Breathing by Mark Reese, Ph.D.

Together with the beating of the heart, breathing is life’s most continuous muscular action, sustaining us from birth to death. The connection between spirit and respiration reflects how closely breathing is associated with the essence of life. It is therefore not surprising that breathing has captured people’s imaginations perhaps more than any other somatic function.

Part of the fascination with breathing consists in its dual nature as something we do and something that happens to us. Breathing is both a voluntary, conscious, muscular action and an involuntary, unconscious, physiological activity. Whether we are awake or asleep, the continuity of our breathing is ensured by the lower centers of the brain. On the other hand, higher centers regulate the conscious control of the breath for speaking, singing or doing breathing exercises.

Breathing is also a keystone to understanding our emotions and the emotions of others. Every emotion — sadness, anger, lust and joy — is expressed by a different quality of breathing. Even without paying attention to facial expression, we can sense changes of emotion by the way a person breathes.

In addition, the act of breathing is inseparably linked to our musculoskeletal system and posture. As our animal ancestors emerged from the water to live on the land, they developed the means of absorbing oxygen from the air together with the means of locomotion on the ground. While the gill-breathing of fish is relatively independent of their skeletal system, the lung-breathing of land animals makes active use of the same skeletal structure that is involved in all of their other movements.

As a result of this interdependence, chronic tensions and posture problems impair our ability to breathe freely, and poor breathing adversely affects posture and movement. Conversely, it is also true that improvement in breathing has an enormously positive impact upon our posture, movement and general health.

All these aspects of breathing have stimulated a wide array of techniques to train and improve people’s breathing. Breath training is an integral part of voice work for actors and singers. Since Wilhelm Reich first used breathing as a therapeutic tool, there have been many psychotherapeutic uses of breath, including Rebirthing, Symbol Linking Therapy and Radix. Yoga and Zen have long emphasized breathing as part of their spiritual practices. Most health practices and forms of “body work” recognize breathing improvement as one of their most important goals, with every school emphasizing a different aspect of breathing.

Most people are familiar with yogic, deep abdominal breathing, in which one expands the lower abdomen outward and downward (in the direction of the pelvic floor) while inhaling. This form of breathing helps elicit deep relaxation and meditative attention. It mirrors and enhances the normal state of breathing while at rest, where chest movement is minimal.

Effective use of the voice, whether for speaking or singing, requires efficient diaphragmatic breathing with clear and easy movements of the lower “floating” ribs. While vocalizing, we breathe out for extended periods of time and inhalation happens almost instantaneously with a smooth rush of air entering the lungs.

Feldenkrais emphasized there is no single correct way to breathe and that “good” breathing changes fluidly with every change of movement, mood and situation. Feldenkrais breathing lessons: (1) teach awareness of the contribution of all the major parts of the breathing system, including the nostrils, throat, windpipe, lungs, diaphragm, intercostal muscles, ribs, and the movement of air; (2) teach how breathing is related to movement and posture; and (3) break down bad habits through unusual movements such as expanding the rib cage during exhalation.

Feldenkrais breathing lessons facilitate the emergence of spontaneous and complete breathing, adaptable to any situation, and integrated with one’s entire self. Even from this brief sketch we can see how fully breathing expresses, and how awareness of breathing reveals, many facets of existence.