Don’t Forget to Breathe

Breathing well can act as a calming liaison between your conscious mind and your freaked-out nervous system.

“Relax. Take a deep breath.”

I’m sure you’ve heard it. You’ve probably said it yourself when someone around you is stressing out and their emotional shrapnel is flying at you. Seems like good advice, and seems simple. Of course, the first part—relax—is easier said than done. Chances are, if you’re worked up and someone tells you to relax, you’re probably not going to say, “Oh yeah, my bad, I’ll just relax, thanks for reminding me.” It’s not that simple, and we all know it, which is why it can be so annoying when someone tells you to relax, as though there’s a switch to flip. It’s like a trainer telling you to just go ahead and bench press those 400 pounds, and now you’re in the hospital and he’s hiring a lawyer. You can tell somebody, or yourself, to do something, but first they, or you, need the capacity to do it.

The second part, “take a deep breath,” gets us closer a little closer to something actionable. It’s something you can actually do when you’re stressed out or overwhelmed, and it may have some beneficial effect. You may still want to punch the person in the face who told you to do it. But if you try to do what they suggested, you’ll probably experience at least a little bit of a relief. But that simple little piece of advice, “relax and take a deep breath,” could easily go from a trite and only mildly helpful piece of advice to truly transformative formula.

If only you knew how to breathe.

Surely, you protest, if I didn’t know how to breathe I couldn’t even be alive. Well, leaving aside the question of what constitutes being really alive versus merely surviving, I have to agree that you are breathing, and are alive, at least somewhat, but if you’re like the average person, you’re breathing at a fraction of your capacity, and it’s having a disastrous effect on your physical and mental well-being, and on every aspect of your training and your life.

Your Ancient Nervous System, and How It Breathes

Breathing is the most fundamental and basic of physical activities. I say “activity” because even though it will happen automatically, it can and should also be an act that is consciously performed. Every second of every day, you’re either inhaling, exhaling, or somewhere in between. It’s the underlying rhythm of your life. So how could you be doing it wrong? To answer that, we need to first look at some of the nuts and bolts of breathing and its relationship to your ancient nervous system.

Breathing is directly linked to the autonomic nervous system, which regulates automatic functions like the heartbeat and digestion. It takes care of all the stuff that’s constantly working to keep you alive, so your conscious mind can think about other stuff, like work tomorrow, or how good a beer sounds right about now, or how you hope this part of the article won’t be too boring because that beer really does sound good and there’s at least, like, four left in the fridge.

Now listen up, because this is important: Of all those autonomic functions, breathing is the one that you can consciously control. As such, it’s helpful to think of it as a gateway between your conscious mind, and your autonomic nervous system. It’s how you can communicate with your ancient nervous system instead of just being controlled by it.

Your autonomic nervous system has two basic settings, and each has its own type of breathing. When everything is cool and safe and relaxed, it’s in the “rest and digest” setting. It’s chilling out, rebuilding itself, humming while it does the dishes, and then having a lemonade on the porch before dozing off with a golden retriever at its feet. All is well with the world.

In this “rest and digest” state, the breath is full, deep, and rhythmic. It starts deep in the belly and moves up into the chest, before falling back down with an effortless release of an exhale. The whole breath is accomplished only by the diaphragm muscle, which expands the belly, and the intercostals (the muscles between the ribs), which expand the chest. That expansion creates a natural vacuum in the lungs, which fills on their own with oxygen. The throat stays relaxed, and functions only as a pipe for the air to move through.

When everything is not cool and not relaxed, and there appears to be a clear and present danger, the autonomic nervous system switches to its “fight or flight” setting. It proceeds to freak out, diverting all its resources to a perceived emergency, fumbling with the key to the safe, dropping the shotgun shells on the floor, or diving through the nearest window, leaving a human-shaped hole in the glass as it runs through the clearing towards the woods. All is not well.

In the “fight or flight” state, the breath shifts in a very measurable and observable way, becoming more rapid, more shallow. In addition to the diaphragm and intercostals, the body begins to use the “emergency breathing muscles”: the neck, shoulders, upper chest and throat. The system is now sucking in air desperately, as it tries to navigate its way through the survival situation, and continues in this state until the situation is resolved.

Natural and Unnatural Breathing

Both of these settings—”rest and digest” and “fight or flight”—along with their types of breathing, are completely natural. They evolved over vast eons, and though they’re not exactly nuanced, they get the job done.

