chapter  6
WAVES OF BREATH Rhythms of respiration and feeling
Pages 16

I have mentioned the importance of breathing not only as a pump of life energy and as a mechanism for mobilisation but also, as involved with the diaphragm, a link between the mesoderm and the endoderm.I use breathing as an essential indicator of what is happening to the client and as their expression of their emotional state. Re-balancing the emotional energy is so intrinsically linked with the re-balancing of the breathing that I consider working with one inseparable from working with the other.The relaxed pulsation of breathing builds a sense of centre. We call a person 'centred’ when he is connected to the rhythm of his breath. Strictly speaking the gravitational centre of the body is at the hara, 2 inches below the navel. When a person floats in water his weight is distributed either side of this point. Anxiety breaks the rhythm of the breath, creates a contraction and the person sinks; his connection to the centre has been lost.Breathing has a rhythm like the sea. We can see the waves rising and falling in the abdomen and chest; we can hear the sound of in-breath and out-breath if we tune our ears. We can float our hands on the surface of the body and feel the inflation and deflation of the trunk.1 In inspiration, the trunk expands and there is a lengthening impulse up the spine. In expiration the person gets smaller and shorter. Breathing out

is a giving-up and letting-go. Breathing in is a filling and containing; a preparation for action.The emotional centre of a person is felt at the heart; the energetic centre is felt in the hara. If the diaphragm is relaxed, these two centres are connected and feel unified: if the diaphragm is tensed, the connection is broken. It is then possible to feel connected to one’s heart, but also to feel the heart unsupported by the energy of the lower half of the body. Alternatively one might feel power and vitality in the hara centre and be contracted or empty and cold in the heart. We could call these two centres the ‘love’ centre and the ‘power’ centre. When they are divided we have powerless love or power without love. When the connection of the diaphragm is open we have a person who is centred in the power of love.So breathing can be both an expression of spontaneity or a reflection of the conditioning of the character.2 The way a person breathes conveys a sense of rhythm and inner well­being or it communicates stress, discomfort, pressure or lack of ease.The heart centre is related to thoracic breathing, the hara centre to abdominal breathing. In thoracic breathing the chest is pumped up and held in the inflated position. Feelings are held back, creating a sense of over-containment. There is a fear to breathe out fully; letting go would feel like dying (expirate = expire), like dissolving the boundary and falling into more self-expression. Paradoxically, this sense of thoracic pressure actually creates a risk of dying, since the over-inflated inspiratory breathing pattern is frequently associated with Type A (rigid) personalities who are prone to high blood pressure and heart-attacks. The heart feels caged. Such a person, when he does get emotional, tends to push the emotions. This pressure of pushing, together with the rigidity of the chest container, increases the risk of straining the heart.Edouardo was a man who, as a child, had been frequently beaten by his mother. He had tried very hard to earn her love by performing well in a number of ways. Always she found fault with him and beat him with an electric flex. When he

grew up he trained in karate and achieved the level of black belt. Karate allowed him a physical outlet for aggression, but he was very over-contained in expressing the rage that he felt from his childhood. The repressed rage had to be held in and Edouardo felt periodic chest pains. He had to be helped to soften the chest and relax his breathing in order to depres­surise the chest. In general, in order to help someone breathe out, I help them to move out. Ways of doing this will be described later.The tendency to over-contain in the abdomen is found frequently in people who have learned to swallow and hold down their feelings (the ‘masochistic’ characters). They create a strong pressure in the abdomen to prevent their bad feelings bursting out.The opposite of this masochistic pattern is found in people with active hysterical patterns, who tend to be under-con­tained. They are identified with breathing out. The out-breath carries with it a scream, a cry, or some other strong emotional expression. What can be seen on looking closer is the lack of contact with the in-breath. People in a hysterical process easily lose their sense of centre. The belly is agitated and tends to be held in deflation. So helping such a person to contact the in-breath in the abdomen in order to build a sense of centre and containment is a crucial part of the necessary therapeutic work.In over-needy dependent people (the oral character structures) there is a reluctance to take in air, just as there is an inhibition of sucking and of reaching. The person looks and feels empty and weak, and this undernourished feeling goes with a low inspiration in the belly and the chest. This maintains a low metabolic state that sustains the sense of deficiency.When Reich began to work on helping patients pay atten­tion to their breathing, he saw many people who showed the inspiratory tendency. He focused principally on the importance of breathing out and of emotional release. I have sometimes seen poorly trained Reichian therapists seeking to

