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BodyMind: Breathing: Trick, Treat or Both?

A column exploring the therapeutic applications of the BodyMind

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In Traditional Chinese Medicine, fall is the season for the metal element, which includes the large intestine and lung meridians. The lung meridian involves the skin and hair, the ability to take in life, and the emotions of grief and nostalgia.  

In the fall, indoor air pollution becomes more significant. Formaldehyde in building materials, fabrics, markers and photocopiers and dust, germs and mold trapped in heating and ventilation systems can produce respiratory challenges. 

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Our most important activity, breathing, is nothing to sneeze at: The average healthy adult male inhales 10 quarts of air per minute while resting and 60 or more quarts per minute while exercising. With women the volumes are usually less, but not the consequences.

Because it’s automatic, most of us don’t give a moment’s thought to breathing—absent respiratory challenges. However, because it’s so repetitive—on average 12-15 breaths per minute or 720-900 breaths per hour, all but the most dramatic changes typically go unnoticed, becoming the new normal in just a few hours.  

Mechanically, breathing involves more than simple inflation and deflation. On each inhalation, the right and left lung should spiral upward, outward and backward, equally and simultaneously. However, by adulthood, most of us have lung restrictions that preclude bilaterally equal and synchronous inflation and exhalation. These restrictions stem from past infections, vaccinations, collisions, pollution and emotional and spiritual wounds. With 6.2 million breaths per year, lung restrictions are a big, cumulative deal, having huge consequences for our heart, spine, abdominal organs and eventually our brain.

For example, an ultramarathoner I knew was told that he should breathe deep into his belly, so he did. In spades. Unfortunately, a restriction prevented the middle and lower lobe of his right lung from inflating and shunted the force of inhalation onto his left abdomen. Eventually, the ligament suspending the colon from the spleen ruptured, creating a life-threatening bowel obstruction.   

Many of my former military pain patients presented with fascial armoring around the respiratory diaphragm. Combined with their other lung restrictions, this made it nearly impossible to pass their physical fitness tests. Furthermore, each inhalation resulted in their heads jackhammering on their necks. Left uncorrected, this would have eventually destroyed their cervical vertebrae. Having assumed that these challenges were permanent, these men and women were relieved and inspired when they could breathe deeply, easily again.  

The flexing of the respiratory diaphragm creates a partial vacuum in the lungs that facilitates inhalation. This partial vacuum provides another essential if largely unrecognized service: lift for the abdominal organs, especially those closest: the liver, stomach, duodenum and spleen. As a result, the effective weight of liver is halved from 7 pounds to 3 ½.   

Speaking of the bodymind connection, stress automatically tightens our respiratory diaphragm. Though cumulative, that tension can be released thusly: Take a few normal breaths, noticing which is easier, inhalation or exhalation? Now, briefly and gently interrupt the easier, four or five times on each breath cycle, while doing the more challenged normally. This is not an aerobic exercise. After a minute or two, go back and check: Has the challenged side improved? You can probably move more air with less effort. The exercise also calms the nervous system.  

Repeat as often as you like. Always work on the easier side. That’s my trick, your treat. Happy Halloween!  

—Mike Macy, LMT, is an avid skate-skier, fat-tire biker and birder. His book “BodyWise” conveys insights gained during 30 years as a Craniosacral Therapist. Reach him at mefmacy@gmail.com.


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