Awareness of Breath: Tracking the Tide of Life

This month marks the beginning of Nia's new educational course of study, Becoming a Sensation Scientist. Before diving into this month's focus, Awareness of Breath, read Debbie Rosas' personal introduction to the course. After doing so, you will be ready to learn about breath from the perspective of three sensation scientists who have shared their wisdom to help you become body literate (see below). These sensation scientists include Nia Black Belt and Alexander Technique Teacher Chris Friedman, physical therapist and Nia Next Generation Trainer (NGT) Rachael R. Resch, and certified family physician, doctor of oriental medicine and Nia NGT Dr. Maureen Small.

Now to breath. Breath is the life force energy of each of us. Its initial presence symbolizes the beginning of life; its absence represents the end. Paying attention to the breath is one of the easiest ways to track health and wellness. Healthy breathing improves the function of your diaphragm, which keeps the core of your body strong and your spine supple. It stimulates action in the abdominal muscles and provides you with energetic support for performing movements that require more physical force and power. Conscious breathing improves mental clarity and can even release emotion and a sense of freedom.

Chris Friedman says:

Breathing is our birthright—but it took me a long time to claim this right. I held back tears for years. I held my breath. I squeezed my diaphragm tightly, pulled my chest downwards, and sucked in my solar plexus. I smoked. I also coughed. Honestly, I think I was barely alive in my youth.

During my White Belt, when we focused on the core of the body and the mobility of ribs, I found myself sobbing at the end of class. My ribs had barely moved, and yet they had moved just a bit; and I experienced, for the first time, the tight cage in which I held myself prisoner. I simultaneously glimpsed the possible freedom that awaited me. My sobs were a deeply held grief and the beginning of freeing up my breath, of finding my way out of a stronghold… a very strong hold that I had on myself. To keep myself from feeling, I had kept myself from breathing!

The journey to freedom was slow. Over time, I have learned much about breathing, about myself, and about the relationship between emotion and breath. The diaphragm is rightly called “the muscle of emotion.” The beauty of freeing the core of the body Nia’s way—by vibrating, sounding, isolating and mobilizing—is that it all breaks down the rigidity of the thorax, the restrictions that deprive you of your vitality and liveliness. Such core movements can help restore your freedom to breathe.

How breathing works:

Ideally, in accordance with The Body’s Way, breathing happens to you; it is an involuntary action. If you watch a sleeping baby breathe, you will see that we are essentially breathing containers. You will see that the whole body breathes in an easeful and coordinated manner. A baby does not need to learn how to do this.

The diaphragm, the large muscle that divides the center of our body, is a powerful pump. Innervated by the phrenic nerve, the diaphragm rises and descends according to the body’s needs to release carbon dioxide and to take in oxygen. As we exhale, the ribs drape in a downward direction toward the hips, as the diaphragm domes up toward the heart, expelling air out of the lungs. As we inhale, the diaphragm descends and spreads, and the ribs respond by expanding as fresh breath flows into and fills the lungs. The excursion of a well-toned diaphragm is about 12 centimeters. (However the actual range of most people is more like 3 or 4 centimeters.)

Breathing problems begin when our voluntary muscles begin acting on this beautiful involuntary system, as in when we hold our breath, when we stiffen our backs, when we thrust our chests forward—even when we attempt to impose “correct breathing.” The body knows how to breathe. Simply put, The Body’s Way is to breathe!

Chris’ tips on breath:

1. Don’t hold your breath and don’t “take a deep breath.” Instead, allow a complete exhalation to happen. Extend your exhale with a sound, whispered or vocalized, to tone your diaphragm without forcing or pushing, emptying your lungs so a fresh breath can spontaneously drop in. Find less effort and more ease.

2. Don’t try to breathe “correctly.” Instead, simply allow your body to do what it does most naturally: breathe. Remember: You are a breathing container. Leave yourself alone and let the diaphragm breathe you, while your supple ribs, shoulders and spine coordinate harmoniously with the rise and fall of this powerful muscle.

3. Listen to the internal shape and rhythm of your breath as you move through activity, the body and breath adapting to your changing needs for oxygen and release of carbon dioxide. No two breaths are ever alike. Each breath is a unique and remarkable experience. Listen to the wonder of your body breathing.