encourage this kind of response in people who needed exactly the opposite kind of help. My experience, after two decades of working with several thousand people, is that at least half of the people I meet need to learn how to deepen their inspiration; the other half are helped by work on deepening the expiration.One of the least well-understood processes in those working with breathing is the origin and dynamic of hyperventila­tion.3 The signs of hyperventilation are readily detectable: the patient has speeded up his breathing or is prolonging or pushing the out-breath; he will tend to be under-active and under-expressive of feeling; after a while his fingers will start to cramp in a characteristic spasm and the whole body will begin to tighten. The symptoms of hyperventilation are, in the early stages, a mild tingling, which may feel pleasant but which later becomes unpleasant, followed by sensations of tightness, pain and numbness, first in the fingers then perhaps in the lips and tongue, with a resultant difficulty in speaking. There is often a sense of dizziness or unreality, panic or confusion, with usually a feeling of pressure or tightness in the abdomen.The cause of hyperventilation is loss of carbon dioxide. The over-speedy breathing or the forced exhalation blows off too much carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide level in the blood falls, with a shift in the blood pH towards the alkaline. This alkaline shift potentiates a calcium shift in muscles and nerves, the calcium shift creates a rapid firing of nerve signals to the muscles to contract, and thus the muscles begin to move towards a state of tetany, beginning with the most peripheral regions (fingers, toes, lips and nose). Many people enter such a state of hyperventilation spontaneously in a situation of strong anxiety.A doctor writing in the Observer newspaper expressed the view that some 40 per cent of all complaints that people brought to him in general practice were side effects of unrecognised hyperventilation. A psychotherapist working with a patient in an anxiety state may be seriously

handicapped if he does not recognise a dysfunctional breath­ing pattern and find ways to remedy it. Similarly a purely physiological approach to correcting hyperventilation is weakened if the psychic aspects of anxiety states are ignored.In the last decade or more a number of therapies have used hyperventilation deliberately as a therapeutic tool, in the belief that they are ‘creating more feeling’ or ‘breathing through the resistance’ if they push a person into carbon dioxide deficiency. Rebirthing therapy has specifically advocated this as a method and has consistently ignored the fact that the hyperventilation symptoms are the body’s distress signals in response to a deficiency. The resulting overload on the psychic system, as disorientation or confusion, or on the somatic system, as increased tension or spasm, can occasionally be lethal. A man with some pre-psychotic tendencies left a rebirthing session and murdered his landlady the same evening. Of course there was no connection, the defenders of rebirthing will say. A second man died of a heart attack during hyperventilation in a rebirthing session in Germany. Of course, he was due to have one anyway or brought it on himself, will be the defence. A man in London who was pushed into hyperventilation by an untrained therapist using bio-energedc stress positions had a latent claustrophobia activated, which troubled him for some months. He decided to commit suicide unless his claustro­phobia improved before six months was up. Fortunately it did. I met him some time later. He proved to be a natural hyperventilator who needed help deepening his inspiration.Another therapist who works with hyperventilation is Stanislav Grof, who is interested in the altered states of consciousness that can be induced through it.4 This is in lieu of LSD, which is no longer legal to use. I have great respect for Grof’s theoretical model of the unconscious and of pre­birth states, but less respect for the methods he used to obtain his material, since hyperventilation throws all the major systems of the body into dysfunction.Followers of Grof and the rebirthers defend hyperventila-

