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Psychological Obstacles to Authentic Breathing (From “The Tao of Natural Breathing”)

December 7, 2009
The Tao of Natural Breathing, by Dennis Lewis

The Tao of Natural Breathing, by Dennis Lewis

Our Inability to Exhale Fully

According to Magda Proskauer, a psychiatrist and pioneer in breath therapy, one of the main obstacles “to discovering one’s genuine breathing pattern” is the inability that many of us have to exhale fully. Whereas inhalation requires a certain amount of tension, exhalation requires letting go of this tension.  Full inhalation without full exhalation is impossible. It is important, therefore, to see what stands in the way of full exhalation. For many of us, what stands in the way is often what is no longer necessary in our lives.  Proskauer points out that “Our incapacity to exhale naturally seems to parallel the psychological condition in which we are often filled with old concepts and long-since-consumed ideas, which, just like the air in our lungs, are stale and no longer of any use.”*  She makes it clear that in order to exhale fully we need to learn how to let go “of our burdens, of our cross which we carry on our shoulders.” By letting go of this unnecessary weight, we allow our shoulders and ribs to relax, to sink downward into their natural position instead of tensing upward.  Full exhalation follows quite naturally.

Our Inability to Inhale Fully

Those of us who are unable to exhale fully in the normal circumstances of our lives are obviously unable to inhale fully as well. In full inhalation, which originates in the lower breathing space and moves gradually upward through the other spaces, one’s abdomen, lower back, and rib cage must all expand. This, as we have seen in earlier chapters, helps the diaphragm, which is attached all around the bottom of the rib cage and anchored to the spine in the lumbar area, to achieve its full range of movement downward. For this to happen, the muscles and organs involved in breathing must be in a state of dynamic harmony, free from unnecessary tension. But this expansion is not just a physical phenomenon, it is also a psychological one. It depends on both the wish and the ability to engage fully with our lives, to take in new impressions of ourselves and the world.

Freedom To Embrace the Unknown

Full exhalation and inhalation are thus most possible when we are free enough to let go of the known and embrace the unknown. In full exhalation we empty ourselves—not just of carbon dioxide, but also of old tensions, concepts, and feelings. In full inhalation, we renew ourselves—not just with new oxygen, but also with new impressions of everything in and around us. Both movements of our breath depend on the “unoccupied, empty space” that lies at the center of our being. It is the sensation of this inner space (and silence)—which we can sometimes experience in the natural pause between exhalation and inhalation— that is our path into the unknown. It is the sensation of this space that can enliven us and make us whole.


*From an article by Magda Proskauer, “The Therapeutic Value of Certain Breathing Techniques,” in Charles Garfield, ed., Rediscovery of the Body: A Psychosomatic View of Life and Death (New York: A Laurel Original, 1977), pp. 59-60.

Copyright 1997-2009 by Dennis Lewis. This passage is from my book The Tao of Natural Breathing (Rodmell Press, 2006, pp.118-119).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Marsha Copenhaver permalink
    December 7, 2009 10:58 am

    I have spasmodic dysphonia. Can you help?

  2. December 7, 2009 12:50 pm

    Dennis – I so enjoy your articles….and would love to share your blogposts….would you consider including a “share” button to make that easier? Thanks!

    • December 7, 2009 5:25 pm

      I haven’t figured out how to do this yet, but if you join my fan page on Facebook (you can join on this page), you can access and share my blogs from there. If I can figure out how to use “share” on my blog, however, I will.

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