There’s nothing less likely to get me breathing than a softly whispered new-agey invitation to ‘stay with the breath’. That is just me, it might get others flowing just fine. However, when not breathing becomes as natural to us as breathing, it can cause some problems. Knowing how and when to unlock a breath and soften your body, might be a gift for your emotional health.
There are many different theories on the benefits of breathing, and different ways to do it better. ‘Mindfulness’ has become the trendy expression of modern breath work, clearing mental clutter and connecting to the self in the now. It is seen as the solution to everything from corporate performance to school bullying and the reduction of wrinkles. It has an evidence base that it works, and I’m not arguing against that. What I am arguing for is a focus on what I’ll call for now ‘bodyfulness’, the clearing of body clutter through the breath. Unlike our minds which can cast all sorts of stories, the body doesn’t lie. I watch clients tell me that they don’t feel angry anymore, and at the same time as they are talking, their hands are clenching into two tight fists. I watch clients tell me that that they are happy to be having therapy, while their feet are lifting off the floor ready to run. I once read that body language experts for the FBI, don’t look at people’s faces or hands to really see what’s going on, but at their feet. The body doesn’t lie!
When I work with clients, their whole self is in the room and that includes their body and their breath. Although I don’t do Reichian bodywork, which works with the body and breath in a hands on way, I am influenced by Wilhelm Reich’s approach because it helps me understand what might be going on for a client emotionally because I can see it in their body. There is more information on Reich and his approach here http://www.wilhelmreichtrust.org/.
Reich believed in a universal life-force that interacts with humans and expresses itself in the body. The now iconic Star Wars phrase, ‘may the force be with you’ draws on the same principle. This life-force can get blocked and body armouring is the result. Body armouring is a system of chronic muscular lock down that happens unconsciously in response to troubling childhood experiences and emotions; fear, rage, anxiety etc. Different parts of our body, both internal and external become rigid. Over time we become that armour and that armour is us, it influences how we walk, talk, move, think and feel. If we can breathe into it, we can at least start to soften the armour. Mostly we can’t feel our own armour because it has become so normal. That’s where therapy can also help.
When clients first appear, and as I get to know them, I am paying attention to their body armouring. Some of the most effective work I have done has come through the simple invitation to soften the body armour and breathe. This can be done without physical touch by bringing the body and the breathing into awareness. ‘Are you aware that your jaw is clenched, how would it be to unclench it’? 'I've just noticed your chest sink back into the chair, were you aware of that'? By shining a soft light on the armour, they become differently aware of their body, and in that moment there is often a subsequent release of breath and loosening up. This creates some space that we can work with.
My invitation to you is this. At some point very soon, plant your feet on the ground, breathe in some life-force, feel it flow around your body, let it settle and soften where it will, and then exhale. If it feels right, do it again, then do it some more. Remember, your body doesn’t lie, and may the force be with you.