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Laughter Can Reduce Stress and Help Us Heal

March 12, 2014

We have known for a long time that laughter can help us heal. Norman Cousins wrote extensively on this subject, and recent research has shown that laughter reduces at least four hormones associated with stress. In fact, laughter is one of the most powerful stress-reducing tools we have at our disposal. Laughter also helps increase the level of immunoglobulin A, which helps protect us from flu and cold viruses, as well as from upper respiratory problems. Laughter, especially a good belly laugh, is also a good source of cardiac exercise and promotes better breathing. It strengthens the breathing muscles in a natural way, and makes them more supple. It also helps clear the lungs of toxins.

I have written and spoken often of some of the workshops I attended with Taoist master Mantak Chia, who, as an exercise, frequently got the whole class (often more than 100 people) laughing for 10-15 minutes at a time. After such experiences many of us felt not only invigorated, but also relaxed, our breathing slower and fuller.

Try it sometimes with your friends. Sit together in a room and start making funny faces at one another. It won’t take long before you all find yourselves immersed in deep belly laughter. A few minutes of such laughter every day may well help your breathing, support your health and well-being, and lengthen your life.

Incense and Candles in Churches Can Cause Respiratory Problems

March 11, 2014


Research shows that air inside churches, filled with pollutants from burning candles and incense, may be a bigger health risk than the air we breathe on major roads. Air in churches was found to be considerably higher in carcinogenic polycyclic hydrocarbons than air on roads traveled by 45,000 vehicles a day. The air inside churches also had levels of tiny solid pollutants (PM10s) up to 20 times as high as the European limits. The study, by Maastricht University, The Netherlands, was published in the European Respiratory Journal.

According to Dr Richard Russell of the British Thoracic Society, “Particle pollution, whether it be in an outdoor or indoor environment, can be a danger to lung health and cause respiratory diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis.

“More research needs to be done in this area but we would also recommend that churches look at ways to reduce indoor air pollution such as improving ventilation.”

Read the entire BBC News story

Commentary by Dennis Lewis

In my book Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, I wrote about the respiratory dangers of candles, incense, and chemical fragrances. Now comes this news story that shows how candles and incense in churches can cause major respiratory problems. I believe that this is a serious matter not just for church goers, but for anyone who is frequently exposed to smoke from candles and incense during meditation, workshops, or any other events where indoor ventilation is poor. Add this “indoor pollution” to the growing pollution we face on city streets and elsewhere, and I think it is easy to see why respiratory illnesses are on the rise.

Some Potential Dangers for Westerners of Advanced Pranayama Exercises

March 9, 2014

People who don’t breathe naturally, who, for example, carry unnecessary tension in their chests, backs, and bellies, face potential dangers when doing advanced pranayama exercises. People who practice advanced yoga breathing exercises without good teachers or much experience can easily hurt their diaphragms and other breathing muscles. They can also cause imbalances in their internal chemistry.

For most people, one of the main keys to transforming one’s breathing in a safe and effective way has to do with gradually relaxing and opening up all the breathing structures of the body, with releasing unnecessary tension, so that the body is free to breathe in the way it was designed to breathe, with harmonious coordination of the various breathing muscles and tissues. In general, this process requires deep, dynamic relaxation, not willful effort. It also requires inner sensitivity and awareness, a more intimate contact with our sensations. Here is a quote about this issue from the introduction to my book The Tao of Natural Breathing.

