Breathe Into It!


I gather lots of inspiration from Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron; a no-nonsense, deeply compassionate and profoundly wise teacher. Whether its listening to her talks or reading her books I always leave feeling touched and more open. Her teachings provide an uncanny parallel to the Body-Centered Gestalt Therapy work I have been trained in and helps to strengthen my work both with myself and with my clients and students. What I will share in this short column touches on tools that I have gathered from both Pema Chodron's teachings and my work in Gestalt Therapy. She talks about "getting hooked" in life. When someone says something or we are just "living our life" and lo and behold we feel agitated, restless, hooked into some energy that pulls us in and we are caught in a reaction pattern that feels disturbing and unsettling. In Tibetan, it is called shenpa. As I look at my life, I have many moments of experiencing shenpa. I'm sure many of you can relate. In the Gestalt terminology, as we live our lives someone may say something or we may just be "living our lives" and a place of unresolved hurt or trauma (called death layer in the Gestalt world) gets activated. This place inside has quite an uncomfortable charge or feeling associated with it and doesn't know how to heal itself. So we naturally or defensively go into habits of obsession, worry, blanking out, blaming others, various addictions in order to stay away from these very very uncomfortable body-mind states. This is also shenpa--we are also stuck and hooked into a pattern of self-protection that leaves us deeply unsatisfied and restless in our lives.

One of the answer's that Pema provides is simply the breath. I talked about this in my last enews column in terms of the documented studies that show how our brain and nervous system will come to balance through slow and full breathing. Breath in Pema's language is a way we create space around our feelings. Since trauma is experienced and held in the body, being aware of our body or feeling the feelings of our body where trauma sensations are stored is a place we fight to avoid. Activities that open up our joy within our body combats the experience of the body as pain or danger. This in itself is extraordinarily healing. I also learned how research has validated the importance that thestory of traumas be felt and not just told as individuals learn to modulate the charge of the body memory. Additionally, research shows that the breath is one of the key emotional body regulators. We learned how one of the best physiologic interventions upon stress or trauma is accomplished through regulated breathing. When Bessel van der Kolk shared about the power of our breath in modulating our emotional brain-body experience in the workshop I took with him, I remembered my first introduction to Body-Centered Gestalt Therapy 25 years ago when the therapist told me to "breathe into the emotion" I was feeling. At that time, as a Kripalu resident for 5 years and seasoned in "breathing into my body"--specific muscles that are stretching or contracting within a yoga pose I thought myself a pro at breathing into my body. In fact, I remember dismissing this idea as cliche and that "I'm beyond this breathing into my feelings"--a touch of my defense as arrogance. Well, after studying and practicing that Body-Centered Gestalt Therapy for over 10 years, the Gestalt intervention I poo-pooed 25 years ago, I've come to appreciate the power and simplicity of breathing into distressing feelings. Bessel spoke about the immense health value that regulated abdominal breathing where your exhalation lasts at least two times longer than the inhalation and fosters a coherent heart rate variability pattern. HeartMath research also heavily focuses on this type of cardiac wave pattern. I appreciate when science helps to validate things we can do that help cultivate our experience of well-being and empowers us to be involved in our own health and healing. So, my take home invitation to you is the next time you feel distressed about something, notice the distress in your body and actually name the emotion that you are feeling and its location within your body. Then breathe! That's all. Bring your attention to your breath and specifically your exhale. The exhalation is linked with our parasympathetic nervous system that helps us relax and recover from physical and emotional stress. Imagine you could bring some "breathing space" around the uncomfortable emotional sensations, just like you would breathe into tight hamstrings when you are doing a forward bend stretch. Do this for a few minutes and notice the shift in the energy and feelings in your body and mind.

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