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Improve your capacity to breathe deeply
This chapter is devoted to increasing your breathing capacity, which nurtures all your body’s cells. Breathing provides the body with its most basic requirement (oxygen) and the mind and spirit with their most useful tool – dynamic relaxation. Breathing is the most vital function for any living creature. Improving your breathing will automatically improve all your other body functions. That is why this chapter is so important.
The emphasis we place on breathing may be surprising at first. It is easy to take for granted that if we are alive, we must be breathing. Through practicing the exercises outlined in this book, we soon discover that there are varying degrees of “aliveness,” and that a person who is barely breathing is, in fact, barely alive. A lack of sufficient oxygen weakens the body and slows down all of its functions, including brain function. It is easy to assume that if our bodies need more oxygen they will automatically take in more. This is not always the case. Often, the body just adapts to a lesser amount of oxygen than it needs to enable it to function optimally. Many of us breathe just enough to survive, or to function minimally, but not enough to function well. There are many factors which may keep us from breathing sufficiently.
The need for increasing our oxygen intake is a long-recognized fact. The idea of aerobic exercise was developed to meet this need. In aerobic exercise, we exert ourselves to make our heart and lungs work harder, forcing more oxygen into the lungs and bloodstream. People who do aerobics may think that doing aerobics for an hour a day means that they are breathing better all the time. That is often not the case. The body should enjoy a plentiful supply of oxygen all the time, not just when the muscles, heart, and lungs are working at their top capacity. For one thing, it would be exhausting to keep up that kind of pace. For another, aerobic exercise simply is not available to us all the time. For those who are city-bound, handicapped, or pressed for time and space, aerobic exercise is something of a luxury. We should make it a priority to have some kind of vigorous exercise – swimming, walking, dancing or running, and fitness, like weight lifting – as a part of our lives.
The goal should be to provide the body with sufficient oxygen, even in situations that are not ideal for breathing. Before running, a good, deep breath can help circulation. That is true for most of our daily activities, such as sitting for a long time. Also, our goal is to deepen our breathing through running or aerobics, so that we don’t run out of breath as easily as a result of these activities. In fact, most people benefit by learning how to relax during aerobic exercise so their breathing becomes even fuller.
Insufficient breathing ultimately affects every cell in the body because every cell requires oxygen to function. Oxygen is carried to the cells by the flow of blood. When the blood’s oxygen concentration is lowered, our veins carry the deoxygenated blood to the heart, and the heart pumps it to the lungs, where it is re-enriched with oxygen. This oxygen-charged blood is returned to the heart, from which it is pumped to the arteries, and ultimately to the cells of the periphery of the body. A pattern of deep, slow breathing improves the circulation, and therefore the blood brings oxygen and nourishment more effectively to our body’s cells.
If a pattern of shallow breathing continues, circulation throughout the body decreases. Circulation to the body’s periphery is especially limited, causing cold hands and feet, fatigue and the loss of mental concentration and clarity which can occur when there is not enough blood supply to the brain. Blood carries all the nutrients our cells need, and carries away all the toxic materials produced by cell metabolism. When circulation decreases, the areas which are not receiving enough blood become starved and toxic. A good, deep breath can send oxygen-rich blood coursing through our bodies to feed and cleanse our cells.
There are many reasons why we might not breathe enough to meet our oxygen needs. Environmental pollution has become a major problem, and it may be that our bodies instinctively refuse to take in too much air laden with carbon monoxide, industrial chemicals, cigarette smoke or fumes from the many toxic or semi-toxic materials with which we are constantly surrounded.
However, in so many of our current health problems, stress seems to be the main culprit. Stress is a state of emotional anxiety that is reflected in our bodies and continuously affects our body functions. Every thought and feeling we experience influences our bodies to some degree. We all know the sense of lightness that comes with joy, the adrenaline rush of rage, and the dry mouth and shaky feeling of fear. These are dramatic physical changes produced by dramatic emotions.
Less powerful, but equally influential, are the small everyday anxieties of work, family life, study and of simply coping with an increasingly challenging world. These difficulties are an intrinsic part of our lives, and so are their effects on our bodies. One of the most common of these effects is a tendency to limit ourselves to shallow, infrequent, non-rhythmic, and completely inadequate breathing.
