Posture and the Breath

"From many decades of frustration, doing meditation/breathing practices with little benefit, I have painfully come to understand all the bad breathing habits and misinformation that I embodied!”  -SH


Preface: This is all very unique and designed by me for myself. Certainly it is too complicated and convoluted for most anyone else. But read it anyway. Everyone benefits by some kind of breathing practice to counter the effect of modern culture and stress. By reading through this, and trying out a few ideas, perhaps you’ll get ideas for yourself – what kind of practice you might want to construct.  Plus you may be entertained to read how many bad breathing habits Steve has had, and how long it took him to understand that. Some folks are so much more advanced than me, that all this would be natural to them, and totally unnecessary to practice. Others are so tense and bound, that perhaps years of somatic work would be needed first, as was my case. I could not have understood all this 20 years ago; intellectually, perhaps I would have somewhat understood, but I would have been light years away from embodying them.

There are a lot of rambling thoughts here; that’s because you are getting a snapshot of Steve’s understanding of breathing – at the present moment. But it all ties together as you will see.


If a person is holding the belly tight and the ribs are stiff, how can they breathe? The answer is: by heavy over-breathing, like you see in your normal gyms nowadays. People become addicted to it; heavy excercising, breathing. Heavy over-breathing against resistance becomes a way of life. That’s considered being athletic, today.  I was that way. So, paradoxically, they grotesquely over breathe an hour or two a day while exercising (thinking they are wonderfully athletic, with a tight, trim belly – I thought that way), and then effortfully over-breathe the rest of the time, making effort with each breath to overcome the resistance. Life is not easy. One may not want to keep living that way; suicide thoughts can come.  If they must stop exercising due to injury, as often happened to me, they feel like they are drowning in sewage. No lymph circulation – with less acid blood due to moderated eating while injured, without the additional CO2 in the blood from exercise means the habitual over-breathing will have a much more powerful effect to unbalance the blood – far too alkaline. A person would die if that continued. Such people are desperate to exercise to increase the carbon in the blood – I was that way. They will do chin ups in their hospital bed, thinking they are being heroic and athletic; when really they have to do it just to survive. I have been there (it is SUCH a relief to no longer be on that self-abusive treadmill).

What happens if they don’t eat much either - like a young lady who wants to stay trim and attractive? All that forceful over-breathing (against all that tension) is like “death breaths” flushing carbon dioxide to dangerously low levels, without acid in the blood from food or exercise to counter all that alkalinity from CO2 being flushed. It is called anorexia. If you want to commit suicide or not want to live or eat to live  - by breathing, that is how. I have never worked with an anorexic patient, but it seems obvious to me that dealing with these somatic issues might be highly productive. The mother tells the daughter to hold in the belly. The daughter tightens the rib cage like a steel cage, due to emotional issues surrounding her developing breasts. How can she breathe? Exercise, forced breathing is the only way. That is how it starts, in my opinion. The lucky ones are those for whom exercise becomes an addiction. It has always seemed to me to be a somatic issue. Our culture worships tight and flat bellies, whereas no ancient culture did so. While I was in India early this year, I asked a retired art historian if he had ever seen tight flat bellies in ancient art – as we have on billboards everywhere. His answer to me: “Never, not once”.  This culture – destroying the environment, why should we be surprised that it also destroys natural ways to be embodied and breath.

My breathing practice during meditation for many years was like this – I did have a very long pause after the exhalation. Just like an anorexic person would have. I thought that meant I was advancing spiritually. It was humiliating when I found out it was only because of all the tension I had, holding my belly tight, tight ribs, tight back, sitting up straight with tension, stress, etc. All that tension, of course the body will be very reluctant to embark on another over-effortful inhalation – hence the long pause. This is the 100% diametrical opposite of relaxed, comfortable, functional long pauses after the exhalation, which can only come from deep relaxation in the context of sensible sitting posture, and with a balanced life style, moderate diet etc as well. Such long pauses can truly be a mark of spiritual progress. Because of not understanding this point, I basically wasted many years and hundreds of hours meditating, thinking I was helping myself, when actually the reverse was true. I was practicing tense breathing and tense posture.


