Breathe & Move

No matter what we’re doing in life, it’s bound to involve breathing & moving in some form or fashion.

Back in the early 90’s, Joan Seitz, Ph.D., in her article: I Move Therefore I Am, stated that movement is the basic life metaphor. Well, for breathing creatures, I contend breathing is more basic. In fact, if we’re breathing we have to be moving, for the respiratory process with its up-lifting inhalation & ‘letting go’ exhalation incorporates movement by its very nature. Even the pauses in between these two motions involve the pulsation of the heart. The question then isn’t are we breathing & moving, but are we aware of how we’re choosing to breathe & move? You may seem astounded at such an audacious insinuation; that we’re unaware of “how we’re choosing to breathe.” That’s ok, but notice how you’re breathing right now, and read on.

During the past 14 years I’ve been observing my own breathing patterns, and those of about 6,000 persons in stress relief, joy enhancement seminars and private massage sessions. I can assure you we breathe in a most unconscious and stress creating fashion, most of the time. This is could be due to our habit of rushing through things & perceiving time in a speeded up manner as alluded to by Dr. Larry Dossey in his book: Space, Time, and Medicine. During his days as a practicing internist, it was his habit to ask patients to close their eyes and open them in 60 seconds. Most everyone opened his or her eyes in 20 – 30 seconds. I’ve shared his experiment with numerous massage clients and asked them: “how long do you think most people kept their eyes closed?” Nearly all of them respond; “20 – 30 seconds!” This proves to me: 1) we know we’re moving too fast and/or 2) don’t know how to change it or don’t want to.

While practicing the art of massage as a licensed therapist in Arkansas, and in two other Southern states, most of the people I’ve seen have been short 20-minute massages in Hot Springs National Park. Preceding these mini-massages, an extensive hydrotherapy routine is performed under the auspices of the U. S. Park Service in Federally licensed bathhouses located there. Within seconds of the client lying down on my massage table, I could observe the ravages of shallow breathing expressed in rapid, repetitive motions throughout their upper musculature or very tense upper body posturing. Limited neck flexibility, up-tight shoulders, and a scrunched, wrinkled forehead are some examples of the specific non-verbal messages on a person’s body that communicate their inefficient and stress-creating breathing habits.

Guiding everyone through three consciously felt breath cycles was my first step before even starting the massage to help these people become aware of their respiratory muscle motions. I calmly & patiently encouraged them to “let go” fully while exhaling & allow their cells to receive a breath of fresh air with each inspiration. An awareness of the pauses between these two ‘breathing mainstays’ was also brought to their attention. Even though about 75% of the people started with fairly erratic breathing, by the third ‘guided breath,’ they’d begun to break their poor, unconscious breathing habit, and breathe more evenly & rhythmically. So, it doesn’t always ‘take a lot of time’ to become healthy. Just the willingness to slow down, notice how we’re breathing and chose to view & use our breath in a different way.

After following this breathing education procedure for 3 years, I came across a Healthy You newsletter article by a major Southern Hospital chain, St. Vincent’s Health Systems, part of the Catholic Health Initiatives system. This cover article entitled: The Benefits of Deep Breathing, cited the direct relationship between non-diaphragmatic, shallow breathing, and tense neck & shoulder muscles, and consequently headaches. It also pointed out how stress on the heart was eased and blood pressure lowered, just by breathing more deeply! A medical team has validated the articles deep breathing benefits, and it even gives a simple breathing pattern with which I’ve been having excellent responses from my clients, half of whom are first time massage recipients. The exercise simply advocates breathing in to a count of 4, holding your breath for 7 seconds, and breathing out to a count of 8, and pausing again. A few other sources also advocate breathing out for twice the amount of time that you inhale in order to fully empty your lungs. Three repetitions are recommended.

When mentioning these common sense approaches to people they easily understand that as they begin to breathe diaphragmatically, using the main muscle intended for respiration, neck and shoulder muscles get a break, and can relax. Additionally, by exhaling fully, a person is able to evacuate the lungs completely, simultaneously drop emotional tensing, and dangle the arms and shoulders, thereby letting the associated muscles and joints expand and not remain contracted. Without complete exhalations, complete inhalations of 3,600 cc’s of air are impossible; and our cells become O2 deprived – “cellular oxygen deprivation.”

According to a Knight News Service release some years ago, it was estimated that most Americans breathed with only 1/3 rd of their lung capacity. More recently, a respiratory therapist who I massaged lessened that to 10 – 20 %. No wonder we’re using only a fraction of our brain cells, we starve it of life giving oxygen!