When we begin to work with the breath as a healing tool, we discover that breathing has an immediate calming, energizing, and clarifying effect on both mind and body. It is absolutely the most helpful thing we can do in any stressful situation. Why do we so often limit our breathing when we are anxious if this is so clearly counterproductive? The answer lies both in our minds and in the functioning of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is often described as the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism. One of its primary functions is to act as an alarm and defense system for the body during times of physical danger. When it goes on alert, it sends chemical messages throughout the body which make it possible to escape,overpower an aggressor, or meet other extreme physical challenges. The pupils of the eyes dilate to admit more light, blood flow is diverted away from the digestive organs and flooded into the muscles, norepinephrine release increases to speed up the heartbeat, and breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Our bodies know instinctively that deep, slow breathing will cause us to relax, and relaxation is exactly what the sympathetic nervous system is programmed to prevent.
In situations of genuine physical risk, this system functions extremely well. Problems arise because the sympathetic nervous system can interpret any anxiety as a sign of “danger,” and may go on full blast at inappropriate times. We may be worried about giving a speech, performing well in our jobs, or even meeting a stranger or person we dislike, but when the sympathetic nervous system senses our fear, it will react as though trying to put several miles between ourselves and a large, hungry predator. Any form of anxiety can send the sympathetic nervous system into a state of emergency. This is very hard on the body. The blood has been flooded with epinephrine, the muscles tense up, the heart is working hard to send blood to the limbs, and yet there is no real call for action. Unless the body is vigorously used, this tension will remain in the muscles for hours, producing a nervous, jittery feeling. Our breathing will slow down, but will probably remain shallow for as long as the tension persists.
Prolonged stress reinforces unhealthy breathing patterns, so that breathing becomes chronically shallow, infrequent, and quick. Often, a tense person will breathe through the mouth, but it is the nose that was designed for regular breathing. The nostrils contain cilia, which filter incoming air, and mucus, which warms and moistens it, both of which make the air cleaner and purer when it reaches the lungs. However, breathing through the narrow nasal passages takes longer than breathing through the mouth. This is in fact a benefit, because it allows more time for the oxygen to diffuse into the bloodstream. The problem is that a tense person in need of air will tend to automatically gulp it in through the mouth, simply because it’s quicker.
Breath taken through the mouth feels like a full and satisfying breath, but it is not. Stressful breathing often consists of nervous little inhalations, never allowing for a full respiration and full oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. Slow breathing through the nose is what is required. That breathing helps respiration for all the cells of our bodies. A sigh of relief is a sure sign that tension has been causing us, unconsciously, to hold in our breath – and for how long? Exhalation is as vital as inhalation to healthy breathing. If our respiratory systems are not fully emptied of oxygen-deprived air, they cannot be completely filled with oxygen-rich air.
The effects of insufficient breathing are far reaching. In time, even the structure of the body may show the effects of poor breathing. Chronic, shallow breathing hampers the expansion of the chest and diaphragm. This constricts the muscles there and leads ultimately to the narrowing of the chest cavity, the rounding forward of the shoulders, and the distortion of the posture of the neck and upper back.
It may not be obvious that a person’s problems have anything to do with breathing. Most people are not aware of how shallow their breathing is until they actually try to breathe deeply. Our experience shows, however, that most problems – physical, emotional, or mental – are accompanied by anxiety, tension, and limited breathing. We have also found that the quickest and surest way to relax someone, to restore well-being and energy, and to get the self-healing process under way, is to get that person breathing deeply.
It is difficult to get a tense person, including ourselves, to breathe deeply just by saying, “Now breathe deeply.” In fact, it may actually aggravate their tension by making them feel pressured to do something they can’t. Someone with a long-time habit of shallow breathing has to unlearn this habit and consciously replace it with a new one. Of all the body functions we just naturally expect to be automatic, breathing is the first. The way we breathe, whether deep or shallow, is our most basic habit, and it may be hard for us to see that it can be changed. The only way to really know this is through experience. Taking charge of our breathing is a revolutionary idea, and it can produce equally revolutionary changes in our bodies.
Learning to breathe fully is the most important thing we can ever do for our bodies, so it is necessary to approach it gradually, in stages. The best way to begin is by preparing our bodies to receive deep respiration. Here are instructions how:
1-1 Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed and where you have room to stretch out. Lie down on your back, with your knees bent. If it helps you to relax, prop pillows under your knees to support them, and a pillow under your head.