What I describe here has taken me twenty years to understand. I have had so many wrong beliefs and practices written into my body. This routine helps me self-correct. Yet I know very little – much of what I know is surely wrong as well and I am still learning. I am deeply indebted to Patrick McKeown (author of Close Your Mouth) for introducing me to the Buteyko Method recently. It has given me the ability to contextualize all my experience, and knowledge about breathing in a scientific framework.  I recommend Buteyko to everyone.  Please don’t just read about it and dismiss it since it does not agree with your understanding, as I did for many years. That is not fair to yourself or Buteyko.  Take a workshop, see a trained practitioner! Yes you can see it on YouTube, but they only give you theory, not the practice, which is the heart of the matter. Only then can you make a fair judgment. I am also deeply indebted to Joy Moeller for her Myo-functional therapy with me; I had no idea about how my swallow pattern and tongue usage was affecting my airway and causing my sleep apnea to get worse. My whole face is changing shape, my jaw is more square, and my teeth are lining up, my breathing is easier. Yet 2 years ago I knew nothing about such therapy. 

Why do I need a regular breathing practice? Mainly – because if I do this before I meditate (During the 12 breaths I always do anyway before my meditation – so my breathing practice takes zero time out of my life) my meditations are so much better. This practice keeps my breathing calm, and my mind settled all day long. Plus I recognize the many bad breathing habits I still have; I want to rehabilitate these. What are those bad breathing habits I still have (you may have some of these too)? 

 

  • Breathing patterns itself after the state of mind. My active, restless mind will disorder my breathing. That is why step #1 involves talking to my mind about what the breath is doing as in: “now I am inhaling.” Buddha taught his monks to do this, first thing, for hours at a time. It is using will or force, as it were, to tie the mind to the breath, so the mind must calm down to the breath rhythm, instead of flying all over the universe or to past and future ages. The breath is dragged along behind, like a poor little child dragged behind a galloping horse (not a good metaphor – the child would die. But  in truth, our Natural Breath does die).  So we put the breath is in charge, not the mind! What a concept! It takes real deliberation for me to enter that “space” as I have had the opposite habit for so long. Sometimes I can do it in just ten seconds; at other times it takes longer. To calm the mind by using the breath is new concept for me, amazingly – even though I was doing a breathing technique that should have accomplished that for about 35 years. My mind has been simply far too active, restless. I need to use the tool of talking to the mind, or with the mind, about the breath. It works. See my practice notes below on how I do this.

 

  • When I speak or sing, I force the exhalation and rush the inhalation:  this is normal. But I made it a habit every moment of my life. I used to be a teacher, and still I talk a lot with clients. I am very social – talking a lot. I give workshops. Talking or singing means quickly gulping the inhalation and always forcing the exhalation. That became my default breathing style. That is not normal!  My practice moderates that. Opera singers may get fat since they have to eat more to carbonize the blood, to offset the extreme alkalinity from all that forceful breathing. Overeating for them is a matter of survival; there is no choice, unless they have a regular and intensive exercise practice, which also carbonizes the blood to safe levels. If that confuses you as it used to confuse me, then read up on the Buteyko Method - you’ll understand it better then. It is really helpful to understand the medical truths about breathing, about how the brain regulates it from the medulla, based on carbon dioxide and not oxygen, the role of blood PH, and more. There is nothing speculative there; it is all well documented medical science.

 

  • I still do too much chest (stress) breathing, and still hold my belly too tight, making abdominal breathing not so easy. I have to consciously transition back to abdominal breathing many times a day. I think it is because my life has been too stressful. Sitting quietly in meditation, unless I spend a few moments “reinstating” abdominal breathing, I will meditate with chest breathing. This would mean no results in meditation, restless mind, fatigue, unwillingness to meditate. Then I’d feel guilty about all that. So instead, why not do the sensible thing to prevent it from happening? I make absolutely sure there I no lifting of the chest and my abdomen is moving slightly with every breath. Of course there is intrinsic rib movement in the chest as the lungs fill with air; that is not the same thing as lifting the chest with every inhalation.

