal breathing. That's one reason why many persons don't like to do abdominal breathing - especially women. Who wants an expanded belly? Well - I tell myself -  abdominal breathing means the entire abdomen can expand equally, down, behind, left and right and also to the front. When I learned this in my body, I did not have such qualms about abdominal breathing.
  18. In idle moments, I may say to myself: "sense my left foot as I breathe. Can I feel the breath rhythm there?" Usually I can do this, if not, I know I am too uptight. It is a very subtle feeling, almost in the imagination. Choose any part of the body, and you can sense the breath there. It is as if you are "breathing through that body part". If you cannot do this, it is because you are too tense, and you have not spent time developing your sensitivity in this way. Once you learn this, you will never again be as tense as you used to be. That's because you cannot do both at once;  you cannot sense the breath rhythm in your little fingers and hold onto that kind of tension. 
  19. That is a very common Feldenkrais "trick": if you want to stop doing something, learn to do something else which makes it impossible to continue with the old habit. That is much more intelligent than trying to suppress the bad habit. So I direct my efforts to learning, exploring and playing with lots of new breathing styles - it is the Feldenkrais way - rather than trying to directly correct any breathing problems I may think I have. 
  20. Rather than trying to suppress the habit of excess tension (in breathing or movement) by relaxation practices - as some people do with soft music, comfortable chairs, self-hypnosis or guided relaxation tapes - the Feldenkrais approach is to explore, learn and play with ways of moving and sitting and standing and breathing that make unnecessary tension impossible. My goal is to learn to move with minimal effort; then I become competent to embody the idea of "relaxation" without always associating it with "disconnect from the environment and all duties and go to sleep, don't deal with anything and be lazy" which is something no wild animal would ever do, not for an instant - it would soon be dead. So many years I practiced that kind of thing. Now I know better, and the idea of "relaxation"  seems rather simple-minded, even stupid. If you were to ask your local Feldenkrais Practitioner their opinion about relaxation, you'd get a similar story, but more diplomatically phrased, I am sure. When the issue of "relaxation" came up for Moshe in a teaching situation, he was much more blunt - even colorful language was used. If only kids were taught Feldenkrais in grade school; all this writing would be unnecessary.  
  21. One trick to help open the breathing into the back is to imagine the nose is located directly behind the head, at the base of the neck. Imagine breathing in from there. I will play with this a few minutes now and then, and I am usually happily surprised at the nice results.
  22. Take a deep breath. Then hold your breath. Now, relax your shoulders down. Did your shoulders drop, even a little bit? If so you are lifting your shoulders with every breath. So often, I catch myself doing this! This means I am lifting the entire weight of my shoulder girdle with every inhalation. That is a lot of work to do, for an entire lifetime! No wonder I get tired! So then - for a few breaths - I'll practice breathing deliberately without lifting the shoulders - not even a tiny bit. I really like the feeling. Here is how I  do this: as I inhale I just sense and allow the breath-expansion in the upper torso to be fully dimensional (left, right, back, front and up), not just "up". Because there is a sense of breathing "up" during the inhale, I tend to lift my shoulders. 
  23. During the day I may tell myself "soft belly" many times. This helps my breathing, and reduces stress. For sure I have learned to hold my belly too tight. Whether that is  due to stress or habit or wrong belief I don't know. The amount of "bigger belly" I get by softening will be very little, in actuality. Maybe 3/4 inch at most! People won't notice that I have a bigger belly! I have to tell myself that, or my vanity will insure that I keep sucking up my gut, and staying uptight! Can you imagine? I tell myself people will notice that I appear to be more relaxed, less uptight. 
  24. Finally - in spite of all I said against abdominal breathing, I do practice this, while lying relaxed on my back. It relaxes my core, soothes and massages my internal organs, and restores my natural baby-like relaxed breathing. It helps me to feel my abdomen in three dimensions, not just to the front. It helps me meditate better, later.  I like it. But at least now, for sure, I know that all of that does not mean I should tell everyone that abdominal breathing is the one, best and only way to breathe!
Often I'll  hear about a new type of breathing exercise or practice, and I'll try it out. It's a little hobby.  Breathing can be deeply healing, relaxing and rejuvenating. Or it can be constricted, insipid, anxiety-driven, too slow or too fast, too deep or too shallow. How do we move between these breathing styles - without making any one of them a chronic habit? Shallow and fast breathing is sometimes appropriate. Slow and shallow, or slow and full breathing is also sometimes appropriate. How can we learn to expand our breathing options?  Surely there is more to it than just practicing a certain type of breathing exercise, 10 repetitions, three times a day!  Because breathing is so deeply rooted in how we move and posture ourselves, and our self-image, any type of mechanical repetition - no matter how ideal - won't give the deep satisfying regeneration of our organic sensibility to breathe apropriately  as will involvement in the Feldenkrais Method. 

Best of all would be to find an experienced, brilliant, inspired somatic teacher - like Moshe Feldenkrais was -  who can give you a custom designed "package" of somatic experiences and homework - breathing or movement or visualization or whatever. Progress can be so fast that way, it may be hard to even keep your bearings. 

One of my colleagues told me that after attending the Amherst Training (Moshe's last training program), she visited friends, and they did not even recognize her - so many changes! It's hard to appreciate, or even believe, that statement unless you yourself have attended a Feldenkrais Training. How did Moshe do that? Practically every graduate of that training (more than 200 people, I believe) that I know, feels like the training was custom made for them, they got exactly what they needed. They believe they were the one special student who really and truly understood the deeper meanings of what Moshe taught! What kind of magic is that?

I've come to believe that when breathing is combined with some peculiar mix of awareness, posture,  movement, visualization, sound, attitude, intention, anticipation and perspective, there is no end. It can be a lifetime of learning!  And each of these "mixes" might have something valuable to teach us.

And to think -- 

I once thought I knew everything important there was to know about breathing! 




 

  

2 comments:

Ryan Nagy said...

Steve - That's quite a post! I must admit that I only made it about halfway through it.

Regardless of how many times I have played with Feldenkrais breathing sessions (like the ones in Alexander Yanai) I am still amazed at how much more I have to learn. For example, I thought that the "abdominal breathing" that infants do was similar to parodoxical breathing, but after reading your post, I can see (and feel!) that there are real differences.

- Ryan

Valerie said...

I enjoyed reading about your journey and learning from your walk down memory lane. I was hoping for more on the correct reverse breathing now that I know how not to breath.

Is reverse breathing basically exhaling completely first, then allowing the body to naturally react reflexively by inhaling deeply to fill the lungs back up again?

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge--it's helping.