In fact, it’s a pretty sweet deal. We get to stay in that rest and digest state most of the time, chilling out with our deep, full breaths. Then on rare occasions, fight or flight kicks in, the emergency breathing muscles get called in as reserves for a short while, and once the emergency is resolved, we go straight back to rocking chairs, lemonade, golden retrievers, and naps.


Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But here’s the harsh reality: most people, most of the time, breathe shallowly, mostly into the upper chest, utilizing the emergency breathing muscles all the time. They are literally breathing in a perpetual state of primal, fight or flight anxiety. Which is to say, they don’t know how to breathe.

Tell them to take a deep breath, and they can’t do it. That’s because the tensions involved in that fight or flight breathing have hardened, over time, like carbonite around Han Solo. And breathing as though there’s an emergency, all the time, when there’s not, and sending those constant stress signals to your brain? That ain’t right. That’s unnatural. And call me crazy, but it seems like, quite possibly, the number one problem that needs solving in most people’s lives.

How to Liberate Your Breath

I mentioned before that of all the autonomic functions, breathing is the one we can consciously control. So if there’s a problem with an autonomic function, conscious breathing provides a means “talk” to that part of yourself, in its own language, and start to guide it back to a natural state. (It doesn’t understand English, despite what some “positive thinking” and “affirmation” gurus might have you believe.) This is why we all instinctively know to tell someone to take a deep breath to relax, even though chronic tensions tend to make that advice ineffectual. It’s also why there are so many types of breathing exercises.

But herein lies the problem with most forms of breathing exercises found in popular types of “body-mind” practices: usually, they’re all about controlling the breath, when the whole problem is that the breath is overly controlled in the first place. With Neuromuscular Release Work (NRW), the goal of the breathing exercises is not to control the breath, but to liberate it—to detonate the tensions so that the body can breathe fully, deeply, and naturally, all on its own, and return to a state of rest and digest, instead of staying stuck in fight or flight. The NRW breathing exercises work in a very specific way to accomplish that, and though they might resemble other breathing exercises on paper, in practice, the difference is huge.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some benefits to be had from those other breathing exercises. But I’ve worked with many students and teachers of yoga, tai chi, and chi kung who do a little NRW with me and realize for the first time that despite all their training in breath control, they’ve never really taken a deep breath. Instead of escaping the grip of emergency breathing, they had only been learning to control their breath within it.

That can be a devastating realization for someone who’s put all their eggs in the basket of a particular practice, which is why it’s so important to experiment with many different techniques before committing fully to a path. Just because it’s offered at your gym doesn’t mean it’s the only way, the best way, or even a particularly effective way. You have to rely on your own experience and experiments, and it’s far better to find out sooner than later what certain practices offer and what they lack.

But whether or not you’re going to experiment with NRW, you can start to have an impact right now by simply paying attention to your breath. (Yes, you, and yes, right now). Don’t try to manipulate it or change it for now, just shift your attention to it and observe. The first thing to notice is that you probably weren’t paying any attention to your breathing up until that moment; it was happening automatically. The second thing you’ll likely notice is that by simply putting your attention on the breath, it naturally becomes a little deeper, a little more rhythmic. Pay more attention, and you’ll start noticing where your blocks and tensions are. Pay even more attention, and you’ll probably realize you need some stronger medicine to start breaking down those blocks. When that time comes, NRW awaits you.

The Fall and the Resurrection

The crystallization of tension around the breath is something that happens gradually. When my first niece was born, I remember marveling at how free her breath was in those first few months, how perfectly rhythmic, deep, and natural. I also knew that the stresses of growing up, learning to think, and developing a personality to navigate a complex social environment would all gradually pile on tension until, in just a few years, that breath would constrict. And it has. It’s not her fault, of course; it’s just what happens.

But that doesn’t mean we have to keep the tension for a lifetime. We can take the next step and learn to put the body back into a state of primal, energized relaxation. That’s the beginning of a resurrection that has to be experienced to be fully understood and appreciated. You’re reading it here in black and white, but when you click into a full-scale, 3-D, prismacolor experience of what that kind of energized relaxation is actually like, you’ll know, and you’ll understand the depth, power, and profundity of what it really means to relax and take a deep breath.

It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows:

The Dark Side of Mindfulness

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