Energise Your Breathing & Discover Your Potent Self

I teach approaches to breathing from many different angles:

I am a Feldenkrais teacher, so breathing in a free and fluid manner is a core element of every lesson I teach, in my classes and on my table.

I sing–to myself; along with the radio; in public; inside my head etc. etc.–and I also have the pleasure of teaching singing and vocal production to singers, actors, and other voice users of all sorts, both professional and ‘amateur’.

…And last – but not least – in my own life I am also steadily figuring out how to rid myself of a range of respiratory health issues. While I do not claim to be cured, my condition has improved enormously as a direct result of changing various aspects of my behaviour, and particularly with regard to unlearning my inefficient and dysfunctional breathing habits.

I incorporate breathing techniques from many sources–including Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, meditation, and vocal performance training – to enable my students to undo their habitual neuro-muscular patterns of anxiety,  hyperarousal, and the unconscious emotional constraints that disrupt not only natural breathing coordination, but every other aspect of healthy human functioning.

None of this is controversial or likely to surprise you – most of us are aware that …

breathing deeply and freely enriches the voice…

that meditation and mindfulness practises are built on a foundation of breath awareness…

and that better – freer, fuller, more responsive – breathing supports the healthy functioning of our brain and our entire nervous system, which in turn means greater resilience throughout the whole of our chemical/hormonal self-maintenance systems.

Less expected was my discovery–while experimenting with a sequence of lessons from early in the development of the Feldenkrais Method–that breathing can be used to reverse postural deterioration in the neck, spine and upper back. I have been practising the Method for 30 years so postural changes are not surprising in themselves, but it was unusual to experience a change in the muscular tone of my neck and upper back that was so immediate, so extensive, and so easy to replicate.

Even more exciting, the practice appears to have opened ‘energetic channels’ throughout the length of my spine, triggering spontaneous physical sensations more usually associated with concepts such as qi, prana, kundalini, and the chakras (or ‘energy centres’). They also seem to be share benefits with the sort of trauma release work being perfected by Peter Levine, and with systems such as Tension & Trauma Release Exercises (TRE®).

I have been exploring Qi work for many years so this was not so startling, and naturally I was rather pleased to have a spontaneous experience of ‘energy’ travelling through my spinal column, just as the concept of kundalini suggests is possible. Nevertheless I am not unaware that these concepts remain as controversial in ‘western’ medicine as they are ubiquitous in ‘eastern’ medicine.

Outside the somewhat inflexible boundaries of modern science and ‘evidence-based medicine’, there are huge numbers of health practitioners worldwide focussing their efforts on systems-orientated approaches that are designed to tackle the underlying causes of ill health and thereby enable the ‘patient’ to return naturally to a more resilient, healthier condition.

Feldenkrais is also designed to teach people to improve their own functioning, and it is one of a small but growing number of techniques that teach healthier ways of doing and being, instead of attempting to ‘fix’ a structural issue. To customise a familiar saying, ‘force a joint to move further and it will usually revert back to its familiar range of motion very quickly; learn how to let go of your unconscious resistance to moving freely, and you will move better for life’

The flow of energy as defined in these esoteric, synergistic health systems is always founded on, and facilitated by, a well-organised mobile spine. Moshe Feldenkrais–not just an engineer and physicist, but also a judo master–stated that:

“General features of proper self-use can now be formulated. The head should remain absolutely free to float, riding on the top of the spine. All tension in the neck and the throat interferes with the motion of the head and makes coordinated action more or less imperfect. …the head is being balanced in the standing position without voluntary tension anywhere in the body from the pelvis upward.”

Moshe Feldenkrais, quote from The Potent Self.

Moshe had a 20th century physicist’s scorn for the use of the word ‘energy’ as a metaphor for any sort of human ‘bio-field’ or ‘channel’, so I am sure that he would be disgusted with me for my previous paragraph, and I am sad he is no longer around and I will never have the chance to argue the toss with him on this subject (it would have been a Tai Chi/Judo compare-and-contrast type conversation).

