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No. 28 (April 1999)


Breathing as a Way of Life—Part 1
by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

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Many years ago, when I was still studying to become an educator, I used to marvel how despite the fact that most people had children, and despite the billions of parent-child relationships already experienced thus far by the civilized human race, no one until Jean Piaget, researching in Switzerland, ever really looked at his own children. (Piaget, subsequently all the rage in American educational circles, was not even a psychologist; he was a biologist, trained to observe, and his first papers were records of his observations on the behavior of oysters!)

All those billions of parent-child relationships, I used to marvel, yet only one looked closely at what's right there in front of everyone! What else, I mused, could we be overlooking today that's equally common to experience?

I used to rhetorically pose that question to my students, back in my college-teaching days, but never really paid it much heed until much later when other, similarly obvious/overlooked matters made themselves apparent. One such discovery (or re-discovery, it seems) has to do with something even more common-to-experience than are children: the breath—your breath.

What a shock to realize that, in retrospect, every experience and every kind of experience has its own breathing pattern attached to it. Not just physically exerting experiences, but intellectual, aesthetic and emotional experiences as well. We all breathe differently when glad, sad, bad, mad, bored, frustrated, relieved, happy, having an insight, experiencing beauty, giving or receiving affection, thinking well of ourselves or poorly, when things are going well or badly for us, and so on!

In retrospect, the reader will also find this true for himself or herself. So much so, in fact, that most of us will discover that each of us has unconsciously been steering our own interactions with other people according to the changes in those other people's breathing that we unconsciously detect!

The significance of this discovery, other than its being such a universal of human experience, is that human affairs and human organisms are so intra-active that no human situation is only one-way cause-and-effect. Not only do various types of experience cause various types of breathing; various types of breathing can be used to predispose various types of experience!

You may use your breath to predispose your system toward:

  • arriving at insights;
  • taking in beauty;
  • getting calm and comfortable about situations which had been bothering you;
  • being well-received by others;
  • being creative;
  • getting clear about problems which had been confusing;
  • getting well . . . and so on.
In a way, this is not a new discovery: Yoga breathing techniques go back thousands of years. But there the basic insight was lost amidst the clutter of detailed trappings which accumulated during its transmission through the centuries of a high but long-ruined civilization.

In the 1910s and '20s, the French obstetrician LaMaze observed animals giving birth and abstracted from that a system of relatively painless childbirth based on breathing patterns.

Occasionally, political prisoners and prisoners-of-war, under torture, have reportedly discovered that so long as they were able to keep their breathing slow, calm and deep during that torture, they were able to remain pretty o.k

And since I started talking about the matter, several participants in our workshops have mentioned that they discovered this principle in the dentist's chair—but that it had not occurred to them to apply the same principle and practice to other situations of discomfort elsewhere!

Breathing in the pattern we use when experiencing great relief predisposes our system to become relieved of whatever had been bothering it. Instead of training people in the technical details of moving which ribs whichever way, we find it more effective to use mental images and remembered feelings (to which one responds automatically in the appropriate breathing pattern).

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Relief Breathing
Imagine wearing a hot, heavy, clammy, burdensome suit of armor. Really get into imagining that armor, really feel it compressing and weighing ...

Now imagine taking off that suit of armor, and make your next breath the first breath you breathe free of that armor ....

For the next minute or so, breathe each breath as if it were the first breath you are breathing free of that suit of armor ...

Now study the differences you feel, deep within your system.—Whatever it was you've felt some need of relief from, your "relief-breathing" pattern has predisposed the automatics of your system toward finding relief from it.

You formed the correct pattern for this purpose (of creating relief), simply by breathing in response to the imagined experience of taking off that wearisome armor.

Next time you experience something worth finding relief from—a hassle, a difficult circumstance, a headache or even illness—reconjure that suit of armor, shuck it as vividly and with as much feeling-experience as you can. And thereby explore what "relief-breathing," working through the automatic response systems of your mind and body, can do for you.

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Calm-Breathing Patterns
Breathing in a way associated with profound insight or in the ways associated with profound experience of beauty, can enrich living more than most people could dream is possible. (There is a little of this involved with the "Innate Learning Methods" of Project Renaissance, which help to speed some forms of learning, especially understandings and skills, by a hundred or more times.)

Breathing in a calm pattern, with a (real or imagined) deliciously satisfying aroma rewarding each deep slow breath, has the most profoundly calming consequences, not only for dealing with situations, past or present, which until now were distressing or disturbing, but for people whose distresses have generalized to the point where they are emotionally disturbed.

It is this aspect to which we intend to bring the attention of therapists generally, for one of the uses of these simple breathing patterns is to enable people to clear themselves of emotionally involved problems so quickly and easily that it contradicts all current therapeutic experience in such matters, yet which is easily tested for oneself or on volunteers or on patients who have enough attention resources available to follow simple instructions.
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