 

  • I still tend to think of breathing only in terms of the front of my body – when actually it involves the entire body, front, back, top, bottom and even the sides. For just one or two breaths, if I deliberately expand my awareness, that carries over to meditation, making it much more pleasant, not so body-bound and obsessive about being aware of the breath in only a particular way.

 

  • Subconsciously, since I had thought abdominal breathing was the only correct way to breathe, I still think there is a correct way to breathe, and that can create excess effort, compulsive mind-set, and confusion and disconnect from natural breathing rhythm. Yes, abdominal breathing is good, but it is not the only good or “correct” way to breathe: so now I still have to remind myself that natural breathing has nothing to do with correct. During my practice I deliberately do one breath in “reverse abdominal style” where I expand the belly on the exhalation not collapse the belly. All wild animals do this when making sounds, and millions of people around the world breathe that way all the time, believing it is correct. Yet, it is the opposite of abdominal breathing.

 

  • Finally, modern culture, with its stress, junk food, over-consumption, over-thinking, over-exercising and over-eating, still makes over-breathing inevitable for me. Physiologically it has been shown that we only need 5 to 7 breaths per minute while resting; yet I am still breathing far more breaths per minute than that. Over-eating and wrong eating causes acid blood, and the body will alkalinize the blood by hyperventilating, flushing the carbon dioxide. That became my default breathing style – too little carbon dioxide in the blood, which has many health repercussions – constricted arteries, less blood to the brain, inability of hemoglobin to easily release oxygen – the Bhor Effect, heart trouble and more. I definitely need concrete techniques to moderate this effect – in addition to my Buteyko practice.

 

When my breathing is calm, my mind settles and then I can be almost immune to the effects of modern culture. But if instead I work – one by one – on controlling the effects of modern culture (stress, junk diet, rush, tension etc) is a “hard row to hoe” with little benefit. My breathing practice helps me get away from all the many harmful and wrong ideas in this culture about breathing. Holding the belly uptight is one – this guarantees chest breathing. So I have to deliberately cultivate the default habit of abdominal breathing, since that means I will no longer be holding my belly uptight all the time – I used to do that for years! Extremely harmful! Another one: many yoga teachers and others preach abdominal breathing is the only correct way. I lived 40 years believing that as well (but could never do it very well because of holding the belly uptight); after all if babies, sleeping adults, and restful calm breathing is abdominal – how can it be wrong? The answer is: if we always collapse the center on the exhalation as traditional abdominal breathing recommends, we have no physical power. We need the option to expand and anchor the belly on the exhalation, as martial artists do when they punch, or weight lifters do when they lift. Abdominal breathing is appropriate – yes – for resting, for sitting, for meditating, and yes, babies may do it. We cannot therefore conclude that adults should do it all the time. Yet, many yoga teachers tell their students exactly this (I have walked out of such a yoga class). In Japan millions breathe the opposite way their whole life, believing that is the correct way. I personally have been victimized by all of this for most of my life.

I am waking up to the fact that victimhood is automatic when I passively accept “good” ideas from any source, if I fail to think for myself – what this culture so far has given me has proven mostly wrong and very harmful.  So few people are really thinking about breathing or posture or movement: they just repeat what others tell them. When I address these issues in myself with a Breathing Practice as described below, I find profound relief. I find it gratifying to note that in ancient cultures, most certainly, such a thing would not be needed. The harmful ideas we have, were not there in ancient cultures – to the best of my understanding. The following practices are my way of gradually healing the damage, and restoring natural breathing rhythm – in addition to the Buteyko Method, which I also practice.

As I type this at my computer I am aware my chair is too low so my shoulders must lift or be lifted by the desk, for me to type or to reach for the mouse. So while typing this, I cannot access my natural breath. Lifted shoulders mean stress, disconnect, compression of neck vertebrae, and “I give up” mentality.  I must go find my higher stool so my shoulders can drop down – now. Can you feel the difference in my typing, I now can rest, breathe to my pelvic floor, I can relax my belly, my breathing slows and calms my mind. All that by just a higher stool while typing! That is why I say somatic work is usually needed in conjunction with breathing work. Suppose I emailed this to you. Your desk is too high or your chair is too low. So to open the email, your shoulders lift. You read all of this. But you cannot do any of it with ease. It seems like I am exaggerating when I speak of the benefits. All because your shoulders remain lifted! Notice where and how you eat – are your shoulders lifting with every mouthful? That is stress-eating. If you ate on the floor, your shoulders would be grounded all the time; as you reached for food the shoulders would not lift.

