Is it possible to breathe ourselves to better health?
Written by Gunnel Minett
History provides much evidence regarding the effects an altered breathing pattern can have on the body and mind. The Shamanic tradition (humanity’s oldest tradition of healing) commonly uses alterations of the breathing pattern and these play an important part in the healing process. The Indian Ayur-Vedic, Chinese and Tibetan traditional systems of medicine and later also Greek medicine, all included breathing
exercises to promote health. In short, only modern western medicine neglects the way we breathe as a factor in mental and physical health. Does this mean that we know better now, or have we lost valuable knowledge about the healing process?
In the traditional techniques we find explanations based on concepts such as ‘prana’ and ‘chi’, which can be translated as ‘life energy’. In fact, they describe an entire circulation system for the body’s ‘energy’ with ‘chakras’ as vortexes in this energy flow, influencing both our body and mind. None of this is recognised by modern western medicine and there is no systematic scientific evidence for these traditional concepts of life energy. However, a growing number of scientists are now willing to explore this ‘paranormal’ field, which traditionally has been a ‘no-go area’ for any reputable researcher. Still, the only way to try to bridge the gap between our old and new knowledge is by comparing and contrasting their respective theories. This is what we will do here with regard to how and why altering the way we breathe can have a healing effect on both body and mind.
What is the cause of illness?
Traditional medicine often describes the initial cause of illness as an internal imbalance (usually in the chakras). This weakens the body’s natural defences and healing ability. It can also cause mental imbalance – what today we would call ‘psychological problems’, which (if untreated) may turn into physical ailments. Traditional cures often involved giving advice about nutrition and lifestyle. Frequently, this included prescribing a variety of breathing exercises designed to restore inner balance. Modern medicine too, has started to recognise that psychosomatic illness is the physical effect of a mental imbalance, caused by some form of outer or inner stress. But unlike traditional medicine, it tends to treat both physical and psychological problems with a range of drugs, directly influencing the body’s chemistry.
What is inner imbalance?
Both modern and traditional medicines, therefore, point to inner imbalance, or psychological problems as a major cause of illness. So what are ‘psychological problems’? The traditional explanation is that we are, in some way, not living in harmony with nature. Their remedy is to try to regain balance by changing our life styles. Unfortunately, modern medicine still operates with a false, machine-like image of the human body and mind, which fails to take this ‘human dimension’ into account. As a result, there is an assumption that mind and body should function perfectly, regardless of how they are treated.
When searching for similarities to this traditional approach among modern theories, the relatively new school of ‘evolutionary’ psychology comes closest. It claims that psychological problems often arise from a simple misunderstanding of the body’s natural processes. That is to say that what we label as ‘a problem’ is often a very natural reaction to our environment, aimed at protecting ourselves, both physically and mentally. We can try to explain this is by looking at how the human brain works.
The development of the brain The human brain has not always been as sophisticated as it is today. It developed in distinct stages. The oldest part, the hindbrain and spinal cord was developed in reptiles during the period in our planet’s history when they where the most advanced form of life. This oldest part of the brain manages basic functions, such as maintaining inner balance, self-defence and reproduction. It is not capable of generating higher thought process, emotions or communication. It operates mainly on instinct.
When the evolutionary process moved on and mammals started to develop, their behaviour required more brain capacity. As a consequence mammals started to develop the part of the brain called the limbic system. This gave us cognitive functions and the ability to express emotions. The next big step in our evolutionary history is when hominoids started to emerge as a separate species from the apes. Our ancestors had found a successful niche, which required increased brain capacity. As a result we developed the neocortex which handles language and more advanced thinking. This made us much better than other mammals at learning from mistakes – a skill which requires analysing the past in order to draw conclusions about the future. The downside of this ability is our tendency to worry, making us far more prone to mental stress than other animals.
