Every living creature breaths - even plants survive in primordial breathing symbiosis with the animal world. Breath permeates every cell of our being. Thus to ask a mystic, shaman, or healer to discourse on breathing is like asking a midwife to discuss birth or a policeman to talk about crime. The subject's importance extends into so many realms of human behavior.
Of course most people take breathing for granted - an involuntary act which we've been doing since birth ...satisfactorily enough ...normally enough. Yet behavior which we consider normal and satisfactory simply because we have experienced no other is not necessarily that which leads us to the maximum happiness or to experience our fullest human potential. People's "normal" eating patterns deflected from the "natural" by cultural conditioning or stress can lead to all sorts of problems arising from multifaceted aspects of malnutrition such as obesity, heart sickness, irritable bowel, hyperactivity, depression. Healthy breathing is even more important to our well-being than diet. We can survive for weeks without food and for days without water, yet without breath we can't expect to survive more than a few minutes. Every cell in our body needs to breath right NOW! The wonderful thing is that we can. We all of us have as much of this wonderful air to breath as we can possibly need - despite man's environmental follies - we are surrounded by it. The thing that we need most in our lives is here now and available for all of us.
So what's the problem? From babyhood our natural processes of breathing are distorted, our muscles are taught to tighten up to repress fear or libido - our traumatic experiences of growing up are locked in, our breathing is restricted and distorted.Who is here to teach us to remedy these acquired breathing habits of sadness that prevent us from feeling fully alive? In our culture if we are taught any kind of breathing at all it is usually by some kind of fortunate accident.
In shamanic healing singing and dancing have a vital effect part of which is in bringing about different breathing rhythms. One of the most potent ways of creating harmony in a group of people is by dancing or singing together - thus bringing everyone's breathing into a similar rhythm - and creating an underlying subliminal harmony. Singing itself is a guide to our own natural breathing: try this exercise one day - stretch your hands out as far as you can - rotating them quickly in circles of different size - keep them extended till you can no longer bear it... ..and then start singing! as loud as you can, a demented opera singer! - just let rip - feel the tension flooding out of your arms as your chest relaxes and diaphragm heaves - feel your still outstretched arms now supported effortlessly - instead of whining pain and suffering, feel joy and power come into your heart (and then you might as well stop!). A dramatic self teaching about how your own breath can take you well beyond your self-imposed limitations.
As a teenager I'd become convinced that running gave me headaches - so I naturally hated running - after about a year of practicing martial arts, in my early twenties - a minor emergency made it necessary for me to run a couple of miles or so. Quite unconsciously my martial arts rhythmic breathing kicked in and I found myself covering those couple of miles effortlessly without panting and without a headache! For me that trivial breakthrough was life-changing.
Since then it has become clear to me that altering breathing patterns can have a more profound effect on mind-state (and physical well-being) than any other single change. Different breathing patterns create different emotional states / create different muscular holding patterns / create different breathing patterns etc ...a vicious loop fundamentally change one and others follow. Simple example: if you are feeling a bit down, go out for a run - notice how the change in breathing and physiology immediately changes your mental state. Notice alternatively the postures of fear or emotional stress and tension - tight shoulders, knotted stomach, bands across the chest and shallow, fast or restricted breathing.
The healing power of breath is profound. Even in cases of physiological trauma skillful direction of breath in trance state can often accelerate the repair of damaged tissue or quickly alleviate pain in a way that is as dramatic as it is inexplicable. No academic learning of tantric, yogic or shamanic breathing techniques will substitute for the ability to focus the mind on the breath of ones own. If a healer can't change his/her client's breathing he will forever be attempting to tinker - making surface intellectual changes without reaching deeply into those areas deeper than the intellectual - where the client can access real change. Notwithstanding the previous statement, empirically effective healers commonly have an unintended but positive effect on their clients' breathing pattern by focusing on other related areas. Sometimes such breathing rapport can happen quite naturally - as it often does when dancing or singing together. However, if you wish to lead other people into their own power using hypnotherapy or shamanic trance then it is no use, of course, waiting for chance - you have to initiate the process. To acquire this ability requires practice - for slow learners like myself it requires much practice. Years of practice.
Undoubtedly meditation is one of the most efficient ways of learning to release and ride on the breath. As one of my teachers put it: "only in deep quietness can one begin to listen to the heart". Initially the easiest way to gain that deep quietness (and even the easiest way is often not easy) is by meditation. After some practice in solitary meditation one becomes able to direct ones breathing and thus ones mind towards another. Generally speaking one is advised only to expend this effort on people close to you - those that you love. This explains why people of Christ-like abilities are so extraordinary, they are able to extend their love to anyone - not just their immediate kin and friends. This also partly explains why a lot of people who are in the healing professions really should not be! For as we breath we experience the unity of every human being - however distorted, the same needs for love, acceptance, nourishment and in this case breath are there for all of us.