I begin this breathing practice by affirming – or checking in with - a few key points. I have done this for so long, it only takes a few seconds. But to write them down takes many words:

 

  • One breath cycle is first an exhalation then an inhalation – not the other way around. It takes just a moment’s thought. If I begin by conceiving of “one breath” that way, everything goes easier, just by changing my thinking. Andrew Weil, MD, taught me this in one of his cassette tapes on breathing – he mentioned the ancient Chinese people also thought of breathing in this way. Our culture has it exactly backwards. The exhale muscles are stronger, and the inhalation comes effortlessly when there is first of all a consciously preparatory exhale. Again, just thinking like this reduces the effort I think I need to make to breathe normally, slows me down, and calms my breathing. I recommend it to everyone. This means that whenever I think of “taking a breath” or “one breath cycle” I first relax and exhale fully, and then effortlessly, allow a nice big in breath. No commotion or fuss. That is natural. If instead I effort, tense, lift the chest and draw in more air forcefully – I am tensing my torso as I am trying to expand it to let in more air! Does that make sense? No. I still do it unthinkingly at times; but I am moving away from that kind of craziness.  
  • Then I affirm that I have all the time I need to sit and do my practice, nothing is more important at that time – there is no rush to go anywhere to do anything. 
  • There is no “incorrect” way
  • I can sense my entire body – or sense the breath in any manner I please - as I breathe in or out.
  • I also acknowledge that usually I hyperventilate – as many of us do – and that therefore the best outcome from this work will be a slower, easier, lighter and softer breathing pattern. The mind will settle naturally to thinking one thought at a time, as yoga recommends. That is how I know I am doing the right thing. It feels so pleasant, easy, rejuvenating and healing!  That is my criteria, and this practice accomplishes that. My mind settles in a most wonderful way. 

 

From all those decades of frustration, doing meditation-breathing practices with little benefit, I have painfully come to understand all the bad breathing habits and misinformation that I embodied! I have only myself to blame, for sure! However, now, using this as a preparation, I am much more successful in that practice. I realize I have to look at my entire lifestyle. Breathing does not exist in a vacuum.

I can put all this information – what I need to practice – on a little index card – see below.  But actually I just run through these ideas in my mind.  It is like falling into a groove –doing what is natural to the species is like that - just a hint, to embody each idea. All of these can be done in just a few minutes, after one gets familiar with them.

 But to explain it needs many words, as you see. It seems like a lot, but really it is just returning to what is natural. Doing one natural thing, many others follow automatically. Once the understanding is there, and one practices a little while, it boils down to just a few moments of shifting the thinking, of noticing the breath in a different way.

 