Rest your hands on your abdomen so you can feel its movement as you breathe. Now take a moment to notice how you feel. Pay attention to each separate part of your body, beginning with your face and working down to your toes; see if you can sense each toe separately. At this stage, don’t try to change or influence how you feel – just pay attention to it.
Some gentle movements will help to prepare your body to breathe more deeply. During the following exercises, be aware of your breathing. Remember to breathe slowly, and try to breathe fully. Breathe in and out through your nose, but don’t try to influence your breathing too much yet.
1-2 Let your head roll slowly from side to side, imagining as you do that someone else is moving it. Do the long muscles along the side of your neck feel tight, or resist the motion? If so, let your head roll to the side, and tap gently on the extended side of your neck with your fingertips, from behind the ears all the way down to the shoulder and chest. After a minute or so of this, stop and see whether you can feel a difference between the two sides of the neck. Then roll the head to the other side and tap on the other side of the neck. Roll your head from side to side once again and notice whether the movement feels different now.
1-2b: Put your hand on your forehead, and move your head from side to side. When you get to one side, tap on the neck with both hands. Do the same when you turn to the other side.
1-3 With your head still moving from side to side, place your fingertips on the hinges of your jaw as you slowly open and close your mouth. How does your jaw feel? If it feels tight, or tender to the touch, tap and massage the joints to help them to relax. Stop the rolling and yawn deeply, several times if you can. In addition to stretching and relaxing the muscles of the face, throat, chest and diaphragm, yawning moistens the eyes and helps pull in much-needed oxygen.
1-4 Notice the muscles of your face. One of the primary functions of the facial muscles is to express emotion, and our emotions inevitably leave their mark on our faces. Sometimes, the emotions our face has worked so hard to express will linger there in the form of muscular tension long after we have ceased to be aware of them. Try to feel whether there is tension in your face. If there is, try to let go of it. Imagine all the muscles around the jaw and eyes lengthening, softening, and growing warm. Massage your face with your fingertips, using enough pressure to allow you to feel any tender places.
Pay particular attention to the areas which contain your sinuses – the cheekbones, eyebrows and bridge of the nose. Shallow breathing can lead to congestion, and massage can help to drain the congested areas.
1-5 Next, massage your entire chest area, using both your fingertips and your thumbs. Work from the collarbone down to the ribs, and from the armpits in toward the sternum. You will probably find many tender spots that will need to be touched gently. These spots indicate chronic muscle contraction, which has probably been caused by lack of deep breathing.
Sometimes when the chest is massaged, suppressed emotions will surface. If this happens, try to just let the feelings flow through you and out of you, imagining that each exhalation carries away some of the negative feelings. Tap lightly on the muscles between the ribs and along the sternum. Then, rub your abdomen with your whole hand, or cup your palms and clap them against the abdomen. Visualize your blood flowing into all of the areas you have touched, warming and relaxing the muscles there.
1-6 Now lie still for a few minutes and visualize the changes you want to create in your body. By “visualize,” we mean imagine in whatever way seems most natural to you. It is most helpful to engage as many of your senses in the visualization as possible, so try to both picture and feel your muscles lengthening and relaxing, your blood flowing freely throughout your entire body, pure oxygen filling your lungs effortlessly, the lungs themselves expanding to their full capacity, the millions of tiny air pockets in the lungs filling like balloons as you inhale and deflating slowly as you exhale, and your whole body growing as light as a helium balloon as the oxygen expands you. Feel an ease in your breathing, a lightness, a sense that there is no resistance to the movement of your chest, abdomen, and back. Do this visualization first lying down, and then repeat it while sitting, then standing, and then while walking or exercising.
Stretching Your Breathing Muscles
After warming up our breathing muscles with massage, there are a number of stretches we can do to loosen up our upper bodies and make it easier to expand our chests, giving our lungs more room. Trying to breathe deeply when our chests and upper back are contracted is like trying to blow up a balloon inside a test tube. Our lungs can expand only as far as our muscles will allow them to.
All of the tight or tender spots we discovered while massaging ourselves indicate rigid muscles, and this rigidity is probably habitual. Most of our body functions are controlled and dictated by our subconscious mind. In trying to relax a chronic tension, we are trying consciously to counteract the habits of our subconscious. This is one reason why habits are hard to change – in effect, we are fighting part of ourselves. Changing habits takes time, practice, and patience. The following exercises will help us to relax these chronically tense muscles, causing them to become warm, supple, and loose.
