A powerful tool that is often overlooked in our quest to heal ourselves and to live healthier, more-conscious lives is our breathing. The quality of our breathing, of our exhalation and inhalation, reveals a great deal about our self-image, our basic stance toward life. By observing, by sensing, our breathing in the midst of action we can greatly expand our direct knowledge and awareness of ourselves.
As we observe our breathing in the various conditions of our lives, we may notice, for example, how the extent and comfort of our inhalation reflects the degree of our readiness and ability to embrace life at that moment. We may also notice how the extent and comfort of our exhalation reflects the degree of our readiness and ability to let go, to trust something other than the accouterments of our self-image. We may notice how during fear or other strong negative emotions we restrict the flow and duration of our breathing by contracting various parts of our body in order to reduce the energy available for feeling. And we may also notice how during more pleasant emotions we increase the flow and duration of our breathing to take in more energy and thus to feel more.
Our Breathing Is Influenced by Our Emotions
Through awareness of our breathing, through a deep work of listening and self-sensing, we not only learn about the subtle, constantly changing needs of our bodies, but we also begin to learn about the ways in which our emotions and our breathing influence each other, our health, and our well-being. By listening to the sensation of our body, especially our breathing, not only when we are in quiet circumstances but also when we are in the middle of the difficult situations of our lives, we become aware of connections between parts of ourselves that ordinarily escape our attention. By sensing the way our breathing changes in relation to changing circumstances, as well as by sensing the attitudes, tensions, postures, and emotions that arise in these same conditions, we begin to learn, with exacting detail, about the intimate relationship of our breathing to our overall sense of ourselves. This new, direct knowledge of ourselves in action gives our brain and nervous system the knowledge and perspective it needs to help free us from our habitual psychophysical patterns of action and reaction. Self-sensing helps create new connections between existing neurons in the brain and nervous system. These new connections help increase our overall consciousness, and promote greater sensitivity and flexibility in our perception and behavior.
The Emotional Topography of Our Breath
As our ability to sense ourselves grows, we will begin to receive many precise impressions of the interrelationships of our emotions and breath, and their impact on our overall sensation of ourselves. We may see, for example, how anger is associated with shallow inhalations, strong exhalations, and tension throughout the body–especially in the neck, jaw, chest, and hands. We may see how fear is associated with rapid, shallow, and irregular breaths, and the sensation of a tight knot in the lower abdomen. We may see how grief or sorrow is associated with a kind of spasmodic, sobbing, superficial breath, and a hollow, empty feeling in the belly. We may see how impatience is associated with short, jerky, uncoordinated breaths, and tension in the front of the chest, as though our hearts were leaping ahead of us. We may see how guilt or self-judgment is associated with a restricted, suffocating breath, and an overall sensation of being weighed down. And we may see how boredom is associated with a shallow, lifeless breath, and little sensation anywhere in ourselves. We may also notice how feelings such as love, compassion, kindness, and wonder are associated with deep, comfortable breathing, and an open, energized, receptive feeling throughout the entire body. Each of us, of course, will discover variations in her or his own physical and emotional topography.
Restricted Breathing and Self-Image
As we receive more impressions of ourselves through self-sensing, we will see that in general our breathing, like our self-image, is very restricted. Many of us are shallow breathers–that is, our breath is confined mainly to the top front of the chest. If we are to live healthy, conscious lives, however, we need to rediscover the inner mental, emotional and physical conditions necessary for free, natural breathing, breathing which involves not only the various spaces of our chest but also the spaces of our belly, back, spine, and solar plexus. Free, natural breathing can have an enormous beneficial impact on our health and well-being, as well as on our quest for self-transformation and self-realization.
For free, natural breathing to become the norm rather than the exception in our lives, however, we need to learn how to sense ourselves from the inside and to release the unnecessary tensions associated with our self-image–tensions that are reflected clearly in our breathing. These tensions are closely linked to our habitual patterns of thinking and feeling, patterns that often consume our energy and block us from experiencing who we really are. It is through the work of free, natural breathing that we can begin to get in touch with the energy locked into these tensions and free up this energy for health, well-being, and self-discovery.
Copyright 1999-2015 by Dennis Lewis. A revised version of an article first published in The National Qigong Association Newsletter, Spring 2000