One easily detectable form of Qi is the subtle-but-distinct sensation of whatever-it-is between your palms. It takes very little practice to learn to sense for yourself, and, as it feels in some way similar to the static electricity field that used to emanate from an old-fashioned television screen, crossed with a very gentle version of the sensation you feel when you attempt to connect the matching poles of two magnets – ‘energy’ seems like a really natural word to choose to describe the experience. Fortunately, just as science is developing ever more enormous machines to confirm the existence of ever more minuscule sub-atomic ‘particles’, it is also developing equipment sensitive enough to detect subtle magnetic fields of the sort produced by living matter.

The breathing work I teach in classes and workshops is founded on the excellent tools for enhancing the learning process that Moshe Feldenkrais developed from his years and years of teaching The Elusive Obvious; in his essay Learning To Learn he lays out his discoveries in clear detail. These same strategies are now consistently verified by current research into how our neuroplastic human brain learns, how best to relieve chronic pain, and many other ways for improving human ability in all fields:

1. Moving slowly, attentively and “mindfully”. Feldenkrais lessons include active encouragement to find an alternative way of moving to the effortful, forceful, striving behaviour that is common to most forms of exercise, and much of human activity. It is this lack of readiness to ‘look for the pleasant sensation’ as we perform repeated actions that is a major cause of injuries of all sorts, from sprains, tears, and spasms, to more chronic conditions such as RSI, Tennis Elbow, Housemaid’s Knee, etc.

2. Pausing regularly to rest and completely let go of all activity. Stopping and “re-centering” ourselves between short movement sequences is beneficial for two important reasons. First, increasing the contrast between ‘doing’ and ‘not-doing’ is like pressing “restart” on a computer. Our nervous system is primed to focus our attention on the new: background noise, background smells, repeated flavours, constant sensations, all become duller with over-familiarity, gently slipping out of our awareness until something new re-awakens our attention. Restarting a movement sequence from scratch every few minutes stops us from zoning out and dropping into robot mode. We stay attentive and focussed enough to access our brain’s life-long ability to rewire our neural ‘software’. Plus, as we learn to enjoy regular rest-pauses we may begin to pace ourselves a little better in other daily activities.

3. …and also to clarify the–perhaps unique–concept at the heart of Feldenkrais work that, when a particular action gets easier, it does so right at the moment when you begin moving, so, while the range of your motion may well increase, the most significant change is that you have lessened any sensation of resistance, and are beginning to learn how not to ‘get in your own way’. In his book The Potent Self, Feldenkrais describes how our freedom to move spontaneously can be inhibited by unconscious contradictory impulses that naturally increase the effort involved right at the onset of any action. As we improve our ability to act ‘whole-heartedly’ we no longer have to overcome unconscious resistance in order to perform, and the sensation of resting easily in ‘neutral’ becomes more and more familiar. You are no longer getting in your own way, and, as you unclench yourself, your subtler feedback mechanisms become easier to detect, and act on. We have all enjoyed the experience of an idly-tossed missile hitting its target with no effort to aim on our part – this sort of satisfaction is what you get from Feldenkrais to make up for the lack of endorphin-triggering physical effort!

The human fingertip can detect something as small as 13 nanometers in width, as long as the surface it is resting on is smooth enough. Bring yourself into a state of quietude and you can feel your own heartbeat, and register your subtlest emotional shifts as they occur, allowing you to be more spontaneous, or more discreet, as you choose. “When you know what you are doing you can do what you want”, and when you know exactly how you are feeling you can begin to act more in alignment with your own instinctual self.

Feldenkrais Breathing work is beneficial for anyone, but particularly:

Martial artists and Qi Gong practitioners

Dancers and athletes

Asthmatics and COPD sufferers

Reversing ‘Dowager’s hump’, curvature of the spine, and other postural issues

Energy workers, and meditators of all kinds.

I will be offering this lesson series as an online course very shortly, so do contact me if you would like more information.

Snippet from a great interview by Ginger Campbell, MD, from her excellent Brain Science Podcast

Edited version of an article originally published 15.7.15

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