1-7 Lying on your back, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, stretch your arms straight out to the sides, at right angles to your body, with the palms of the hands facing up. Let your shoulders and arms relax completely. Imagine a gentle gravitational force pulling them toward the floor. Notice whether the two sides of your body feel the same or different. Does one shoulder feel tighter? Heavier? Larger? Does either hand feel lighter, or warmer? Your hands, at rest, will probably lie with the fingers curled slightly toward the palm. Let them relax.
Very slowly open the hands, extending the fingers until the back of each finger touches the floor. Imagine that the fingers stretch all the way to the opposite sides of the room, and that they are being slowly pulled toward the walls. Keep the fingers extended, inhaling slowly for a count of ten, then let them relax as you exhale to a count of fourteen. The fingers will automatically curl again. Allow them to.
Repeat this exercise several times, and each time imagine your fingertips stretching farther and farther in each direction. As your arms stretch, imagine your ribcage expanding, too.
1-8 Still lying on your back, stretch your arms out behind your head so that they are resting on the floor as flat as possible. Completely relax the right arm. Inhale. As you exhale, clasp your right wrist with your left hand. Pull gently, but firmly, on the right arm to stretch the right shoulder (fig 1-8).
The right arm should be allowed to be completely passive, neither resisting nor helping the pull of the left hand. After you have done this several times, let your arms return to your sides and see whether you can feel a difference between the two sides. You may feel a difference in the shoulder, the neck, the chest, or the arms.
Reverse your arms so that the left arm is passive and the right hand pulls, and again notice how the two sides feel. Then clasp the two hands with the fingers laced together and the arms stretched straight out. Swing them in as large a circle as you can comfortably make, feeling how this rotation loosens the shoulder joints and muscles.
1-9 Extend your right arm out to the side, and reach across your body with your left arm, so that your left hand is reaching toward your right hand. Without lifting your upper back off the floor – lifting only the shoulder as little as possible – stretch the left hand as far toward the right as possible.
Now, lift your right hand up to meet the left hand, lace the fingers of the two hands, and use the right hand to pull the left hand toward the floor (fig 1-9). Breathe very deeply and slowly as you feel the stretch in the left shoulder. You can also move the right hand in a rotating motion to increase the range of the movement.
This is a great stretch for the shoulders and upper arms. As with all of these exercises, this stretch should be repeated on the other side.
As you do this stretch, you may feel a sense of compression in the chest and a wonderful opening in the upper back.
1-10 To stretch the entire upper torso – shoulders, arms, chest, neck, upper and middle back – try the windmill stretch. This helps to relieve the tension of study, reading, or work at a computer, with the added benefit of releasing emotional tension as well. Lie on your back with your left knee bent and your right leg stretched out flat on the floor. Roll over toward your right, so that your bent left knee crosses your body and comes to rest on the floor to your right. Move your left foot over your right knee, and press down on your left knee with your right hand (fig 1-10A). Your left shoulder may come up off the floor a little, but try to keep it as close to the floor as possible, so that you get a nice twist and stretch to your upper spine.
Raise your left arm and move it in as big a circle as you can make. This means the left hand should be touching the floor as much as possible (fig 1-10B). Imagine that you are drawing a circle on the floor with a pencil held in your left hand. If you feel more of a stretch by keeping your hand upraised when it is stretched in front, then do this – but while your hand is behind you, it should remain as close to the floor as possible.
You should keep this movement comfortable for you – don’t strain to make a huge circle, but do try to stretch your arm enough so that you really feel it. Notice how this exercise moves the rib cage and upper back. There are few movements that give the upper torso so much freedom.
Fig. 1-10 A
Fig. 1-10 B
Now, stretch the left arm as far above the head as you can with your left hand touching the floor. With your right hand, grasp the rib cage area and pull it forward, toward the floor (fig 1-10C), then rotate the left arm again, first clockwise and then counterclockwise, and rest on your back before you roll over and repeat this whole exercise on your other side. Again, take time between the two sides to notice whether there is a difference in sensation and the quality of that difference. As you feel your muscles stretching, imagine that you are breathing into those muscles, expanding them with each breath.
Fig. 1-10 C
1-11 This exercise should not be done unless your lower back is fairly relaxed. If you are unsure whether this is the case, consult your movement instructor, therapist, or Self-Healing practitioner. For a change, roll over onto your abdomen. Remember to always change positions slowly, easily, and gracefully. Especially avoid straining your neck. Lie flat on your abdomen, place your hands palms-down on either side of your chest, and then slowly push yourself up until your upper body, all the way down to the pelvis, is raised up off the floor and your elbows are locked. Keep your shoulders down and your chest stretched (fig 1-11). This position is a yoga asana (posture) called the Cobra.