  1. Keeping my mouth closed I affirm:  “I know I am inhaling” then “I know I am pausing after the inhalation” or “I know I am taking a short exhalation” or “I know I am taking a long and slow exhalation” as the case may be. I tie the mind to the breath like this - slow the mind to the breath rhythm. I do this as long as I need to do so, in order to get a grip and slow down my hyperactive, reactive mind. I am indebted to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Breathe You Are Alive for giving me insight into this practice.
  2. Inhaling, I say “I have all the time I need to inhale” and exhaling say “I have all the time I need to exhale”. I let the inhalation be unrushed, giving the body time to expand gently, globally, as the lungs fill with air.  I relish the longer pause after the exhale; I don’t rush myself to take another breath just out of habit. I remind myself that inhalation means total ease, relaxation and opening and allowing – not forcing. Any force or effort to inhale contracts muscles, which means less and not more The Sounder Sleep Method™ breathing space. It is contradictory, a form of insanity to inhale that way, and I practiced that for many years. I console myself that almost everyone else is doing it also.  I sense or imagine every part of my body, every cell, expanding gently to receive the inhalation. I am deeply indebted to Michael Krugman, founder of for teaching me this practice.
  3. I test myself: I think of any random body part (just one), like my right wrist – can I feel the breath pulsing there? It is like a very faint, almost imaginary tingle.  If yes, I am doing well. If no, I am not yet relaxed.  I let the exhale float down gently like a leaf, slow and easy - allowing that. One exhalation can take an astonishingly long time – such is my impression – when the sense of rush and force is removed.  I relax after I exhale, knowing that my tendency is to rush the next inhalation. I fully allow the pause. I relish the pause and deliberately give it time. This I learned from my Feldenkrais® Training.
  4. “The Whispered Ah”: Change the software around vocalizing and breathing: Talking while forcing the exhalation is so strong with me, I need a special way to counter that: “The Whispered Ah” which I learned from the Alexander Technique™. I open my mouth by relaxing my jaw, letting it drop. As I exhale I make a faint sound of “AH” so faint that only I can hear it. If someone put an ear to my mouth, it could not be heard. I let the exhale float down, slowly. It gives a very calming effect. It is a reminder that I can vocalize without rushing the exhalation. Doing just 3 breath cycles like this has an amazing effect – so quick to calm me down. If you can ever attend an Alexander Technique workshop – do so. It is wonderful work.
  5. Free the attention: First, I adjust my posture using the system described in the Sitting Practice Handout. This allows me to relax more deeply. I soften my vision and identify more with pure awareness, global awareness – not just frontal visual field. If I use any unnecessary tension to maintain good posture, then I am interfering with the natural breathing. Then I concentrate on my nostrils, where the breath enters the body. Then I breathe as if the air is coming in and out an imaginary nose in the back of the head. Then from the top of the spine. I may inhale from the bottom of the spine, and exhale from my two ears. The possibilities are endless. Then I pay attention to an imaginary breath movement in the space or aura around my body, in all directions. Then I feel that I am breathing with my spine – or the top or bottom of my spine. I breathe into the nerves, or into the internal organs, one by one, if I choose. I may imagine breathing in or out from my ears or hands – or any combination of these. I may imagine some other Power breathing through me.  All this softens my tendency to “stare” or obsess too fixedly, compulsively with my mind, about one particular way of watching the breath, which (all by itself) will interfere with my natural breath. I think that is because as minister’s kid I was heavily controlled. Tell me do something a certain way, and I rebel. I find it refreshing, freeing, to be able to pay attention to the breathing in innumerable ways, at will. If I feel that I must constrain myself to one particular way of paying attention to the breathing (such as the nostrils, as many Buddhist teachers recommend) I go into a kind of dependency/obedient/passive-aggressive and rebellious mindset which diminishes my ability to be fully present. This works for me, but surely many others will find it silly, or will benefit by or prefer to concentrate on one way of watching the breath exclusively.  After doing this a little while, I can then concentrate on just one way exclusively, without feeling so imprisoned by it.
  6. Abdominal breathing:  First I soften all my ribs and tight abdominal muscles: I take a breath in, and puff out my belly as if a soccer ball is down there inside me. I roll this soccer ball (ball of air) up to the chest, around left and right and down to the pelvic floor. This is something I learned in a Feldenkrais® ATM class (Awareness Through Movement®). Abdominal breathing is SO much easier after 10 seconds of this! Then I place one hand on my chest, one hand on abdomen below navel. I sit quietly, making sure my upper hand does not lift. I allow only relaxed, minimal movement of the lower hand so as not to over breathe. I practice until it is natural, easy. I remind myself to sense the breath pressure in the floor of the pelvis especially. Because of wearing a belt for so many years, my default tendency is to disconnect the abdominal breathing from going lower than the beltline. I sense the pressure deliberately in three dimensions, not just in the front. Unless I do this, I will go through my day unconsciously thinking that I must protrude out in front my belly as part of abdominal breathing, instead of letting the air pressure (from the diaphragm dropping down) expand that area globally, back, sides and bottom. For so many years I did chest breathing; and still the habit lingers. If the chest is moving, it means inefficient over breathing, stress-breathing, head forward posture, lifted shoulders and over tensing (but intrinsic movement of the ribs under the hand is OK). I remind myself: as I sit quietly, I do not need to use chest movement to breathe. That is only a back up system for hard work or doing athletics.
  7. No shoulder lifting with the inhalation: I check in with my shoulders – not lifting them when I inhale. I may do some somatic work with my shoulders to encourage them to stay restfully down as I breathe. I remember the internal sensation of letting the shoulders relax and flow downwards – that is easy for me now since I have practiced it for years. Such work is described in the Sitting Practice Handout. I endeavor to imagine, visualize and sense the breath pressure in my upper torso equally front and back – but not in an upward direction - which will cause lifting of the shoulder with each inhale. It is as if a person has their flat palm on my upper chest, and also on my upper back. I sense my breathing as pressing against both of his hands- not upwards pressure. It is just a change in how I pay attention, but it does in fact improve my breathing mechanics.   For too many years I thought breathing “in” meant the air would push the shoulders “up”. It seemed natural! So now, I must deliberately – and frequently – remind myself to stop thinking or anticipating the breath to be like that.
  8. Deep relaxation. This is the heart of the matter. This is the gold mine. This is where I spend most of my time. But I know before I can do this, I have to first do the six preparatory steps above – or else it just plain will not work. Plus I have to be very smart about my sitting posture, as described in the Sitting Handout. While observing the breath in any manner that I choose, I begin to systematically relax my body. I go through body parts, I check in with each internal organ, I imagine relaxing nerves and fascia, bone and cartilage. I relax the brain and thinking, and the spine. I refresh my eyes and vision using ideas from my Vision Practice Handout. I relax the endocrine glands and the spinal centers associated with them. While I do this I also affirm “alert mind, relaxed body”. Otherwise, I go into sleep mode! It takes, for me, a definite and concerted effort to stay alert, awake and keenly mindful of my breathing while relaxing. The relaxation slows the breathing, and creates long pauses after the exhalation.

