The shoulders of giants
Someone tells you to “take a deep breath.” There’s more to it than you think. It’s the tip of an iceberg most people have never seen or heard of.
Having difficulty breathing?
If you are having difficulty breathing, please see below for possible causes in Appendix: Difficulty Breathing.
For more than a decade now, I have been practicing, teaching and exploring an unusual form of therapeutic breathing. It is known as “bioenergetic breathing,” and has its origins in the bodywork philosophies that emerged originally from Alexander Lowen’s interpretations of Reich and Jung.1 Interestingly, the same breathing style is called “round” breathing by the Chinese in the context of qigong, and has deep roots in that culture, although in a much different way.
So when I teach this kind of breathing, I stand on the shoulders of giants. I learned about bioenergetic breathing from Joanne Peterson and Drs. Jock McKeen and Bennet Wong at Gabriola Island’s renowned Haven Institute for Professional Training. What I teach today is an adaptation of what I am still learning whenever I visit Gabriola.
No therapy at all
What I enjoy most about this form of “therapy” is that it is no therapy at all, but simply a kind of education. I do not have the conceit of the healer when I do this work. I am more of a coach. And it’s easy.
Although I offer many suggestions while “coaching” a breathing session, this is not because anyone ever breathes incorrectly. Every kind of breathing is intrinsically expressive of the individual, and potentially useful. My job is to encourage new and unfamiliar breathing – to stimulate altered states, and to use deep breath to reveal personal habits, limitations and resistance to full experience of life.
Breathing with your body
Bioenergetic breathing is basically just fast, deep breathing. It emphasizes inhalation, which is assertive and full. It does not pause at the top or the bottom of the breath, forming a smooth sine wave. The mouth and throat are open wide, removed from the path of the breath, never shaping or controlling the movement of air. Most people attempt to breathe predominantly with their mouth, nose and throat. In fact, it is the body that breathes, and the upper respiratory tract is simply an obstacle course.
In a typical bioenergetic breathing session, you might work up to a vigorous pace of breathing in the space of a minute or two, continue for five to ten minutes, and then wind down again.
How fast is fast? “Fast” is roughly double to triple your normal resting respiratory rate — about the same as if you’d just been exercising. Depth is more important than speed. Go as fast as you reasonably can while still actually taking and expelling a good chest-full of air. Don’t cut corners off the amplitude of the breath just to get greater speed. The overall effect is pretty vigorous, but it doesn’t have to be ridiculous. If you were to breathe like this in front of someone, but act otherwise normal, they would say, “Wow, hey, what’s up? You been running or something? Doing some kind of deep breathing exercise?” It’s an eyebrow-raising pace, not a “call 911” pace.
And what’s the point of all this breathing?
Breathing is stimulating. It induces heightened and altered states of awareness and sensation. For more information about the deeper philosophy of breathing, read The Anatomy of Vitality. But I suggest that you just try it first … I think that you’ll like it.
The surprising challenges of deep breathing
For something so simple, bioenergetic breathing proves to be a surprising challenge for nearly everyone. Most struggle, experiencing fear, frustration or apathy. Obviously, the challenge isn’t technical — it’s just heavy breathing. So what is it that gives people such trouble?
The challenge is emotional. Shallow breathing is the norm in our society. In fact, it is typical of most aging biological organisms. Shallow breath constitutes a comfort zone that we are reluctant to leave. Breathing hard stirs up interesting and alarming sensations, and we humans have an enormous repertoire of tactics for controlling and limiting the experience so that it is a little less boat-rocking.
Some common avoidance behaviours that I’ve observed over the years include chain yawning, squirming, blowing and hissing, wheezing, dry throat, aches and pains that magically pop out of nowhere, an attack of silliness, giggles or ticklishness, and so on. As they attempt to proceed, most people will experience anxiety, frustration or (most problematic) a suspiciously intense apathy. As a coach, “the fade” is the most difficult of all avoidance tactics to navigate, and it happens to be my own favourite reaction to breathing: when the going gets tough, I get sleepy and tune out.
Shallow breath constitutes a comfort zone that we are reluctant to leave.