This evolutionary development has required that each new part of the brain be integrated with the older parts. This integration has resulted in older parts being utilised by the newer to perform other and more sophisticated functions, which has given our brain more versatility and a greater range of functions than each part could achieve on its own – the sum is greater than its parts! For instance, our instinct for self-defence (which we have in common with all animals) is controlled by the oldest part of the brain. It makes the chameleon change colour when threatened, whereas we can use the same instinct, with a bit of help from our neocortex, to lie our way out of a tricky situation when we feel threatened.
As with all constructions, in particular when higher levels are added to them, it’s absolutely essential to have a solid foundation. Without these firm foundations in individual brain development, there’s a risk that the higher mental functions will not be able to cope. In order for our brain to function properly, the different parts of the brain have to be fully integrated and interactive. In other words, a holistic co-operation between the various parts of the brain equals psychological health whereas poor co-operation leads to what we regard as psychological problems. The more communication problems there are between the various parts the more disturbed a person will be: one way of describing psychotic behaviour is a complete lack of connection between emotion and thought.
Unlike most other animals we are not born with a fully developed brain. In fact we are born so prematurely that it takes around 20 years for us to develop full brain capacity. This process takes place as we grow up and is not finished until after we reach puberty. Because the brain needs to interact with the outer world in order to develop its full working capacity, this process needs to be done over a certain time period. During this whole process the parents act as an external ‘assisting brain’ for the child, both for protection and for the child’s learning process.
So to have caring parents is not just a pleasurable experience for the growing child. It is actually a necessity if the brain is to develop properly. This is why our childhood environment is so important for our adult wellbeing and why we are so well equipped to make necessary adjustments to the perception of the world we live in even if it is in the form of a ‘psychological problem’. One example of this is our need to be seen and heard. As social animals we need to be recognised by our ‘pack’, our closest social environment. This is why, if we can’t get positive attention, we settle for any attention, even negative, just so long as we can satisfy this very basic need.
Healing treatment Sadly, despite parents’ good intentions, there are a lot of things that can and do go wrong in our childhood, creating more or less serious problems for us as adults. This is why traditional as well as modern western cultures have a range of methods to deal with psychological problems. We have a variety of counselling techniques involving talking about our problems.
These may have a healing effect on childhood memories, but unfortunately a lot of our problems go deeper than that. That is to say that they occurred during a period of our lives when our brain was not developed enough for us to ‘remember’ their origin. For many of us our own birth is one of the most influential events in our lives, and the point in our lives where many of our problems originate. The whole birth process is handled by the oldest part of our brain. Therefore a woman in labour really needs to ‘shut down’ all the other parts of her brain so that she can let her instincts guide her safely through this challenging process. Despite our increasing knowledge about such processes in the brain, western hospitals do little to recognise this need or to provide the best possible environment for a mother to give birth. She is constantly disturbed by people talking to her, noises in her environment etc., which effectively prevent her relaxing the other parts of her brain. By interrupting this natural process, not only will the mother suffer as a result, but her difficulties giving birth will also cause problems for her child who is guided by the same hormonal flow. As a result this is where many acquire their first ‘psychological problems’, which may remain with them throughout life.
Dry or chemical processor If we are going to heal such problems – caused so early in our lives – we need to be able to access memories of a special kind; ‘body memories’. This can only be achieved in therapies that involve the body – such as bodywork, massage and breathwork. To understand how they work we need to know a bit more about how the brain works. Not too long ago the predominant theory the brain was seen as a ‘dry computer’, working via the transmission of on/off signals between nerve endings. This is still partially true. But it is no longer the whole truth. Later findings have shown that the brain also processes information in the form of chemical ‘packages’, which can be produced anywhere in the body. In this respect, the brain is more like a main relay station, where the messages are interpreted and passed on, perhaps with added information from thoughts and emotions etc.
By massaging the body it is possible to release these body memories into the body’s circulation. Equally, changing the oxygen intake through breathing exercises will produce a change in the body chemistry (similar to the effects of certain drugs) which can release body memories. The fact that chemical body memories can be formed at a much earlier age than ‘brain’ memories means that they allowed us access to memories as early as three months after conception, when the foetus is first able to register body memories. By triggering body memories, therefore we can work with the very earliest memories – even those formed before birth.