tion by arguing that, if a person continues with his exaggerated breathing, he will ‘break through the blocks’ and the symptoms will disappear. The physiology of this belief has never been explained to me. There are two possibilities. One is that, by pushing the body into even more hyperventila­tion, the brain goes into emergency cut-off (technically called a depolarisation block). It is the equivalent of jamming. But to rely on this emergency system to release the patient of the effects of the abuse of his body seems grandiose and illegitimate. The second possibility is that the padent begins spontaneously to breathe in more deeply and this brings the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the breath back into balance and corrects the carbon dioxide shortage. This is actually a change out of hyperventilation (which is dysfunctional) into deep balanced breathing, which is an improvement in most people’s functioning.So we come to the treatment of hyperventilation. Since hyperventilation symptoms are created by a loss of carbon dioxide, they can be removed by slowing the rate of carbon dioxide loss until the alkaline blood comes back into balance and the calcium shift has been reversed. There are several ways of putting carbon dioxide back into the blood. One way is to use the principle of rebreathing; the patient breathes into a bag or with a handkerchief over the face. This traps the carbon dioxide so that it is breathed back with the next in-breath.A second way, which only works in the early stages, is to encourage movement. Hyperventilators typically over-breathe and under-move. If the patient becomes active, the activity generates lactic acid which counteracts the alkalinity of the blood. Contact and reassurance also help because they reduce the tendency to blow off air in a panic and stimulate taking-in and receiving which helps the in-breath.The most helpful way is to support the person in develop­ing his in-breath and to explain the dynamics of the process. These give the patient the possibility of managing his own anxiety attacks with some hope of success. In the first of these,

the therapist can work with his hands to support the lumbar or cervical curves of the spine with the patient lying on his back, giving a mild lifting impulse as the patient breathes in and relaxing his hand as the patient breathes out. The therapist can lift the patient’s arms, slowly, in the rhythm of the in-breath, lowering them on the out-breath. This work with the arms stimulates the expansion of the chest. The patient can be asked, while lying on his back with the knees bent, to press gently down into the floor with the in-breath and to relax the pressure with the out-breath. This will emphasise the containment function of the breathing. This can also be helped by a similar pressure from the therapist’s hands to the patient’s shoulders, giving gentle resistance to them during the in-breath, and relaxing this during the out-breath.This in-breath work is basic, not only to counteract hyper­ventilation, but in all cases where there is low charge, weak boundaries or an over-readiness to fall into emotional release. Will Davies, an American therapist using similar principles, calls it ‘working with the in-stroke’.5The centrality of breathing to the regulation of the energy-economy of the patient can better be understood when looking at specific emotional states. I have said already that what is common to all neuroses is a loss of part of the full range of human responses. Reich also found that all neurotics have a disturbance in their sexual life. The central mechanism that is common to all forms of armouring is a breathing disturbance. When we deal with the centre of the body, we deal with the breathing and emotional rhythms. The balance between in-breath and out-breath is also the balance between emotional containment and emotional release.When Wilhelm Reich first discovered the basic role of inhibited breathing in every neurotic character, he described this discovery as a ‘breakthrough into the vegetative realm’. It led him to investigate the hidden, inner realms of the body, the pulse of life through the arteries, the beating of the heart, the flow of secretion from glands and the peristaltic pulsation

in the gut. Wherever there were chronic patterns of disturbed breathing, he found disturbances in these internal rhythms; blocks to the smooth, harmonious pulsation of the internal organ system.An animal, living through a temporary emergency, experiences acute states of stress, during which these basic metabolic rhythms are altered or interrupted. They can only return to the smooth rhythms which characterise the body when it is in a state of relaxation and well-being, as soon as the challenge or threat has passed. Human beings, from the earliest times of life onwards, are very often exposed to long­term emergencies; the difficult conditions of a depriving, or over-protective, or directly frustrating upbringing. A baby who is left to cry unnecessarily for long hours, an infant who learns tension and guilt over toilet functions, a child who is smacked or shamed for being sexually alive, does not experience a temporary emergency, where all is restored to harmony shortly after, but nigh on two decades of condition­ing in how to suppress or distort its natural feelings. These conditions lead to chronic stress.Awareness of the relation between muscular tension and stress is not new. Many forms of relaxation therapy have been developed, which differ in important ways from the vegeto-therapy developed by Reich, as a means of releasing pent-up vegetative energy and restoring the natural rhythms of the body.In the course of a therapeutic treatment, as blocked emotions are released and tense muscles give up their defensive function, spontaneous movements in both the skeletal and the smooth muscle systems take place. The relationship between the tensions of the main skeletal muscle sheets and the smooth muscles of the internal organ systems is a very complex one. Gerda Boyesen studied the intricate workings of the visceral armour in great depth. She developed a technique of listening to the changing rhythms of the intestinal peristalsis on a stethoscope so she could monitor the internal responses to her bio-dynamic massage.6