Hold this position while you take two long deep breaths and then slowly lower yourself to the floor, and then raise yourself again. See whether you can do this without straining the muscles of your shoulders, chest, back or abdomen. Breathe deeply to relax your chest and abdomen so that they are less likely to resist the lifting.
Now, slowly twist to the right and then to the left, feeling how this changes the position of the chest muscles. Lower yourself slowly to
the floor, and then raise yourself again. Let your arms support you and push your weight down into the floor. Coordinate this exercise with your breathing, counting slowly to ten while inhaling deeply as you lower yourself. Exhale slowly as you raise yourself.
1-12 Lie down on your back, pull both knees to your chest and hug them as close to the chest as you can. Now, breathe deeply into your lower back. After ten deep breaths, release your hold on the knees and lie outstretched. You will probably find yourself breathing better now. Because you compressed your chest, your brain will now demand that you breathe more deeply into the expanded lower back.
1-13 Stand facing a wall, and stretch your arms straight up above your head. “Climb” the wall, hand over hand, until you are on your tiptoes and your arms are extendedas far up as possible (fig 1-13).
Breathe each time you move a hand higher, and feel how your elevated side is stretched, elongated, and expanded. Try to make at least twenty of these climbing motions. You may find that your arms can stretch much farther up than you imagined, and that they can continue stretching even when you think you have reached your limit. This is because the shoulders, upper back, and chest relax along with your arms, and they elongate as you continue the stretch.
1-14 Stand with your feet slightly apart and your arms stretched above your head. Inhale deeply and hold the breath in while you bend the whole torso forward from the waist several times. Exhale slowly, inhale deeply, repeat the bending and straightening, and see if you can hold the breath in a little longer each time you do this.
If these movements feel difficult or strange, it is probably because you are not used to focusing your attention on separate parts of your upper body. Many of us move as though our upper torso is carved out of one piece of wood, instead of being composed of hundreds of muscles, capable of infinite varieties of movement. Even if you have found your body stiff, painful, or awkward, you have begun the work of loosening your torso. You have made the first step toward increasing your circulation and deepening your breathing – two things which will ultimately help everything in your body to function better.
With your muscles warmed and stretched, you are now ready to focus on breathing itself. There are several simple guidelines for healthy breathing which apply to all situations. The first is to breathe deeply. This instruction to breathe deeply accompanies every exercise we learn. Sometimes we confuse the idea of breathing deeply with breathing strenuously,but the two things are not the same at all. In fact, trying too hard will only create resistance to deep breathing, overworking the heart, lungs and the muscles especially. Worse, it causes us to associate deep breathing with straining. Let yourself breathe deeply but comfortably, allowing the air to flow slowly in. Give yourself a count of ten to fill your lungs completely, and don’t try to overfill them. Their capacity to expand will increase naturally as you practice these exercises. Also, drawing your breath in slowly automatically creates a demand for more oxygen.
The second principle is to always breathe through the nose, both inhaling and exhaling. There are some useful disciplines that suggest inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, but we have found our way much more effective in relaxing the body. As we have mentioned, breathing through the nose warms, moistens and filters the incoming air. Without such treatment, the air can irritate the lungs. The slowness of nose breathing has a relaxing effect on the body, as opposed to mouth breathing which is often associated with anxiety. It is harder to relax completely while you are breathing through the mouth. Sinus congestion is also due in part to mouth breathing. The air that passes through the nasal passages does much of the clearing of the sinuses. Without this constant cleansing, the sinuses can become chronically clogged.
Thirdly, breathing should be slow. Slow breathing allows full exchange between the inhaled oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is a waste product meant to be excreted by the lungs. Even more importantly, a slow breath triggers the action of the parasympathetic nervous system and its calming, stabilizing effect on the entire body. We will learn more about this in the chapter on the Nervous System. To sum up, our breathing should be slow, deep but non-strenuous, and as full as possible. We should breathe both in and out through our nose; and we should exhale as fully as we inhale.
