I saw a patient yesterday who, while we were talking about using breath to relax, quickly and abruptly cut me off and explained that “breathing” does not relax her. In fact she said, “It stresses me out. “ In my experience this response is not uncommon. A comment I hear a lot when talking or lecturing about breath is that breathing exercises (like those taught during a yoga class) make some folks feel anxious or panicky rather than relaxed. Or that when asked to focus on their breath, they feel incredibly self-conscious. But why?
My daughter has become curious about what I do when I “go to the office.” One night we were talking about how one of my jobs is to help people relax. I talked her through a little guided meditation, and at one point, what I saw shocked me. I saw something in my five-year-old daughter that I see in many of my anxious and “stressed out” patients. When I said the words “breathe in,” I noticed her muster all her energy in an effort to inhale, I noticed her little shoulders and chest become tense with that effort, and I noticed that her ribcage and abdomen were tight and held. As I continued to watch, she held her breath for a few seconds before exhaling, as if I had directed her to stop breathing. I was fascinated by her interpretation of my words, as I had never seen her breathe in that fashion before.
It is interesting to me that we use the term “breathe in.” I suspect that phrase came into being because it is synonymous with inhalation. But if we look at the physiological act of inhaling, what we see is a process that actually involves a minimal amount of energy (in a relaxed person), a gentle expansion of the ribcage, and a softening and expansion of the belly. Our diaphragm lowers during inhalation to create even more expansion of the lungs for air to rush in. When I asked Lucy to breathe in, through my trained eye, I saw her literally suck in air and hold it for dear life. I want to repeat that I see this pattern of breathing in my patients as well.
I think two things are at play here. One is that words are powerful things, and the words “breathe in” may inherently guide or teach some to bring effort, tension, and constriction into a process where ease and expansion are preferred. The second issue at play here is making the distinction between” being and doing,” “ease and effort,” and “surrender and control.” In mind-body medicine, we make a point to highlight the distinctions between these concepts … because simply put “doing, effort, and control” seem to result in tension and struggle, while ”being, ease, and surrender” allow for more grounding, relaxation, and wellness.
Our breath is a perfect example of this. If we try to control or “do” our breath, the result is tension and holding. If we simply let our breath happen, we experience more ease and relaxation. Interestingly, from my experience, patterns of tension and holdings in the breath are not easily let go of. And to add insult to injury, when we point out a holding or pattern of tension, it can make people more self-conscious of how they are breathing, and consequently they “try” even harder to “breathe right.” At first glance, it’s a recipe for disaster, and it is no wonder why people often feel more anxious “doing” breathing exercises.
I believe our holding patterns in our breath are a reflection of our need to feel in control of our lives. Here we have an automatic process in our body that happens without us thinking about it (inhalation and exhalation), but because we can control it, we often do (consciously and unconsciously, yes I know it’s a mess).
The best “breath exercise” I know is the simple act of breath awareness, the act of noticing and observing the breath without trying to change or control it. Just simply noticing each inhale and exhale, with no agenda for change, no judgment, and no criticism, allows us to begin to let go of the tension and control we carry … and at the same time, creates an opportunity for ease and expansion. While the intention of more controlled breathing exercises is well meaning (like being asked to breath in and out to a count of four, to breathe only from our mouth, nose or a certain nostril, or simply to “take a breath in”) it creates the possibility for some to feel self-conscious, exert control, or experience tension or discomfort.
Our breath holds a great life lesson in its very essence. Surrender to the journey and let go of control … and for some reason that helps us relax!
by Jenn Krebs Rapkin, N.D.