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
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
"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
"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,
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
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.
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
Reprinted with permission from Breathe magazine. www.breathemag.com