1-15 Lie comfortably on your back, knees bent, with your head on a firm pillow. Close your eyes and visualize blackness, or any dark color that feels comfortable to you. Breathe slowly in and out for thirty long, deep breaths. If you lose concentration before getting to thirty, try counting the breaths in groups of five. Inhale each time for a count of four, hold for a moment, and then exhale for a count of six, to be sure you have exhaled all the air that you possibly can.
Gradually increase the length of both your inhalation and your exhalation, until you are inhaling for a count of ten and exhaling for a count of fourteen. Remember not to force air into your lungs – instead, imagine a magnetic force inside your lungs gently pulling in the air.
As we inhale, the small air pockets in our lungs expand. These tiny pockets are called alveoli. As oxygen-rich air enters the lungs, the blood vessels in the alveoli take in the oxygen they need and trade carbon dioxide for it. The air in the lungs thus becomes poorer in oxygen and richer in carbon dioxide. The only really useful thing we can do with this carbon dioxide is to expel as much of it as possible and restock up on oxygen.
Visualize that your entire body expands each time you inhale, and that your entire body deflates a little each time you exhale. Imagine that every part of you – muscles, bones, organs, even hair – is as elastic and expandable as your alveoli, and as hungry for oxygen. Focus on each part of your body in turn, and imagine it becoming larger, lighter, warmer and more alive as it fills with oxygen.
Now, visualize your blood circulating to every part of your body, warming, nourishing and cleansing your cells. These processes of expansion and increased circulation are actually happening as your breathing deepens. Visualizing helps us to become more aware of them. Visualization may also help to facilitate them, because our central nervous system is as much influenced by our thoughts as by our environment.
Creating a Demand for Oxygen
In his book What to Do about Your Brain-Injured Child (Doubleday & Co., Garden City, NY, 1974), Glenn Doman describes his work with children suffering from brain injuries and other neuromuscular problems. He found that these children suffered from insufficient respiration, and that in order to make any progress with them he had to deepen their breathing. As most of them were severely mentally handicapped, they could not learn breathing exercises. The only way to get them to breathe more deeply was to deprive them of oxygen for very short periods. Oxygen deprivation automatically triggered their breathing mechanisms to work harder, and this higher level of functioning continued for some time after the oxygen deprivation was stopped. The purpose of the following exercise is to create a demand for oxygen to improve our breathing.
1-16 Take several long, deep breaths to relax your body. Inhale slowly while silently counting up to seven. When you have reached seven, exhale slowly as you count to ten. Inhale again – this time for a count of eight. Exhale for a count of twelve. The exhale should always be longer than the inhale. A slow and complete exhalation will both allow space for oxygen-rich air, and create a temporary state of oxygen deprivation. This will ensure that our bodies learn to crave and demand oxygen.
Now add the following: inhale and, while holding your breath in, move your abdominal muscles up and down six times. Exhale, and do not inhale again until you have again moved the abdominal muscles up and down six times. You will probably find your abdomen much stronger than you thought.
Now, breathe normally for ten deep breaths, and see whether it seems easier and more natural now to breathe fully. You have created an appetite for oxygen. Repeat this entire process twice more, and practice making your inhalations and exhalations last for the entire length of the counting. The more slowly you allow your lungs to fill and to empty, the more they will work to do so.
1-17 Alternate Breathing: This is an ancient technique used in yoga. Besides focusing your attention on your breathing, it helps you to make sure that you are using both nostrils when you breathe. Just as we tend to use one hand for almost everything we do unless we make a conscious effort to use both, we can develop a tendency to be “one-sided” in any activity. This may mean walking harder on one foot, chewing only on one side of the mouth, or breathing principally through only one nostril (or all of the above). The latter may cause chronic congestion of the less-used nasal passage. It may be that this breathing pattern developed due to a blocked nasal passage in the first place, but the alternate-breathing technique will help to clear up this condition. There is evidence that there is a natural alternating cycle of use between the nostrils, where each shuts down for maintenance every 20 minutes. This allows most of the air to be shunted through one nostril for a time while the other recovers, suggesting that we can benefit from consciously aiding the process.
Press on your right nostril with your forefinger to close it. Inhale slowly through the left nostril for a count of ten or longer, until you feel that both lungs are filled to their fullest capacity. While holding the breath in for a moment, take your fingertip off the right nostril and close the left instead. Exhale through the right nostril, again for a count of ten or longer. Let the air out as slowly as possible, keeping the left nostril pressed closed. Inhale through the right nostril, hold for a moment, close the right nostril and exhale slowly through the left.
