Don’t hold your breath

In those cliff-hanger moments when we can change neither the context nor the circumstances, when we find ourselves anxiously waiting for something to happen or change, breathing falters and catches. 

Without thinking about it, we hold our breath. 

The thing is, no one can hold their breath forever. A full-stop turns into interference, a recognizable altering of the scope and sweep of your respiration. With that comes a kind of fixing of our physiology and the feeling state it elicits. 

(Interestingly enough, most of us can recognize this biological, built-in default engagement more quickly in others' behavior than in our own reactions. I know this has been true about me. Being mindful of my own almost too quick to catch whole-body action was a critical turning point in my learning.)

These days, when this happens, when your sense of anticipation amps up to dismay or even dread, it seems like there’s often someone ready to say:

Don’t hold your breath.

For instance, today’s New York Times article, Take a Controlled Breath Today, offers an animated primer of succinct, snack-sized techniques for tense times. Each of the three “Hints from Heloise”-morsels offers an approach deeply rooted in one of the time-honored traditions of the moving arts and sciences — dance, yoga, and martial arts. The effectiveness of taking a few minutes to engage in any of the remedies demonstrates the underlying potency of making what amounts to a slight yet significant somatic — or, if you will, “somatopsychic” — shift.

We realize our inherited potential to influence our neurophysiology by interrupting the body pattern of anxiety, at least temporarily. But, as you may have already found out for yourself, sometimes we need more than a momentary jolt. These days, plenty of people are ready to tell you how you should breathe. A simple online search will find fascinating books, vivid videos, and thorough training programs. 

As a Feldenkrais® teacher, I approach breathing and its betterment in another way. Taking a page from the man who developed the method named after him, it’s the contrary of control. That means I don’t tell anyone what kind of breathing to aim for, nor do I define how breathing should occur. Instead, I ask students to explore the many ways in which they can interfere with their respiration. That because we know from developmental studies, the process of testing, refining, and improving a range of neurophysical options leads to learning. Rather than trying, earnestly, to avoid what someone labeled undesirable and unhealthy, by investigating a landscape of possibilities, you get to know each alternative and, in so doing, discover the path of least resistance. 


There I go again, being vague and philosophical. 

Sorry ‘bout that. Let’s keep it concrete. 

How about we return to the topic of holding the breath? Your breath, to be specific.

Have you ever wondered,
How do I do it?

Okay, that may not be the way to ask. I’m not looking for any kind of complicated, anatomical explanation here. 

It’s a deceptively simple question. There are only a couple of possible answers. 

So, if I may, I’d like to have a chance to ask again, being more specific this time: 

Do you hold your breath with your lungs full of air? 

Or, when you hold your breath, do you do so after you’ve exhaled? 

What’s your instantaneous, spontaneous action? 

In your Aha! of awareness, you recognize your unconscious, automatic, inbuilt reaction. With that recognition, the moment of becoming aware of what you have been doing all along, of your characteristic comeback, creates the condition we call choice. 

Not right away, not usually, anyway. 

At first, you may notice the insistent, unerring return of your all-too-regular response. Recognizing what you’re doing comes before re-orienting and re-directing yourself before you can find a choice in how you respond.

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a contemporary version of STOPPING THE BREATH, Moshe Feldenkrais’ classic composition that pivots around these uncanny questions. As with other Awareness Through Movement® classes, it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive, exploratory rather than corrective. What’s most curious is how this educational process can create pleasant, calming changes and lead to what some might even consider beneficial and therapeutic.  

Because this lesson seems particularly timely, I’m making it available for free for the rest of the month, without requiring a Mind in Motion Online account to access it. Please click here to stream or download the MP3 audio file. 

What do you say? Let’s not keep this a secret.

If there’s someone you believe would be intrigued or interested in what they might learn from STOPPING THE BREATH, I invite you to share the recording of the ATM® recording with them.  

Finding freedom of breath and realizing our potential for choice, these are worthwhile endeavors, right? 

Please pass it along.

Are you a Feldenkrais teacher or trainee who’s interested in working with the connection between breath and posture?

If that happens to be so, you can learn more about the breath-taking online postgraduate course I’m teaching this coming weekend, which is called THE TURNING TIDE. Please click here to learn more.

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  1. First thing that comes to my mind is a memory. My youngest son trying to hold his breathe to death; at the age of three or four...can´t recall exactly. He did it a few times, when he felt that he was being forced to do something against his will. Each time, a frustrated attempt, ending in a phrase to himself: I can´t do it!?... 😀

    I have a question: someone with lung cancer could benefit from this lesson, or is it to much of a chalenge? Thank you.

    1. Hello João -
      Thank you for sharing your son's story.
      As far as someone with a cancer diagnosis benefiting from this lesson, I think it would depend on where they are on their cancer journey. You might start by telling or showing them the positions they'll be in during the lesson.

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