Our memories from this early period of our lives are not formed in the same way as those recorded later in life. Because our brain in this period is still operating at a very primitive level, these memories are recorded ‘as perceived’ i.e. without any understand as to what is happening. This ‘understanding’ aspect of memories is only achieved later in life, when the newer parts of the brain are fully functioning. But, very interestingly, both body-therapies and breathing exercises have revealed that if/when we are able to access these early memories – we are actually able to interpret them ‘fully’, using our full brain capacity to understand those things we did not understand at the time that the memories were first recorded.
Being able to access even the oldest parts of the brain and body memories means that we are able to get to the very root of what may have caused our psychological or physical problems. Curiously, body therapies are able to achieve this by influencing body chemistry, as do the drug treatments preferred by modern medicine, though with very different intentions and results. Nevertheless, this common ground in body chemistry provides opportunities for dialogue and bridge-building within a scientific context.
Natural healing capacity
Another emerging area of common ground can be found in our natural healing capacity. Some western scientists have started to argue that evolution is driven by a positive ‘selfcreating’ force. This has been working away since the beginning of time, exploring and developing new species and new functions for all living creatures. This natural driving force has many similarities with the life energy, known as Qi in the Chinese cultures, and as Prana in India, that is said to follow a certain direction, a “blue print”, known as Sanatan Dharma – the ultimate truth, in India, or Tao – ‘the way’, in China. Breathing exercises can influence the
intake and/or flow of the body’s life energy, creating a healing effect.
Another similarity between old and new theories concerns the brain’s level of activity. Western research has established that at the end of the final development stage of the brain, activity in the brain slows down dramatically – to less than half of the level in childhood. The Indian explanation for this is that life energy, in the form of kundalini, starts to retract at this age to become dormant in the root chakra at the bottom of the spine. Later in life it can be reactivated with the help of meditation and/or breathing exercises, resulting in higher awareness and even extra sensory perception and other ‘paranormal’ gifts. The chakras can also be explained in western terms. The location of connecting points in the body’s energy systems called chakras correspond well with the major glands. Given that the brain and our other glands are now understood to be major processors of our internal ‘chemical information packages’, eastern explanations of the chakras importance for our wellbeing become very comprehensible in modern scientific terms.
The concept of ‘life energy’ also suggests that we have very strong natural healing powers; the ability to ‘repair’ ourselves, both physically and psychologically, in a much more powerful way than commonly accepted within conventional medicine. Generally western medicine does very little to support or increase this natural
power, though it is recognized in the form of the ‘placebo’ effect. In fact, this effect is often regarded as a problem rather than a solution. In particular, the drugs industry ‘has to live with this problem’ when testing new drugs: there has to be a control group which are given sugar pills or plain water instead of potent medicines, so that the tests can reveal if the potent drug really works. The control group are told they are testing a new and potent drug. Usually a number of them react as if they had been given the potent medicine, sometimes even manifesting the drug’s side effects. This is a clear demonstration of the body’s natural healing ability, but because it is not in the drug industry’s interests to pursue this, these phenomena are often dismissed as ‘research problems’.
Closing the gap
We can conclude that traditional treatments and modern medical theory are not as far apart as commonly assumed. Traditional explanations may be ‘colourful’ and based on completely different ways of studying the body. For obvious reasons, they are often based on subjective observations, mainly from meditation or from studying the results of breathing exercises and massage. But rather than being dismissed by modern science, with its technical superiority, the connection between ancient and new seems to be getting closer. Hopefully, we’re headed for a future in which they will feed each other, leading to an ever greater understanding of the human body and mind. Given this, perhaps one day your family doctor will suggest that you simply breathe yourself to better health.
Keywords; breathing, health, psychology, breathwork, life energy, natural healing
© Gunnel Minett, June 2007
About the author: Gunnel Minett is a psychologist, author and breathworker. Her books, Shri Haidakhan Wale Baba (1984), Breath & Spirit (1994) and Exhale (2004) have been translated into several languages.