To put it simply, you are taking air in through one nostril, expelling it through the other, and then inhaling through the one you exhaled from. Even if one side of your nose seems completely plugged, you can probably draw in enough air through it to fill your lungs – if you breathe slowly enough – and after several repetitions of this exercise you will find that there is less congestion.
Note: This exercise may not be sufficient to help congestion. Refer also to the section on Sinus Headaches in the Headaches chapter.
Expanding the Chest and Abdomen
1-18 Slowly lie down on your back. Gently close your eyes. As you inhale, push your chest out as far as you can while drawing your abdomen in. As you slowly exhale, let both chest and abdomen relax and flatten. Inhale again, and this time pull your chest in and push your abdomen out; then relax as you exhale.
When you have become fully comfortable with these two movements – and it may take several tries before you can completely control your chest and abdominal movements – reverse the entire process. When you inhale, let the abdomen and the chest expand. Then, as you exhale, push your chest out and pull your abdomen in. Inhale to expand both, then exhale drawing your chest in, pushing your abdomen out. When you have mastered these exercises, you will have a deepened breathing capacity and remarkably strong and flexible muscles in the front of your body.
Refer also to exercise 3-4in the Joints chapter for a stretch for the chest and abdomen.
1-19 “Jug” Breathing: The following is more of a visualization than an exercise. Its main purpose is to show that you can control and direct the flow of your breath. Imagine yourself as an empty jug, and your breath flowing into you like water as you inhale. Remember that the bottom fills up first when you pour water into a jug. As you slowly inhale, imagine your breath filling you in the same way.
Let the air flow first into the abdomen and lower back, expanding them, then into the diaphragm area, and finally into the lungs, middle and upper back and chest.
When you exhale, remember that water pouring from a jug leaves the top first. Let your chest empty first, then the upper and middle back, then the diaphragm area, and finally the abdomen and lower back.
Like all other breathing exercises, this should be done slowly. Practice this exercise until you genuinely feel that you can direct your breath to flow where you want it to. Then try visualizing that your inhalation fills your entire body, beginning with the soles of the feet and expanding all the way up to the top of your head. When you exhale, try to imagine the breath leaving your skull first, and then each part of your body in succession.
Practice also exercise 6-2 in the Nervous System chapter.
Breathing and Movement
Proper breathing will help make all of our other exercises more effective. Movement coordinated with breathing focuses our attention on our bodies, increasing our kinesthetic awareness and keeping our movement from becoming strained or mechanical.
1-20 Begin with slow and simple movements, such as turning your head from side to side while lying on your back. As your head rolls from the right shoulder to the left shoulder, inhale; as it rolls from the left shoulder to the right shoulder, exhale. After repeating this several times, let yourself inhale slowly while the head moves from left to right and back to left again, and then repeat the same movement while exhaling.
Bend your knees and slowly lower the bent knees together to the floor, inhaling as you lower them to the right, exhaling as you lower them to the left. Raise and lower your arms alternately, with the right arm coming up as the left arm comes down. Coordinate your breathing with the movement so that you inhale as the left arm comes up and exhale as the right arm comes up. This can be done with any non-strenuous movement.
1-21 With more challenging exercises, it is most effective to time our breathing so that we are inhaling on the easier part of the movement and exhaling on the more difficult part. The reason for this is that our bodies associate exhalation with relaxation or “letting go.” Exhaling during a strenuous motion will automatically eliminate some of the strain we would otherwise experience.
Try the Cobra exercise (1-11). Inhale deeply first, then exhale while you push yourself up and inhale as you slowly lower yourself. The same exercise will be more difficult if you do not coordinate the exhalation with the effort. Try to push yourself up as you inhale to feel the difference. Now roll over on your side, inhale, and then exhale as you quickly raise one leg straight up as far as you can. Hold the leg raised for several seconds while you inhale, and then slowly lower it, exhaling as you do so. Try this with any movement that requires effort, and you will find the movement to be easier.
Breathing and Affirmations
In times of emotional distress, breathing can be a powerful tranquilizer that calms, balances and centers the mind. Our bodies reflect our emotions and vice versa. If we can create a calm feeling in our bodies, demonstrated by a steady pulse and slow deep breathing, it helps to quiet our emotions as well. It brings oxygen to the brain to help the mind function a bit more clearly, and calm is the best friend to a disturbed mind.
