Posted on: Monday, 11 March 2013
A Breath of Fresh Air
The spiritual and health benefits of breathing consciously
“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. From my own experience and from working with patients, I have come to believe that proper breathing is the master key to good health.”
– Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Natural Health, Natural Medicine
I was a wreck back in 1975 when I first met Leonard Orr. A few years earlier my family had moved from solid, rooted and stable Switzerland into the mad swirling instability of the hippie movement, the anti-Vietnam protests, the political upheaval, the free drugs, rock n’ roll and sexual revolution: the cultural revolution of the sixties in San Francisco, California. From the time I had stepped onto the North American continent I had not found solidity in my footing again.
At twenty-two I was facing Leonard, the originator of Rebirthing, for a personal session. I knew I needed help. I was a single mom with no means of support, no permanent home and still smarting from my sister’s death a decade earlier. My parent’s divorce and my dad’s subsequent move back to Europe aggravated the sense of being alone and vulnerable in a strange and foreign land. Really, my only asset was a deep burning love for God, an insatiable desire for Divine connection. But who had time for a spiritual practice with two little kids and the need to support them?
Sitting across from Leonard Orr, I emptied myself of my painful tale, all my complaints: the uncertainty, the lack and responsibility, the hardships and self-doubt, the struggle, loneliness, tears, the lack of time and the unfulfilled yearning for God. I dumped it all out, like a bag of trash, on the floor between us, emptying myself of all those hardship I had carried for so long. When I finally got over my distress and looked through my tears at Leonard, expecting compassion, love and care from this well-known spiritual figure, what I saw in his face and mirrored in his eyes was great amusement. I looked at him in disbelief. Amusement! Amusement at all my pain, all my hardships, all my suffering! Amusement about me!
“OK, are you done?” He smiled with no little bit of cynicism. I nodded dumbly, still too shocked that my tale had not evoked even an iota of compassion. What was spirituality any way? Wasn’t this great spiritual teacher supposed to heal and love me back into well being? Coddle me with understanding? Take away all my sorrows, make my life balanced and well again? Replace the father who had just abandoned me? I had just had the proverbial rug yanked out from under me, so I just nodded.
“Then lie down and breathe!” “Breathe?!”, I could not believe what I was hearing. Breathe! I wanted love, I wanted compassion, and care, most of all sympathy. What did he mean: Breathe?!
“Breathe! Listen to you. Your life sucks. All those external manifestations come from internal mental and emotional patterns you hold. You have not done any inner work to clean them up!”
“Oh, yes, I have!” I protested loudly. Now I was mad. Who was this guy to tell me I had not done any work?! It is now with some embarrassment that I have to admit that I started to recount the teachers and gurus I had studied with, the meditative practices I had been involved in, the hours of yoga, meditation and chanting. He just continued to smile that maddening smile with that tinge of sarcasm. It was infuriating.
“Are you done?”, he repeated when I finally ran down like a steamroller running… well…out of steam. I nodded in defeat. Obviously my tirade had not had the desired effect. He began to explain that my years of spiritual work had intensified the energy, chi, prana, in other words, spiritual flow through my system of body, mind and energetic or emotional body. That all those years of doing spiritual work had created a strong energy which now ran through my creative mind, a mind that had not been purified of the basic life patterns I had inherited from family and culture.
Our mind works like a movie projector. Projecting into reality whatever we hold there. When we have a lot of spiritual energy things manifest faster and more dynamically. That’s why we see so many spiritually oriented people struggling with life. Their relationships don’t work, their finances are a mess, and their health is a disaster.
By doing spiritual practice we intensify the flow of energy that moves through our whole system, including our mind and emotional body. This energy is pure, raw life-force that is then directed by whatever is in our mind to create life around us which mirrors our beliefs. Spiritual growth needs to be a two-pronged process; on the one hand practices to create the divine flow and, on the other, processes to clean up the very human patterns which get intensified by this flow. Like many spiritually oriented people who have a deep yearning for God, I had pulled away from practices which brought up the human patterns, focusing solely on that which intensified my love of the Divine. I had only involved myself with one of these paths, completely ignoring the other and most necessary balance to my spiritual practices.