Tantra, Pranayama, Taoist yoga and martial arts for example use various forms of breathing to achieve different ends. What has become known in the west as microcosmic orbital breathing is familiar in tantra, taoist yoga and Tai chi as a means of circulating vitality along major meridians of the body. In this case this breath moves in the opposite direction to the vitality. One visualizes vitality ascending the spine from the perineum to the crown whilst breath is taken down- the vitality is visualized or felt descending the front of the body whilst the breath ascends emerging from the nostrils. The tantra of breath: Breath in comfort through the nostrils. Breath in and let go. Meditation: The mind riding on the breath - ancient: Tibetan teachings - found described most eloquently in the 100,000 songs of Milarepa - the medieval yogi who, clad only in cotton vest- the sign of the "repa"- passed his life high up in the Himalayan wilderness.
Sanchin Breathing - a form of martial yogic breathing reputed to have originated with the teachings of Zen Patriarch Boddhidarma is dissimilar - the vitality accumulates in the same general direction as the breath - ascending through the nostrils over the head down the spine and spiraling into the tan tien (seat of body power) the breath and energy are then expelled forcibly in a straight line up and through the mouth in an explosive extremely powerful and energizing manner. Try doing that when you're feeling sleepy (but only if you want to wake up!). This is Goju-Ryu Sanchin Breathing as taught by the renowned Master Morio Higaonna Sensei. These are breathing arts which need to be practiced for the fruits to mature. These are also many aberrations of breathing which one can "inflict" more readily and will bring about instant results of one kind or another - hyper-ventilation for example is practiced in several modern sects as a means of bringing on a kind of euphoria. Yet in such cases the results are centred in the chest area, emotionally arousing but transient. In Zen or Trance Healing it is believed that to achieve real - or at least deeply into the lower abdomen by skillful use of the diaphragm. Only at this level can our negative unconscious programs be supplanted by new awareness. This deep gut insight enables us to use our energy creatively instead of squandering it by holding on tenaciously to self-destructive and joy inhibiting patterns. There are many technical breathing instructions to assist in ancient tried developmental processes such as Zen or Shamanic practices which sound meaningless to a person who hasn't tried to practice them - such as the Zen advice to "Breath with your whole body" or "Let Go" and let your body breath you- these hints however can be of vital assistance to those seeking insight in this area..
The Possible Dangers.. and Precautions
Are these breathing techniques dangerous in some way? Frequently classical texts contain admonitions not to practice except under guidance of a skilled teacher - that's all very well if there are skilled teachers available...but if not? Britain especially is a culture whose mind-set is predominantly that of control. People here frequently ask me at demonstrations of Shamanic Healing and Trance whether or not it is dangerous. Generally the people most concerned about such dangers are those rigidly gripped and frightened by the prospect of losing control. To such people I normally reply that nothing would be much more dangerous than remaining in their current state. It will normally take more than breathing exercises to dislodge such deep rigidity. However, over-emphasis or wrongful application of breathing exercises or pranayama can lead to undesirable results - best to stop immediately in the absence of any trusted guide. A diligent and intelligent student got himself into a terrible emotional state within a few months of a series of training sessions - riddled by sexual obsession and guilt to the extent that he was frightened to remain in the same room with a woman. Fortunately he came for counseling. It transpired that he had been performing a type of microcosmic orbital breathing and the reverse "pre-natal chi" Tai chi breathing incessantly since experiencing some positive results on a training course up here at our school. Remedy stop doing it. Results: immediate relief of obsessive guilt feeling. Thus whilst not actually causing imbalance, faulty breathing techniques can exacerbate (sometimes extremely) an underlying, pre-existing emotional difficulty.
It takes about 7 years to qualify as a western doctor - compare this with about 25 years to develop the sensitivities required in Tibetan Medicine. Many martial artists become healers after decades of training in martial arts - healing being a way of creatively using power and sensitivity built up over decades of training. Healing wisdom in traditional societies is generally associated with it. Let this be advice to us aspiring healers. Many see and want techniques that are associated with Shamanic forms of healing but don't seem to understand the commitment and training involved.
Practicing breathing skills is not simply a matter of adding to our existing knowledge - students reading another book, attending another workshop. We need to become intrepid explorers in unknown areas of ourselves where our current concepts are of little value, our reliance on navigational techniques irrelevant - we are, as it were, now north of the N. Pole (i.e. where north no longer has meaning). The treasures of Vajrayana Zen or similar paths are alluring - how many of us have the necessary determination to achieve them? We start again with our first step. Take a seat, comfortably, in a place where you can remain for a while without interference. Never mind if the birds whistle, the cars hoot or the children play. Sit serenely, body erect, relaxed, immobile and begin to pay attention to your breathing. 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or half an hour - that's up to you, but practice every day - discipline yourself - don't shave off a few minutes just because you "feel like it" or "don't feel like it".
Sounds simple? Just pay attention to your breathing. As you become calmer, gradually observe and detach from your thoughts. Whatever thoughts come to you, strongly and gently abandon them and return to your breath.
"Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness, like the imprint of a bird in the sky"(1)
For a moment or two trust your primeval breathing process to invigorate and take care of you as it has taken care of your ancestors for countless generations. Then get up refreshed, revived and more in touch with yourself than ever.
(1) From the Sadhana of Karmapakshi - Medieval Vajrayana yoga tantra introduced to the west by my friend and teacher C.T.Esq.