Getting past these defenses is so surprisingly difficult that most people need coaching. As a breathing coach, I can spot all your tricks, keep you breathing clearly, and encourage you to actually experience all of the new sensations – instead of developing a sudden, intense interest in something else.
Parasthesia, tetanus and tremors, oh my! Transient physiological consequences of deep breathing
The challenge is complicated by the fact that bioenergetic breathing tends to cause three harmless but potentially alarming side-effects: parasthesia, tetanus, and tremors.
Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, it is kind of exciting. This is powerful stuff. But these experiences really are harmless, and they tend to go away with practice. I myself went through them and came out the other side many years ago.
Parasthesia simply means “altered sensation,” usually in the form of tingling that starts around the mouth, at the fingertips and in the toes. As it advances and spreads, it is usually accompanied by tetanus — sustained but mild contraction of muscles. The hands and feet tend to “claw up,” and your lips will feel like you’ve just been to the dentist! This is different than spasm, and it is more stiff than painful. It wears off quickly. Finally, tremors may sweep through the body erratically, perhaps favouring a specific limb or side, but this too passes rapidly — and should actually be indulged when it occurs. Let yourself shake. Be free!
Martial arts and yoga practitioners may study their entire lives without knowing the sensation of qi.
These symptoms are produced by an altered mind-body state, both physiological and psychological. The tetanus is a consequence of some changes in blood chemistry. The tingling is the sensation of qi — when your hands are tingling fiercely with qi, it feels like you are holding balls of fire. It’s a very distinctive sensation, and a privilege to experience. I often explain to people that martial arts and yoga practitioners may study for their entire lives without knowing the sensation of qi, simply because they don’t breathe enough.
The tendency to tremor is a “letting go.” We are all hanging on tightly to so very much, including out own bodies. The breathing shakes us loose. I advise you not to try to stop it.
I must emphasize again that all of these side-effects are temporary. Bioenergetic breathing is not hyperventilation.2 It is not dangerous in any way. Any sensation you experience during breathing will go away as you slow down and stop.
You might become emotional during bioenergetic breathing.
Most people feel like crying. Feeling sad and frustrated are the most common reactions to breathing. But many also feel like they want to hit something (hint: try a pillow!), and virtually any other kind of emotional experience is possible for different people, or for the same person in different sessions.
Sadness and anger are the two great unexpressed emotions in our society. Most of us have deep wells of them. Bioenergetic breathing can be a handy way to deliberately induce cathartic crying jags. Indeed, some people notice that they cry every time they breathe like this, prompting the question, “What else is there? When will I be done crying?”
The answer is, “When you’re done.” If you’ve been holding back sadness for thirty years, expect it to take a while. But trust me: there is something beyond all the crying. And that is what this work is all about. It’s soul diving.
Go to it. Slow down and stop if you get alarmed. Call me if you have questions or you want a coach. There are no rules, but many possibilities. I’ll leave you with a few of those …
- Try breathing like mad for a five minutes and then holding your breath for a while. You’ll be amazed at how long you can do it.
- Try breathing in different positions. Some classic positions are: draped over an exercise ball (face up or face down), touching your toes, leaning backwards, flat on your back with the knees up, squatting, child’s pose, while doing virtually any stretch …
- Try breathing in different patterns: three sharp breaths in, one out.
- Try breathing by “filling” different parts of your body: the deep belly, the solar plexus, the upper chest. For a real challenge, “fill” the less flexible parts of yourself.
- Try adding movement to the breathing, either rhythmically and repetitively, or randomly.
- Try visualizations. The possibilities in this category alone are virtually limitless. Two examples: pull energy in through your head with the intake and flush it out your toes on the exhalation; or visualize yourself like a coal that swells with heat and light when you blow on it! I like that one …
- Try breathing with music that you love.
- Try adding sound to breathing. Start with noisy exhalations, like you are groaning with satisfaction and weariness at the end of the week. That’s a good place to start. But you can work up to all kinds of noisy nonsense. If you have the privacy, do not hesitate to be emotionally noisy.
- And on and on …