Similarly, a Hot Springs based Czech health researcher, Viktoras Kulvinskas, states that all major chronic illnesses he’s studied have “cellular oxygen deprivation” as a major factor. Could it be that consciously attending to some simple aspects of our breathing process is the answer we’re searching for to the problem of optimal health? One 14 year old piece of research I recently ‘stumbled onto” profoundly illustrates the intimate relationship of the respiratory and cardiac systems. In 1985, in a Minneapolis – St. Paul hospital, two researchers, Allan Hymes, M.D. & Phil Nuernberger, Ph.D. examined the breathing practices of 153 heart attack patients. Their results were that all of them exhibited shallow breathing patterns, again linking the health of the heart to healthy breathing.

The good news here is that we can begin to change our unconscious breathing by simply slowing down and receiving a relaxing massage from once a week to once a month. Just last week, a novice massage recipient, a young man in the computer profession, came to me complaining of a nagging neck pain on his right side. After his session, he noted: “the depth of my breathing is significantly better & I sense I’m breathing into places in my lungs where I haven’t breathed before!” His neck tension was also greatly improved also.

His session involved the simple breathing alterations mentioned below:

1) Reverse breathing, where the exhalation is twice as long as the inhale, thereby fully emptying the lungs.

2) Feeling a sigh of relief while exhaling, with an ‘ah’ or ‘whew’ sound thereby letting go of emotional tension as well as depleted air. This audible sigh also releases past thoughts which may be blocking us from enjoying the here and now.

3) Choosing a “happy thought” or picture of health to visualize after exhaling three times, and holding this image in mind while receiving a couple effortless ‘breaths of fresh air’ to enliven the whole person.

Using your breathing combined with slow motion movements to become more health conscious can be done in just minutes a day whether you learn this in a massage or not. One profound exercise, the 3-way neck stretch, with which I end most of my massages can be done anytime throughout the day when you’re feeling stressed, tired, or worried. I suggest practicing this right now, and once a day for a week. Commit to writing or mentally noting sensations you experience, as your brain is busy adding them to your “expanding relaxation program.”

a) Slowly exhale completely as your head drops easily & limply to your chest.

b) Pause for a few seconds to feel your empty lungs and visualize a peaceful image.

c) Let your body & mind receive a new breath as your head rises to an upright position.

d) Breathe out while turning to the left & affirming “I’m releasing past tension!”

e) Inhale & return to the balance point between your shoulders representing the present.

f) Exhale and stretch to the right shoulder affirming: “I’m letting of future worries!”

g) Move your head slowly back to the mid-point, here and now position, while inhaling again.

Once you’ve tapped into what I call: “a relaxed breathing rhythm,” it’s important to notice it with passion, so you can recall it quicker as you need it. The breath is such an excellent tool for reclaiming our peace of mind, it’s a shame we’re overlooking it so much! Paying attention to your body when it’s functioning optimally helps you remember how to get back to that state more easily in the future. This is the start of “creating the relaxation program” in your brain (mentioned above) which for a while will rest along side of and eventually replace the stress program which you’ve grown accustomed to using to operate your body-mind computer.

I’ve found it also helpful to focus the awareness of a massage client with back pain on the movements of their spine as they breathe. The undulations of their back muscles & vertebral column are simply poetry in motion, and I only wish people could see this on videotape. On each full inhalation, the spine extends & stretches thereby lengthening the intervertebral muscles. Then, as one exhales completely, for twice the time of the inhale, this tension eases and the muscles go slack. This second part lets go of tightness between the vertebrae, and helps the back become more flexible. Again, only minutes are involved, and greater body – mind balance is the result.

For a little more investment in your health, say 5 – 15 minutes, some spontaneous movements can be incorporated with the breath awareness practices mentioned above. By moving your body in a variety of ways, you can unwind from some of the repetitive motion tension you often unknowingly carry around, and choose to move cooperatively with more of the bodies’ 600 muscles. Meier Schneider, author of Self Healing, has found in his work that most people habitually utilize only 50 of their body’s full complement of muscles on a daily basis.

One really easy ‘corrective motion’ for up-tight shoulders is to dangle them at our sides several times throughout the day. Combining a sigh of relief is a natural along with this fast, stress reliever. Rotating our arms slowly around our head is another good nontraditional motion, which keep them looser than usual and has even improved some golf swings! A closing ‘movement exploration’ for one of your more stressful days might be to stretch any tense body limb while breathing in, and release it slowly while breathing out. This does wonders for our flexibility.

So, if you’re tensing up too much between your work-outs, or if you haven’t started a regular fitness program, or think things are getting too hectic to work out, try some of these instead of just doing nothing. You’ll eventually get more disciplined with your fitness, but for now, use some fast, simple stress relievers for better health, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Remember Dr. Norm Shealy’s advice: “3 ten minute relaxation breaks could be the most important thing you do for your health!” Just commit to one short, daily “breath & movement break,” and you’re well on your way!