“And what does breathing have to do with this?” I asked.
“Everything,” he smiled his maniacal smile. And for some unfathomable reason at that moment I believed him, and even more mysterious than that, I trusted him. In that first session I realized the power of this modern reinvention of an ancient practice and in time went on to discover that breathing does hold the key and does have everything to do with it.
If you are afraid and full of doubt, breathe deeply and fully, with feeling. Breathe equally in and out, fully and clearly. Then breathe evenly in the Happiness.
– Da Free John
In 1976 I became what was then known as a Professional Rebirther, in Leonard Orr’s first Rebirther’s Training In San Diego, California. Thus I began the long, mystical and deep journey of discovering the power of our breath. Rebirthing was Leonard’s name for his conscious breathing method, at that time based on the belief that releasing one’s birth trauma in this dynamic and often explosive process was the way to regain the beauty of life.
It is still practiced both ‘dry’ using the breath as the vehicle for transformation and ‘wet’ where breathing is practiced while being gently cradled in warm water, but it has far transcended the original ideas associated with it. The name I use most frequently these days is conscious breathing, as it seems best to describe the healing potential of this reborn ancient, spiritual and healing practice. In the ensuing years I have had the honour of witnessing countless friends and students heal themselves of life threatening illnesses, have moments of touching on God consciousness, heal severe personality disorders, and yes, learn how to dance in beauty in the physical world.
There is one way of breathing which is shameful and constricted. Then there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to Infinity.
In most Indo-European languages, the word for spirit and breath are the same. This underscores the belief that breath is actually the movement of spirit in matter. In most cultures throughout time the process of breathing was considered inseparable from health, consciousness and spirit. When the missionaries came to Hawaii the Hawaiian’s had a word – ohana – that in modern usage has come to mean “family”, but then literally translated as “people who breathe together.” They called the white missionaries hoales, which translates, probably quite accurately, as “people without breath.” In Chinese the character for “breath” (hsi) is made up of three characters that mean “conscious self or heart.” In Latin anima means both breath and soul. In Japanese ki, means air/spirit. Our word respiration, in English, continues to reflect this ancient knowledge. So let’s explore how we can re-spirit our lives through our respiration!
Few people are aware that they breathe poorly, fewer yet realize the health and vitality implications of this restricted breathing. Since this time yesterday you have taken about twenty thousand breaths. In your lifetime you will breathe more than a hundred million times! In bringing consciousness to your breath a little improvement goes a long way. If you increase the efficiency of your breathing by only 5 percent per breath, you will have increased the efficiency of your body a thousand fold!
This 5 percent increase in your breath can easily be achieved by training yourself to lengthen your exhale. We usually think of deepening our breath by inhaling longer, but it is by giving more space in our lungs that this incredible benefit can be achieved.
Take a break from your reading and allow yourself to exhale completely. You will notice that the ‘stale’ breath that would usually stay in your lungs is at the bottom of your lungs. This is your most potent place for breath renewal, as most of the blood coursing through your lungs to re-oxygenate your body and mind moves through the bottom third of your lungs.
Exhale completely, then inhale, allowing your belly to expand. As you continue to read keep this slow, full breathing method going. You will find an increase in energy and mental clarity, you may find your shoulders releasing tension…for now, as you read…forever, if you teach yourself to breathe deeply all the time! If fatigue is more than an occasional occurrence in your life, I can not encourage you enough to make this practice of conscious breathing one of your daily priorities. I have noticed over the years that conscious breathing produces a steady flow of energy throughout the day.
The breath alone is well worth knowing, even if only in terms of health. If we know how to breathe properly, we will have good health.
– Buddhadasa Bhikku, author of Mindfulness with Breathing
Breathing is the only major function in the body we do both voluntary and involuntary. As such, it is the only function through which we can access and influence the involuntary, or autonomic, nervous system. Doctors believe that it is due to this that breathwork has such a powerful effect on our health and emotional well being. The autonomic nervous system regulates the heart, circulation, and digestion, among other vital functions. Imbalances in this system are the root cause of many ailments, including irregular heart rhythms, hypertension, and disorders of circulation and digestion, to name a few.