“The great spiritual pathfinder G. I. Gurdjieff … warned that without complete knowledge of our organism, especially of the interrelationships of the rhythms of our various organs, efforts to change our breathing can bring great harm. It is clear that work with breathing, especially some of the advanced yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) taught in the West through both classes and books, is fraught with many dangers. In his book Hara: The Vital Center of Man, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim–a pioneer in the integration of body, mind, and spirit–discusses some of the dangers of teaching yogic breathing techniques to Westerners. He points out that most of these exercises, which ‘imply tension,’ were designed for Indians, who suffer from ‘an inert letting-go.’ Westerners, on the other hand, suffer from ‘too much upward pull … too much will.’ Dürckheim states that even though many yoga teachers try to help their students relax before giving them breathing exercises, they do not realize that the ‘letting-go’ required for deep relaxation can be achieved ‘only after long practice.’ At best, says Dürckheim, giving breathing exercises prematurely grafts new tensions onto the already established ones, and brings about ‘an artificially induced vitality … followed by a condition of exhaustion and the aspirant discontinues his efforts, his practice.'”

Copyright 1997 – 2014 by Dennis Lewis

Humming for Health

March 6, 2014

In a study that was reported in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2002; 166: 144-145), researchers at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden found that nitric oxide levels in the sinuses were 15 times higher during humming than during normal, quiet exhalations. Nitric oxide (NO) helps to dilate the capillary beds and increase blood flow. Humming had the effect of dramatically increasing the gas exchange in the nasal sinuses. If fact, during normal exhalation the gas exchange between the nasal passages and the sinuses was about 4 percent. When the volunteers (all “healthy”) hummed, the gas increased to about 98 percent.

A poor exchange of gas, as well as poor circulation, in the sinus cavities, creates an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria and viruses. And this can quickly lead to infection. Based on the results of their study, the researchers believe that regular breathing exercises that involve humming may be able to help reduce the incidence of sinusitis and infections in the upper respiratory tract.

Over the past years, I have been including sound-oriented breathing practices, including humming, in the work with breathing that I teach. Done on a daily basis, humming can help relax us and increase our mental and emotional clarity. I am sure that researchers will soon find, if they haven’t already, that humming can greatly increase oxygenation and blood flow not just in the sinus cavities but also in the brain and elsewhere in the body. In fact, I have included in my book Free Your Breath, Free Your Life an entire section about how humming and other sounds during exhalation can beneficially influence our overall health and well-being.

Copyright 2014 by Dennis Lewis

Understanding Marshall McLuhan, by Dennis Lewis

February 7, 2014

This review, written by Dennis Lewis, first appeared in “Explorations” (Number 14, August 1968), a monthly magazine published by Exploration Publishing Company, Berkeley CA.

Right now you probably think you’re awake. It isn’t true. You’re in a kind of hypnotic trance. But you don’t know it. That, essentially, is the theme of Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

The medium itself is the message, warns McLuhan. The very form in which the message appears is itself the message. And what we’ve been doing is paying attention to the message but ignoring the message-quality of the medium. Meanwhile, our perception is transformed by the process itself. The medium, as message, takes us unawares, influencing us without our knowledge: hypnotizing us.

Right here it might be well to point out that McLuhan includes technology as a medium-as-message. Technology’s “message,” he writes, “is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”

Not only did the railway introduce more rapid movement, it also “accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.” Likewise, the airplane did much more than contribute a further acceleration. It tended to dissolve the older railway form of city. “The railways require a uniform political and economic space. On the other hand, airplane and radio permit the utmost discontinuity and diversity in spatial organization.”

The electric light has a “message” (i.e., unconscious effect), too. “The message of the electric light,” McLuhan contends, “is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.” (Involvement is caused by a “cool” medium in which little information is given, thus demanding that the audience participate more; “hot” media do not leave so much to be completed by the audience. The telephone is cool; a movie is hot.)

Electric light does more than illuminate. It alters the pattern of our living. Man is no longer as much a slave to the cycle of day and night. What were formerly daytime activities now extend into the night. Sports, medicine, the arts, reading, sleeping, lovemaking, business–nearly every human activity–have felt the effects of this instant illumination which makes possible a permanent daytime. The electric age has established a “global network,” quite analogous to the central nervous system, though on a larger scale, where the slightest impulse in one area has immediate reverberations in others.

