Breathwork Virgin
Our tightly wound writer takes her first
full inhale since childhood

by Claire Conway

Things just seem to fall into place when I run. Muscles soften. Anger deflates. Anxiety unravels. All that matters is the next stride. And from that peaceful monotony have come some of my most profound insights. I've often wished I could access that quiet all day, every day-not just for an hour, three days a week. So many times I've tried to conjure that calm during a tense situation-a frantic phone call from my eight-year-old
son, whose speech disorder makes negotiating the school playground excruciating, or a meeting with yet another pediatrician with still another opinion-and I just can't. It's as if anxiety pulls up a chair in my brain to second-guess every word I say, every gesture I make. So loud and contradictory is the commentary that my rational, genuine thoughts are
lost in the din. The real me crouches low, with hands over ears, out of the line of fire. This has always just been part of who I am, but a move cross-country, with many changes for my son, has turned up the volume. So when offered the chance to try a treatment for my anxiety, I decided to
take it, and I set up an appointment with Margaret Townsend, a breathing facilitator, in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Before I go I look up the term "breathwork" and find that it covers a range of techniques from rebirthing, a practice that helps people recover from birth trauma, to yogic pranayama. I'm told that Margaret has staked out fairly practical ground. Mystified but hopeful, I sit in her office, hoping to find calm in a place where it would never have dawned on me to

Soft-spoken, with effortlessly perfect posture, Margaret is tranquility personified. I know right away that being here is a good thing. She asks why I've come, then tells me how she can help: In a small, peaceful room, with nothing but her hands and voice, she will help me breathe more fully
from my diaphragm. After creating a clear air passage from my lower abdomen through my chest and out my mouth, she explains, I'll experience a calming emotional clarity, a reconnection with my core self. She says this with the confidence of someone who, after training at the
International Breath Institute in New Hampshire, has spent 12 years helping people consciously open and repattern restricted breathing. With an enormous inhale, I deny having restricted breath. She smiles and asks me to lie down on her massage table.

"Have you ever watched a baby breathe?" asks Margaret, as she places her hand on my diaphragm. "You can see a nice, natural rhythm in the rise and fall of their bellies. We all start out that way. But by the time we reach adulthood, our breathing pattern is affected by our emotions and how we deal with them."

My chest rises and falls with each exaggerated breath. My lower abdomen, where Margaret's hand rests, is motionless. Clearly my diaphragm is barely even involved in my breathing process. Somewhere along the way, I devolved into what Margaret calls a chest breather, which means my diaphragm and abdominal muscles, which are designed to take on 80 percent of the breathing task, lie fallow, while my more delicate chest, neck, and shoulder muscles take over.

"Breath connects to the sensory nerves in the brain, so it's always responding to what we're feeling," says Margaret. When panic or anxiety sets in, stress hormones flow, muscles tense, and we take shallow breaths from our chest. A lifetime of holding your breath in response to fear, sadness, or anxiety can create a habitually restricted breathing pattern; a habit of sucking in your gut to adhere to modern notions of beauty can do the same.

With the slow, muted thump of drums and hum of an organ floating in the background, Margaret works to support me in repatterning my breath to where it began, when I was a baby. It's more difficult than it sounds. Hard as I try to engage my diaphragm, my chest overtakes each breath. So I thrust my belly outward for an inhale, and it sucks all the air from my
chest. I gasp in panic and find that my lips are flaring, as if groping for a snorkel. The more I think about this process, the more impossible it becomes.

"Imagine a completely empty space, with air flowing freely," says Margaret, as she lightly traces a path from my neck past my chest to my diaphragm with her hands, over and over again. Following her touch with my breath, I begin to notice that my diaphragm and chest can't work in isolation. I was missing the point. I'm not supposed to leave my chest out of the process, just lessen its role. Diaphragmatic breathing is not unlike learning how to pump on a swing. There's a chain of events that have to be in sync to make it happen: My mouth is a gate that lets breath in; my chest is a channel that must remain open so that the diaphragm-the heart of the process-can draw and drive the continuous flow. The trick is not to let the process begin and end in the chest. I'm getting it, though it still feels artificial, as if I'm breathing for the first time.

As I focus on my breath, Margaret's hands scan my body. They're like divining rods for tension. She applies pressure to my feet, ankles, and calves, which makes me laugh. Then she zeroes in on my face, finding tension I didn't realize I had. My jaw is taut as banjo string. As she grinds into the tension with her fingers to direct my awareness there, she whispers, "We're not healing it; we're just acknowledging it." Like most chest breathers, I hold my tension in my overworked shoulders, neck, and jaw muscles. Margaret asks questions about my life as she finds each clenched place. She wonders why my arms, which should be lying at my side, slowly creep up to rest on my pelvis or chest. "Do you feel vulnerable? Are you trying to protect your heart?" she asks. I can respond or not, she tells me, but of course I do, and suddenly find tears streaming down my cheeks. A sadness and exhaustion I had not fully acknowledged has surfaced, and I struggle to speak without letting the dam break. Margaret leaves me alone in the room for a few minutes and I sob,
soundlessly. Just air forcing its way outward. I feel startled by the onslaught of emotions, and strangely relieved. Not in the sense that I've worked anything out, but that I've at least found a way to the source.

Margaret tells me that she spent years as a shiatsu practitioner before turning to breathwork. Through her practice she began to notice that, as a culture, we look outside ourselves for comfort. "I left bodywork because
I realized that the only way I could help my clients feel relaxed was to have them come for another massage," she says. Breathwork is different because it's self-empowering. "It's your inner switch," Margaret explains."By simply breathing fully, your nervous system balances and allows you to deal with your emotions in a more centered way."
I breathed with Margaret for an hour that day, and then had two more sessions; after the third she sent me home with a guided-breathing CD.

With her help, in the second session, I found what I envisioned as a continuous, open jet stream of air from my abdomen through my mouth and back again. There was no isolated inhale or exhale, just an easy, elliptical cycle. Complete, diaphragmatic breathing. And with that fullness of breath, I found a calm that I can only describe as conscious sleep. I stayed in that place for the hour and regenerated.
In the third session I managed to nudge anxiety off the chair. I allowed myself to see the progress my son has made, and to acknowledge my role in that. That freed me to look backward, to recognize essential parts of myself that I'd lost sight of. my mind jettisoned me to places where I felt remarkable, invincible, to people whose lives I touched or to those who transformed mine. It was that box of treasures in the attic. This is not just where I wanted to go, it's who I am.

I make a concerted effort now to breathe fully from my belly a few times a day. My life hasn't gotten any less stressful. But I've found that in difficult moments, breathing into my diaphragm allows me to thoughtfully consider what's unfolding. Turns out it wasn't calm so much as composure
I was looking for-the ability to slow down and respond from a balanced place. Now I can sometimes find it when I need it, even without my running shoes.

Reprinted with permission from Breathe magazine.