Our fears, resentments and anxieties are reflected by, and stored in, the diaphragm, especially at its mid-point, the solar plexus. If this tension persists, it not only interferes with easy breathing; it imprisons us in a state of chronic anxiety. Good breathing, on the other hand, can gradually help to dissolve the emotional knots and negative attitudes we have been holding onto all our lives.
Ran Jan is a practitioner in one of London’s most interesting centres for health and healing at St James’s Church, just off London’s Piccadilly. He treats people for a wide range of conditions, many of which are stress-related.
“I talk about three different kinds of breathing,” he told me, “Neutral – using the diaphragm and lower chest; red alert – using the diaphragm very little, just the chest; and panic stations – hyperventilation. In all the years I have practiced here, I haven’t had anyone come to me who isn’t on red alert. The way you breathe signals to your body whether you feel safe, or in hostile territory; red alert means you feel threatened, so most of the time people are breathing in an inappropriate way. How does this happen ? Well, if you watch a baby, it breathes with the diaphragm and you see its stomach rise and fall. As we grow, we meet a red alert situation from time to time, and our breathing changes as part of our natural response to it; for instance, if you met a lion, you would shift to red alert very quickly. If the emergencies in our lives – often emotional rather than physical – come fast and furious, then its not worth going down into normal breathing after each one, and we stay on red alert mode enough to permanently change our breathing reflex. If you’ve been on red alert for 20 years you stay on it, even during sleep. And this means that we are in a stressed state all the time and we have less energy left over for ordinary living.”
“To breathe well,” says Ran Jan, “we must return to the relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing of a tiny baby. Let’s get the breathing off red alert and down into neutral; you will function better on all levels and all your systems will be getting more energy. There is a sense of relaxation, too, as the breathing descends to your diaphragm.”
HOW IT’S DONE
For your first attempt, diaphragmatic breathing is easier if you are lying on your back with your legs drawn up a little. Place one hand on your diaphragm, just above the waistline, and expand your stomach like a balloon as you breathe in so that your hand rises a little, allowing it to subside as you breathe out. Your shoulders don’t figure in this at all.
When you are aware of correct, easy diaphragmatic breathing, you can start to use it. First, breathe out as far as you can, without straining. Then, gently breathe in, swelling your stomach as before, pause for one count, breathe out slowly and evenly and pause again. This is your breathing cycle. With repetition, you will be able to lengthen and deepen this cycle.
This way of breathing is different for most of us and can take a little time to master, but persevere. If you feel dizzy, headachy, or in any other way uncomfortable, then stop, pause a while and try again, peacefully and easily as before. Your body may need time to get used to the extra intake of oxygen.
Breathing in this way slows the heart rate, relaxed tense muscles and shifts nervous system activity into a more restful mode, calming both mind and body and freeing your energies in a natural way.
When you have taught yourself this relaxer you can use it at any time to shed tension and avoid the effects of stress – in traffic, shopping, at the dentist; in fact in any fraught situation. It works almost at once.
With practice, your breathing will enhance your health and you will notice greater calmness and energy. Good breathing does not take up time, does not cost anything and – when you have mastered it – is effortless. As Leslie Kenton says in her book The Joy of Beauty, “even more important than the food you eat is the air you breathe and the way you breathe it.”