A more subtle example of the medium as message is the alphabet. Not only is our alphabet a simplified medium for creating words, it unconsciously conditions us to adopt a way of experiencing reality which is lineal and causative–a kind of “assembly-line” mode of perception that is primarily visual and, more important, that is seldom in touch with the actual rhythms of human experience.

The clock, which produces uniform seconds, minutes , and hours, reinforces this attitude of lineality. But infinitely repeated seconds, like the infinitely repeatable letters which make up the alphabet, have no real counterpart in human experience.

In contrast, the Chinese ideogram or Egyptian hieroglyph springs out of an intense oral and tactile–as well as visual–tradition. It’s a tradition that depends on a more balanced relationship among the senses. No one sense predominates.

Our emphasis on the visual sense, extended by phonetic literacy, declares McLuhan, “fosters the analytic habit of perceiving the single facet in the life of forms. The visual power enables us to isolate the single incident in time and space, as in representational art. In visual representations of a person or an object, a single phase or moment or aspect is separated from the multitude of known or felt phases, moments and aspects of the person or object. By contrast, iconographic art uses the eye as we use our hand in seeking to create an inclusive image, made up of many moments, phases, and aspects…” Man finds himself fragmented as a result of the predominance of one sense over another. The possibility of a “whole” experience, an experience of the total field, depends on the degree to which a man is able to allow his various senses to co-operate with each other.

What this means is that Western man has become trapped in the fixed point of view. What he needs to get out of this is the discovery of an iconographic, or inclusive, approach to experience. The fixed point of view excludes those moments, phases, or aspects which do not fit into its framework.

By itself, the eye can know only a limited part of reality. And when conditioned by literacy, its limitations are even more severe.

Television, McLuhan contends, will bring about a more balanced mixing of the senses. “The TV image…is an extension of the sense of touch. Where it encounters a literate culture, it necessarily thickens the sense-mix, transforming fragmented and specialist extensions into a seamless web of experience.”

Now, McLuhan may be right in his contention that TV involves more of man’s senses in depth. But, even granting that this is the case, McLuhan does not seem to notice that this involvement may still be very representational, or “fixed point of view.” The person who identifies completely with his hero is unable to understand another’s hero. The viewer’s submersion may be so complete that he forgets he is sitting in front of an electronic box, experiencing feelings, thoughts, and actions suggested to him from without. This is hypnotism par excellence and seems to have little to do with awareness.

Awareness depends not only on involvement, but detachment as well. McLuhan himself points this out when he tells us that “when we want to get the bearings in our own culture, and have the need to stand aside from the bias and pressure exerted by any technical form of human experience, we have only to visit a society where that particular form has not been felt, or a historical period in which it was unknown.”

And in order to be more aware of ourselves, to awaken from our hypnotic trance, it is necessary somehow to get outside of the most habitual pressures of our own psychological structure.

This review of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, written by Dennis Lewis, first appeared in “Explorations” (Number 14, August 1968), a monthly magazine published by Exploration Publishing Company, Berkeley CA.

One Way to Free Your Mind

December 17, 2013

One way to free your mind is to learn how to think. To learn how to think requires the active use of your attention. You will need to see how much of what you call thinking is just the habitual, associative movement of words and concepts through your mind.

As an experiment, try counting slowly and silently in the following way and in an even rhythm: 1, 100; 2, 99; 3, 98; 4, 97; and so on until you reach 100, 1. Doing so as you walk can be a big help, counting one number with each step.

As you count, notice all the the so-called thoughts that come uninvited and automatically into your mind. Can you keep the count going? If you lose track of where you are, start over. In addition to helping you see yourself more clearly, this simple exercise will help strengthen your attention.

Copyright 2013 by Dennis Lewis

We Are Two-Natured Beings

October 30, 2013

We are two-natured beings! Let your attention move in both directions at the same time–toward the periphery, toward thinking, feeling, and sensing, in which discernment and naming are the norm, and toward the unknowable center, toward the nameless silence and stillness that make the experience of all things possible.

Copyright 2013 by Dennis Lewis

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