Monday, March 13, 2006

March 13, 2006 - Breathing Lessons

Unless we’ve got some sort of respiratory problem, most of us spend little or no time each day thinking about our breathing. It’s one of the body’s “autonomic” functions – breathing happens automatically, whether we’re thinking about it or not.

On two different occasions today, my attention is focused on my own breathing. Those two circumstances are as different as different can be.

The first takes place this afternoon at Ocean Medical Center (Brick Hospital), where I’ve gone for a CT Scan. I’m halfway through my chemo treatments, so this is the mid-point check on how much my tumors have diminished in size. It will be several days before I hear the results from Dr. Lerner.

I’ve been through this procedure before. Drink a banana-flavored pseudo-milkshake: half of it three hours before the test, the rest of it moments before. Then, lie down on a narrow gurney, feet pointing in the direction of the large, white donut that is the CT Scan machine. Extend an arm, for it to be pierced with a special IV needle, so the contrast dye can be injected moments before the test. Now, hands over your head, and do what the machine tells you.

The machine? Yes, the machine. A disembodied, robotic voice repeats this three-part command a dozen or so times, as a whirring electric engine moves my body jerkily through the donut: “Breathe in. Hold it. Breathe.” For this scan of my chest and abdomen, my belly must be absolutely still at the critical moments – not rising and falling as it does with normal breathing.

Each time the robotic voice says, “Breathe in,” I fill my lungs with air – not too much, because I might hyperventilate, but a larger-than-normal breath all the same. Then I have to hold that breath a little longer than feels comfortable, before abruptly, almost explosively expelling it on the “Breathe” command. Despite all this deep breathing, there’s a breathless feeling about it all. As familiar as we all are with the act of breathing, it feels unnatural to breathe on command.

The second occasion I have to reflect on my breathing is this evening, at our church’s informal healing service. It’s a peaceful, restful setting. The sanctuary lights are dimmed, with candles flickering on the communion table. Gentle, Taizé music is playing softly over the sound system. There are periods of silence, during which the other worshipers and I sit quietly.

In such a setting, it’s natural to become aware of one’s own breathing. It’s a time-honored meditation technique, in fact, to reflect on one’s own breathing – and perhaps to utter a simple, rote prayer on the “in” breath and another on the “out” breath. I don’t whisper any such prayer tonight, but I do focus on my breathing – and the more I do, the more relaxed I feel. By the time some of us – myself included – come forward for prayer and the laying on of hands, I’m feeling relaxed indeed, and at peace.

There’s quite a contrast between this day’s two experiences of intentional breathing. Each, in its own way, is supposed to make me well. Yet the first increases my anxiety, while the second makes me feel at peace. I’m not suggesting that CT Scans be conducted any differently – there are good medical reasons why it’s best to hold one’s breath while the pictures are being taken. I’m just observing an interesting contrast between the two.

This contrast seems symbolic of these two ways of healing that are meant to be complementary: the clinical and the spiritual. A truly holistic treatment, for cancer or any other disorder, must include something of both.

Breathe in... breathe out. It’s the ceaseless rhythm of life.

1 comment:

Skyblue said...

Well, many people who are into vigorous exercise are practicing breath control. Then there are the meditators who meditate by controlling breath. The simplest I suppose is just to be aware of breathing. This in itself, changes breathing.
I don't think the active control exercises are a complete opposite of the passive. They should have the same result in relaxation.
The yogi holds intakes, holds and expels for set lengths of time.
For those who do very vigorous exercise, the exercise itself creates breathing and breath control. Within that some try to breath in and out on various movements and some try to restrict breathing through the nose. My experience is quite a bit from martial arts but also from cardio exercise like running, mountain hiking, aerobics.
I am a great believer in the curative power of extreme exercise and also extreme emotion or emotional openness and fluidity. They also promote each other.
Unfortunately there are dangers and I fell into some of them.

So many things change in the internal body chemistry with vigorous exercise. It is far more than muscles and blood. Mostly there is the nervous system and the metabolism affected. I find vigorous exercise brings up old inhibiting emotion and can be expunged from the system.
Anxiety is simply lack of breathing. I used to suffer extreme dysfunctional anxiety before my cure. However it was just a symptom. When I "bioenergized" and woke to life the anxiety disappeared . So in that respect, I never worked directly on breathing.
But everything has been indirect since then in my love of physical movement/exercise.
In extremely energetic movement I have never yet been able to control breathing through the nose. Movement comes first (or rather speed of movement - this is my method priority) and then I let my body accommodate. so that means to me a great deal of moth breathing. But as the body becomes more efficient the breathing habits change naturally.

Yogi breathing need not provoke anxiety. I think you are just new to it and then of course there is anxiety form the hospital situation . But perhaps that last need not necessarily be if you practiced yogic breathing as an exercise. then perhaps it would have the same effect as meditative breathing.
I think more people in our society could learn the benefits of vigorous exercise.
Anyway, It's interesting to think about. i think I will now go back to working somewhat on breath control, both types, in motion and in meditation.
Oh yeah there is contrary breathing.
i.e. breathing in opposite with movement of force or movement of stomach. Contrary stomach movements are supposed to be an "internal exercise. I have never figure out the full scope of reverse breathing except for the obvious one which is a trick. That trick is when in the ring or fighting if one breathes in when striking or aggressive movements then one can confuse the opponent who might be timing his movements to your breathing. But reverse breathing is supposed to have far more use than that.
Well... I gotta get back to work on my site story, good luck to you.