Help! I Breathe Wrong!

polar feldenkrais.jpg

Many people come to me seeking the right way to breathe. I often hear, "I breathe wrong," or, "my breathing is shallow, my ribs don't move, my abdomen doesn't move, I need to do belly breathing, I tense my neck, I hold my breath, I'm anxious," etc. You might, then, expect Feldenkrais® breathing lessons to offer an answer. You might expect to get tools to correct yourself when you notice you are breathing incorrectly.

The problem with this solution is that human beings are dynamic creatures. We are never in the same situation twice, either internally or externally. If we were to breathe in the same way all the time, it would be like we had a repetitive script for every conversation. Moshe Feldenkrais comments that you cannot find a list of correct words for every situation, just like you cannot find a correct way of breathing for every situation.

What, then, is there to be done about the "correct" breathing conundrum? The most important thing is to create options and move out of habitual ruts. Just like in speaking, when you have a choice among thousands of words, you have a greater range of options with which to express yourself.

What does it mean in practice?

As you can imagine, Feldenkrais® breathing lessons invite you to throw "good" and "bad" breathing out the window. They encourage you to see your breathing as dynamic and responsive. Think about it: Swerving from a car requires a different kind of breathing from grocery shopping, which requires a different kind of breathing from delivering a presentation.

Try this: Check your belly

Imagine screaming for a moment. Would your abdomen contract or expand as you emitted a loud sound? Imagine a lion roaring or a cow mooing. Make a mooing sound right now. Feel what happens to your abdomen. Put your hand on it and feel. Does it go in or out? Now put your hand on your belly and cough. What does the belly do? Does it go in or out? Now laugh. What does it do? Go in or out?

This illustrates the point that the belly moves independently of the breath. I'm going to repeat that: the belly moves independently of the breath. When we insist on engaging the belly muscles to breathe, there is a loss of spontaneous response in the abdomen (and the diaphragm subsequently weakens from inefficient use). How can you adequately respond to the world if your belly muscles are all tied up with breathing?

Get out of your own way

Breathing in the Feldenkrais Method® is about letting the diaphragm and other muscles in the torso do their job. As we've just seen, on the exhale the abdomen goes in or out depending on the activity. With a large sound or intense exertion like exercise, the belly goes out. In quiet breathing, the belly goes in. Both are equally necessary for full human functioning.

Living at a high functional level means that you (or rather your impulse to control a natural, autonomic function) need to get out of the way and let the belly do what it does best, which it can only do if the muscle tone is relaxed to start with. Shortened, contracted abdominal muscles are lethal to a well-functioning nervous system. 

It is helpful to stop thinking of breathing as something you do to yourself. I often observe people distancing themselves from the act of breathing, making it something "out there" that requires some technique that you impose on "that breathing thing, out there." Try not to separate your self out from the biological act of breathing. Consider that you are simply alive, living, doing an activity, and also breathing. Whether it's swimming, running, picking up your child, or sitting at a computer, let yourself be breathed.

*    *    *

(Using breathing systems, as in yoga, Pilates, or stress-reduction techniques, to accomplish a specific goal is not a problem as long as you retain the option of breathing in many ways in response to life. Digestion problems, severe movement limitation, back pain, and emotional imbalance are just some of the results of trying (because it's impossible anyway) to adopt--as your only option--breathing that is intended for a specific goal.)

A short breathing experiment

1. Test: Exhale and count

First, exhale and quickly count out loud to ten by slurring your words. onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Vocalize the words, yet slur them. Count one to ten over and over. How many cycles of one to ten do you do in a single exhale?

2. Push out belly and hold

Lying down with your knees bent, put your hand on your lower belly between the belly button and the pubic bone. Breathe out completely and push the abdomen out in all directions, down toward the pelvic floor, sideways filling the pelvis, and forward and back to the belly and the low back. With the abdomen pushed out, hold the breath.

Do this a number of times. When you feel the impulse to breathe in, let it happen on it's own. Be observant: do you intentionally inhale and lift the chest? Are you "trying" to bring in air? Are you doing something to make yourself inhale? Don't try to fix it, just look at what you are doing.

3. Push out belly and hold, then push it out again and count to three

Pause a moment, then come back to the hand on the belly and breathe out as far as you can pushing the abdomen in all directions and hold it out. Then, breathe out a little more and hold that out and count to three. Only then do you breathe in. Can you feel the air rushing in? Breathing in will happen as a natural act of survival. When there is a need for oxygen, the organism will self-organize and take care of itself. You do not have to do anything but get out of the way.

Do this many, many times.

4. Push out belly and hold, then push it out again and count to three, then cough!

Do the same thing of expanding the abdomen on the exhale, but add a third pushing out of the belly after you count to three, which is a final push of air out of the lungs accompanied by a cough.

Do this many times. Feel the air rushing in. Can you feel the need to breathe in without doing anything

5. Test again. 

Return to counting to ten on the exhale while slurring your words, "one two three four five six seven eight nine ten" over and over. How many cycles of one to ten do you do now? Get up and walk around. Feel your breath. Feel your belly.

Want more breathing lessons?  Check out Better Breathing.