The following is an excerpt from The Way to Vibrant Health by Alexander and Leslie Lowen:
“Good breathing is essential to vibrant health. Through breathing we get the oxygen to keep our metabolic fires burning-and these provide us with the energy we need. More oxygen creates a hotter fire and produces more energy.
But most of us are aware of the importance of breathing. And bioenergetics doesn’t concentrate heavily on breathing exercises. If we ask you to be conscious of your breathing, it is only to help you become able to breathe easily and deeply naturally, without being conscious of it. Our focus is on helping you sense and release the tensions that prevent you from breathing naturally. Breathing is not normally something we should be that conscious of. An animal or a young child breathes correctly and needs neither instruction nor help to do this. Adults, however, tend to have disturbed breathing patterns because of chronic muscular tensions that distort and limit their breathing. These tensions are the result of emotional conflicts that have developed in the course of their growing up.
Breathing exercises help somewhat, but they do nothing to reduce the tensions and restore natural breathing patterns. One has to understand these natural breathing patterns and know why they become disturbed, and one has to learn how to release the tensions that disrupt the natural breathing pattern.
The pattern of relaxed breathing (when one is not in a state of great exertion or strong emotion) is downward and outward in inspiration (inhaling air). The diaphragm contracts and descends, allowing the lungs to expand downward as they inflate. This is the direction of least resistance for the expansion of the lungs. The abdomen enlarges through an outward movement of the wall to make room for the downward movement of the lungs. The contraction of the diaphragm also raises the lower ribs, which motion is assisted by the contraction of the intercostal muscles (those connecting one rib to another). The chest also expands outward in this process, but relaxed breathing is predominantly abdominal rather than thoracic (chest) breathing. In such breathing one takes in a maximum amount of air for the minimum effort.
Healthy breathing is a total body action; all the muscles of the body are involved to some degree. This is especially true of the deep pelvic muscles that rotate the pelvis slightly backward and downward during inspiration to enlarge the belly and then rotate it forward and upward to decrease the abdominal cavity during expiration. This forward movement of the pelvis is aided by a contraction of the abdominal muscles. Expiration, however, is mostly a passive process best exemplified by a sigh.
These pelvic movements are illustrated in figure 7, which accompanies an exercise in breathing. In that exercise you will be asked to rotate the pelvis to sense the effect of this movement upon breathing.
One should think of respiratory movements as waves. The inspiratory wave starts deep in the pelvis and flows upward to the mouth. As it passes upward, the large cavities of the body expand to suck in the air. These cavities include the abdomen, the thorax, the throat, and the mouth. The throat is especially important: unless it expands on inspiration, one cannot take a deep breath. In too many persons, however, it is severely constricted or contracted to choke off feelings, particularly feelings for crying and screaming. It is very common in bioenergetic work that after a person has had a good cry his breathing becomes deeper and easier. Letting oneself sob releases the tension in the throat and also opens the belly.
The expiratory wave starts at the mouth and flows downward. When it reaches the pelvis, that structure moves slightly forward as mentioned earlier. Expiration induces a relaxation of the whole body. You let go of the air in your lungs, and in the process you let go of any holding. People who are afraid to let go have difficulty in breathing out fully. Even after a forced expiration their chests remain somewhat inflated.The inflated chest is a defense against the feeling of panic, which is related to the fear of not being able to get enough air. When a person with this condition lets the air out fully, he experiences a momentary panic to which he reacts by taking in air and inflating the chest again.
The inflated chest holds a large reserve of air as a measure of security. The person is afraid to let go of this illusory security. On the other hand, people who are afraid to reach out to the world actively have difficulty in breathing in. They may become terrified if they open their throats widely to take in a deep breath. It is a good rule in doing these exercises, therefore, not to force your breathing. See what you can accomplish without straining yourself.
There is another breathing pattern that comes into play when the need for oxygen becomes urgent, for example, as in very strenuous activity. Here, the muscles of the thorax are mobilized and the whole chest becomes actively engaged in the respiratory movements. This pattern is superimposed upon the first so that the person is now breathing abdominally and thoracically, as a result of which his breathing is deeper and fuller. In both patterns the total body wall seemingly moves as one piece, although one can see the respiratory waves flow upward and downward.
These patterns are disturbed when one part of the body moves in opposition to the other. In some people when the chest expands in inspiration, the belly is sucked in. This produces a severe disturbance, for despite the considerable effort involved in expanding the rigid chest, you obtain little air since the downward movement of the lungs is blocked. Instead of breathing in and out, you are now breathing up and down with little expansion of the body cavities. More commonly, the respiratory movements are limited to the midriff area with little involvement of abdomen or chest. This is typical shallow breathing. At times there is some abdominal movement in respiration, but the chest remains rigidly held.
In the preceding [section} we attributed the held-in belly to sexual inhibition. But the belly is also contracted and held to suppress feelings of sadness. We suck in the belly to control our tears and sobs. If we let it go, we are liable to have a real belly cry. But then we also open the door to the possibility of a real belly laugh. Whether we cry or laugh, it is in the belly that we experience life on the gut level. Here is where life is conceived and carried. Here is where our deepest desires have their inception. If you are intent on suppressing your feelings, keep your belly tight. But then you must accept the fact that you will not be a vibrantly alive person. And if you complain of an inner emptiness, you should realize that you are blocking your own fullness of being.
Tears are like rain from heaven and a good cry like a rainstorm that clears the air. Crying is the basic mode of releasing tension, as anyone can see by watching an infant break into crying when his frustrations create an unsupportable tension. No one need ever be ashamed of crying, for we are all infants at heart. Considering the pain that most of us have experienced in our lives and the frustrations that we are continually subject to, we all have good reason to cry. Crying is so therapeutic that if a depressed person can cry, his depression will lift immediately.
Breathing is also connected with the voice. To make a sound you must move the air through the larynx. And as long as you make a sound you can be sure of breathing. Unfortunately, many people are inhibited in making a loud sound. Some are victims of the adage that children should be seen but not heard. Others choked off their crying and screaming because these expressions met with a hostile response from their parents. Choking off these sounds produces a severe constriction in the throat, which seriously limits breathing. For these reasons persons in bioenergetic therapy and in the exercise classes are often encouraged to vocalize or make a sustained sound while doing the exercises or breathing. A clear sound resonating in the body causes an inner vibration similar to the vibrations we induce in the musculature.
There are two other commandments in bioenergetic work. Do not hold your breath. Let yourself breathe. While we do not want you to force the breathing, we do want you to be aware when you are not breathing. If you become aware that you are holding your breath, give a sigh. The other commandment is to make a sound. Let yourself be heard. If you make a sigh, make it audible. Many people have developed problems because as children they were strictly admonished to be quiet. This denial of their right to use their voice may have led to the feeling that they don’t have a voice in their own affairs.
Now we ask you to do a few simple breathing exercises to learn about your own breathing pattern. In doing these exercises, allow yourself to moan or groan whenever you feel that they are stressful or painful. You will find that making a sound diminishes both the stress and the pain.
Excerpt from Lowen & Lowen, The Way to Vibrant Health (1977)