In studies, too numerous to list in this short format, researchers have found correct breathing can alleviate, and often cure, chronic pain, migraine headaches, high blood pressure, panic attacks, asthma, as well as coronary heart disease. Hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause have been reduced by an impressive 50% by deep relaxed breathing alone.
There are many reasons why I practice conscious breathing… Breathing has the power to enhance both the practical present moment and our mystical connection with infinity.
– Gay Hendricks, PH. D author of At the Speed of Life
In conscious breathing, besides the amazing potential health benefits, breathwork practitioners also use techniques to bring awareness of the breath to their clients that accomplish the same aims of conventional talk therapy and medication. Many doctors believe that in the future breathwork will play an ever-increasing role in both medicine and psychotherapy. One of the most astonishing and potent applications of conscious breathing is in our emotional well being. It has been used with great success with people with clinical problems and for people who are just trying to deal with the ever-increasing speed and tensions of daily life.
With every one of those hundred million breaths you take during your lifetime, you are either telling your body there is something dangerous going on, when you use a shallow and tense breath, or, through a deep relaxed breath, that life is good, safe and beautiful. A deep relaxed breath tells your sweet body to relax, open up, and be healthy, to digest its food just fine so you can absorb nutrients, allow oxygen to move into your brain for clarity of thought, and allow your heart to feel happy.
A tense, shallow breath communicates through your autonomic nervous system that there is something potentially dangerous in life, increasing muscle tension, and freeing into your blood stream the potentially harmful hormones released by the flight or fight response. If you watch people who are angry, anxious, or otherwise upset, their breathing always changes in the direction of being rapid, shallow, noisy, and irregular.
It’s impossible to be upset if your breathing is slow, deep and regular. The more you relax your breathing, the more oxygen will be delivered to organs and the more harmoniously your nervous system will function. Whenever you think about it, perhaps while driving or working on the computer, practice taking a series of breaths in which you consciously try to make your breath slower, deeper, quieter, and more regular.
Breathing in I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing is also the fastest and most effective way to clear unpleasant feelings out of your body. Take a few deep breaths into the physical sensation of any emotion and pay attention to what happens! Most of the time this is all it takes to remove the sensation from your body. Watching people master their feelings and return to the base experience of joy in life is one of the most rewarding experiences of being a breathwork practitioner.
If you remember back to my earlier story and my passionate love for God, you will recall that I said that at that time this was really my only asset. This passion remains the foremost drive in my life and it has fuelled all my work, but today it is well-tempered with a worldly balance, the solid footing of a marriage that delights, work which is rewarding and grown children who are succeeding and contributing on their own paths. Due to my love of the Divine I would be remiss if here at the end of this article I did not mention the deep spiritual nature of conscious breathing. As in the past, this for me is the essence that makes any endeavour worth pursuing. The patterns that hold you back from experiencing pure Divine consciousness exist on the border between the unconscious and the conscious. So does breathing. It is the only system that works without conscious awareness and yet, at will, you can control it. It is exquisitely sensitive to your will and therefore gives you access to the unconscious. Breathwork in its deeper form allows you to free yourself from patterns that keep you separate from the Divine
We are children of breath, and the way is ever open for our return to a life divine and everlasting.
– Michael Sky author of Breathing
Obviously we are here moving into territory which is impossible to prove scientifically, as it is territory science does not acknowledge exists. But I have witnessed this spiritual depth during breathwork many times with clients and experienced it myself. Breathing affects every cell in your body and there is growing evidence that the basic imprints of all life exist in every cell. When we breathe and release our limiting patterns we find ourselves in blissful union with the Universal. Ah, yes! It has always been the ultimate purpose of this practice, certainly there are health benefits, and there is emotional healing, but the ultimate is that moment of becoming one, one with the universal, one with all that breathes and all that is. What was it Leonard said? Are you done yet? Done with the pain? Done with the anger? Done with the struggle of separation from your divine self? Then lie down and breathe and join our ever-growing ohana!