 

During all those years of tensing too much, I would get sleepy, and be totally unable to control it. That was because I was either “full on” or “full off” and I did not know any middle ground; as tense as I was, the need for rest would demand that I sleep. Will power to stay awake was not working, and this made me quite discouraged about ever being successful in meditation. I am so happy I have a better understanding now, that dynamic is receding, my breathing is calmer and my sleep apnea is abating, thanks to this practice and the Buteyko breathing (for more on that Google: “sleep apnoea and Buteyko” and be sure to spell it Apnoea (European and Australian spelling), not apnea (American spelling).


After 40 years I am no longer willing to waste time doing meditation with meager results, because of my own wrong habits of sitting, breathing, using my eyes, etc. In other words, I have come to understand that asana in the sense that Patanjali (in his Eight-fold Yoga Path) used it can be a very deep study. To sit in relaxed posture and meditate – sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And for some it is. But for me, I’ve had lots to learn. You can see how much there is to learn just about breathing! 

Here is how I used to make a 3x5 card with notes of these ideas; I used to keep this where I could find it when I would meditate. Now, of course, I have memorized all these ideas, and I just run through them in my mind.


Reminders:

·       Relax belly sense and surrender to support

·       Relax ribs sense and surrender to support

·       No shoulder lifting, heavy elbows reach w/grounded shoulders

·       Deep relaxation always, systematically use a routine

·       Reversal of concept of one breath cycle first exhale, and then inhale

·       NO “correct” let body decide

·       Full body breathing; feel tingle one random body part.

·       Correct swallow and tongue position (tongue should rest up on roof of mouth). If this is hard, get a consultation with an Oral-Myologist.

·       Light easy soft and slow, calm mind, one thought at a time is ideal outcome, anticipate that and expect that.

·       Sitting posture landmarks – key. Otherwise – can’t relax.

·       Abdominal breathing. One hand on belly, one on chest, etc.

 

Practice (12 breaths):

·       Tie the mind – 2 breaths

·       Soccer ball breathing 1 breath

·       All the time I need – 3 breaths

·       Whispered Ah 3 breaths, as I exhale sense the shoulders dropping down, down, down.

·       Easy expanding inhale, imagine infinite Space, infinite Joy from or inside the heart – 3 breaths

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin  www.mybodycanlearn.com