Intentional breathing and being breathed

One thing I’ve noticed about people on my massage table is that sometimes they breathe unnaturally. I can tell they are manipulating their breath because the natural breath isn’t that perfectly rhythmic. It’s usually early in a session when I notice this, and after I’ve worked on the person for a bit and they slip more deeply into a relaxed parasympathetic state, their breath changes and becomes slower and a bit irregular, which is natural.

Intentional breathing

It’s not a bad thing to manipulate the breath at the beginning of a massage. Many of us have learned breathing techniques to help us calm ourselves, to shift gears, to go from a state of focused alertness (when driving in traffic) to a state of peace and calm (receiving a massage).

If you want to learn, the fundamentals are this:

  • If you make the exhalation longer than the inhalation, you down-regulate the nervous system toward parasympathetic (rest and digest).
  • If the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, the nervous system is more stimulated, moving into the sympathetic state (fight or flight at its extreme).
  • Sometimes people count: inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6. Or 4 and 8, or 5 and 9. The numbers don’t really matter, just the length of exhalation compared to inhalation.

We can breathe parasympathetically with others (“breathe with me”) to help someone calm when agitated, to get school children to calm down after recess, or to calm ourselves after a near-miss in traffic.

Conversely, we can breathe sympathetically to wake ourselves up if we’re nodding off during a meeting, feeling drowsy when driving, or after savasana when you need to deal with everyday life.

This skill is based on what happens naturally without our interference. When startled, we gasp, taking in a big gulp of air. When relieved, we let out a sigh.

Being breathed

One of the delightful mysteries of the breath is that we can consciously manipulate it, yet it works extremely well on its own without our attention, if we don’t have sleep apnea or another breathing disorder. We go to sleep trusting that our breath will keep us going until we awaken.

Sadly, we can’t observe our own unconscious breathing, but I invite you to watch other people breathe. Notice how even it is and what moves in their body. Notice that when they’re relaxed or sleeping, the breath may occur evenly for a bit, then there’s a pause, and then a big breath.

Observe your own breath when you’re deeply relaxed, falling asleep, or just awakening. Although observation changes behavior, if your relaxation is deep, you can experience the sensation of being breathed, with no effort on your part. It may take some practice meditating or relaxing consciously to experience this, but it’s profound.

When it happens, I like to notice where and when in the breath cycle the breath actually starts. To me, it seems that it starts with the pause after an exhalation. There’s a moment of stillness, and when it’s ready, the inhalation begins, and it begins in the dan-tien (aka hara or second chakra, the space between the navel and pubic bone) and slowly fills the torso.

Anyway, this is what’s drawing my attention about breathing these days.

My other motive is to convey the idea that the breath knows what to do, so if you’ve had training in breath work, use those exercises when needed, but the rest of the time, as much as possible, let your body be breathed, trusting your breath.



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