1-22 Breathing can be combined with affirmations to produce an almost hypnotic calming effect, similar to the use of a mantra in transcendental meditation. An affirmation is simply a positive statement about a condition we are working to create in our lives. One potent way to combine affirmation with breathing is to imagine, and to state to ourselves, that as we inhale we are drawing the feelings we want into our bodies. As we exhale, we can imagine that we are expelling the feelings we want to be rid of. For example, if we are nervous about a performance or a stressful situation that demands daily repetition, as we inhale we can tell ourselves, “I am breathing in confidence,” and, as we exhale, “I breathe out self-doubt.” If we are having a hard time concentrating, we can affirm as we inhale, “I breathe in clarity,” and, as we exhale, “I breathe out confusion.” If we are plagued with general stress, we can exhale our anxiety and inhale peace. Then, regardless of the outcome, we are ready for it, due to the affirmation and breathing. Dedicating at least ten minutes each day to this practice can make a tremendous difference.
One thing to keep in mind is to avoid forcing an emotion on ourselves that is too far away from our present state of mind. If we are very depressed, our minds and bodies may not be able to inhale joy, but our minds will probably allow for contentment or peace of mind.
Begin your practice of affirmations with positive statements, which seem realistic to you, and your mind will be receptive to them.
The more you practice affirmations, the more power you will have to make them real.
Breathing Exercises with Friends
If you want to help someone else to breathe better, or if you are doing breathing exercises in groups or with clients, here are several techniques that can be done together to improve breathing.
1-23 Have your partner lie down on his back, arms at his sides and knees bent. Place the palm of one hand under the back of his head, and the palm of your other hand flat on his sternum. Ask him to relax his neck completely and inhale deeply while you slowly raise his head until his chin touches his chest, simultaneously pressing down on his chest with your whole hand (fig 1-23). Pressing with the whole hand will keep you from pushing too hard; if you press only with the heel of the hand you might exert an uncomfortable pressure. Ask him to exhale while you slowly lower his head again. Repeat this several times, each time more slowly, so that the length of his inhalations and exhalations gradually increases. Then have him sit up and see how it feels to breathe.
1-24 Have your partner lie down again. Slide one hand under the shoulder blade while your other hand presses firmly on the pectoral muscles, where the arm joins the chest. While pressing, lift the shoulder blade up as far as possible and rotate it, in both directions, about twenty times each way (fig 1-24A).
Fig. 1-24 A
Then take hold of that arm at the wrist and gently but firmly pull it toward you – first diagonally and then straight out from the shoulder (fig 1-24B).
Fig. 1-24 B
Hold the wrist in one hand, and with the other hand pull on each finger separately. Ask your partner to notice whether the side you have stretched feels different from the other. Then repeat this process on his other side.
1-25 The following exercise is quite demanding and is recommended only for people who know that their backs are in very good condition, as it could result in strain or injury if either person has a weak back.
Have your partner stand up. Standing at her side, with one arm outstretched across her lower back, the other across her abdomen and your hands laced together, ask her to stretch her arms up over her head and then to bend backward as far as she can. You should be supporting her weight completely (fig 1-25).
Now, ask her to bring her hands up to her hips and, in this position, try to raise and lower her upper body. Her hands, her feet, and your supporting arm are her points of leverage. This is the most difficult exercise we have described so far, but it give an amazing degree of release to the back and chest. The thoracic vertebrae, which support the upper back, are joined to the ribs and normally need more mobility than our typical movement allows them. This exercise gives them a chance to really move, which then benefits the lungs as well.
Massage is perhaps the gentlest and most pleasant way to stimulate breathing. Massage of the chest, neck, shoulders, and upper back is always helpful, but we may be surprised to find that massaging areas that seem totally unrelated to breathing sometimes gives the best results.
If we can find the area where a person is holding their deepest tension, and release it, an increase in breathing follows immediately. That area may be anywhere in the body – the lower back, the pelvis, the legs, or the muscles around the eyes. Wherever it is, you will know you have found it when you hear or see a deepening in breathing. Consult the Massage chapter for ideas on massage techniques.
Any of the techniques we have described in this chapter may also be used in group situations. Breathing is the best introduction to movement, meditation, and study. Breathing exercises are an excellent way to begin any class or lecture, because increased oxygen to the brain helps concentration and improves memory. A study done with elderly patients in a nursing home showed that increasing the oxygen levels in their rooms improved their memory function by as much as 70 percent. Whatever we want to do, breathing slowly, deeply and fully will help us to do it better.