Rachael R. Resch, PT says:

My journey of remembering that I am a sensation scientist began in the spring of 1995, when by chance, I walked into my first Nia class in a fitness club in Portland, Oregon - and my life changed forever. At the time, I was totally disabled by asthma. I was a physical therapist, but unable to work. I was a dancer, but unable to cross the room to answer the phone. With the highest doses of medications, I could barely breathe. But after two years of Nia, my breathing improved by 50%. After seven years, I was off all asthma medications. Today my respiratory function is 130% of normal.

Nia gave me the medicine I needed—the medicine of awareness, allowing me to discover my body’s way to heal. But asthma is the sensation of suffocation, the last thing I wanted to be aware of. I needed more than awareness—I needed the incentive to become aware and stay aware. Nia provided that too, through the Joy of Movement. Even when I was wheezing, the joy of movement all around me during a Nia class was my reward, giving me an immediate return on the awareness I was investing in my breath and in my body.

Over a two-year period, I conducted rigorous trial-and-error experiments as a sensation scientist in the sacred laboratory of my body. My principle finding was this: there is a specific sensation in the lungs just prior to an asthma attack. Like an aura before a seizure or migraine, but extremely subtle, this faint sensory precursor can be used as a signal to immediately stop or reduce movement intensity and thus avoid an asthma attack. This reduces the inflammation in the lungs and generates the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise. In this way, I was able to sustain and gradually increase my tolerance to exercise and strengthen my lungs.

Secondly, I determined micro-movement was the best way for me to exercise. I could maintain easy, comfortable breathing without aggravating my asthma. Micro-movement also reduced sensory input to my nervous system, so I could put more awareness on the subtle sensations of my breath.

Finally, my breath also benefited from Nia’s emotional expressiveness. Intuitively, I knew inflammation in my lungs was unexpressed anger and unexpressed tears. Pleura, the membranes around the lungs, means “to weep.” But ironically, I couldn’t weep or yell without provoking asthma. The dance and martial arts that comprise Nia provided a safe, gradual way to move my emotional body.

Every two seconds, the breath is a teacher and an indicator of the health and wellness of the body, the mind, the emotions and the spirit. In Chinese medicine, the lungs are associated with both grief and with joy. I believe The Joy of Movement, the foundation of Nia, is essential medicine for everybody to experience the full vitality of the breath.

Rachael’s tips on breath:

1. First, simply notice your breath. Notice your inhale. Notice your exhale. Notice if your belly is expanding when you breathe in and relaxing when you breathe out. After a while, notice the pause at the end of your exhale, before your inhale happens. Just notice. In this pause, the homeostasis of the whole body resets itself.

2. Understand that the rate, length and quality of your breath varies from moment to moment, and has a unique optimal pattern for every situation. What is your breath telling you about the moment? Are you energized, anxious, excited, tired, inspired, relaxed, hurried, grounded, timid or confident?

3. Respond. Often, we can exhale longer. We can sigh. Often, the belly can gently expand more when we inhale. In our high-speed world, our central nervous system needs the relaxation provided by a softly breathing belly, a longer exhale and a pause before the next breath.

Dr. Maureen Small, MD says:

Breath is life. Medically, it is termed as one of our vital functions, along with heartbeat. The first memories of “breath” that come to my mental realm are of waiting for a newborn's first breath - followed by a lusty cry - at the hundreds of births I attended as a young family physician in training. Next, my mind jumps to the other end of the cycle of life, when I have frequently been called to resuscitate patients - using advanced life support measures - who had stopped breathing.

In the early 80s, when I was a resident in the hospital, allopathic medicine obliged very “Tai Kwon Do responses" to such events, even when the patient had very little chance of recovering. My singular experience of a natural death was when I was able to accompany my mother's last breath in a peaceful circle of siblings. We spent several hours at her bedside offering prayers, songs and words encouraging her spirit to let go. It was most powerful.

Slow yogic belly-breathing is well studied for its calming effect on the autonomic nervous system. Physiologically, respiration is unique in that it is both controlled by voluntary and involuntary processes. When I breathe, the sensation scientist in me brings awareness to my body, to the sensation of the flow of air in my nostrils, to the pleasurable expansion of my belly as my diaphragm contracts and my abdominal muscles relax - allowing the lower lobes of my lungs to first fill with air, followed by the middle and upper lobes. I notice the moments of retention before letting my diaphragm relax, and slowly letting the air leave my lungs, beginning from the lower lobes and moving up and out. I sense the calming effect these moments have on my nervous system. First noticing my breath, and then consciously asking it to slow, are palpably pleasurable experiences.