The Indefinite Body
By Lauren Robins
The Indefinite Body
By Lauren Robins
The scope, practice and progression of bodywork have burgeoned over the past 20 years. Each modality has created a menu of alternatives for both client and practitioner. Our palettes have broadened. Although different in techniques, there is a thread that connects all of these modalities. They all remind us to bring awareness to and then change repetitive patterns that can exacerbate ongoing discomforts. This awareness can mitigate distress.
Three repetitive patterns spotlighted here are breathing, thinking and moving. Indeed, one's breathing patterns are distinct markers for holding or releasing tension. Thinking contributes to physical restraints or open investigation. And finally, we can move with consistent uniformity or with an exploratory vocabulary, opening a gateway to change.
Breathing patterns are primary markers in noticing how we engage with stress in our body. If breathing is tense, shallow or ragged, the internal body is constricted. The jaw, temporomandibular joint and neck tighten, thus tightening the conduits running through the occiput. The phrenic nerve leading from the cervical vertebra to the diaphragm is constricted. Usually the tongue muscle tenses as well; thus, the occiput is tightened. Oxygen is not as available for the other systems of the body since the overstimulated sympathetic nervous system captures most of the oxygen. The body then becomes more acidic since the carbon dioxide levels have risen; an acidic body is uncomfortable. Sometimes it is the body's overly acidic pH factor that causes aches and pains. Andrew Weil, MD, clinical professor of internal medicine, points out, "The simplest and most important technique for protecting your health is breathing."
Acids are heavier than oxygen. They accumulate at the bottom of the lungs where the transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. When blood passes into the lungs, it picks up and transports these accumulated acids throughout the body. To stir up and begin to rid the body of excess carbon dioxide (change our pH), full, deep breathing is suggested. Focusing on the exhale displaces the buildup of carbon dioxide. Further, let us not forget that laughter remains as healthy medicine; gymnastics for exercising the diaphragm.
Our connection to the exhale and inhale keeps us present. When we recognize that our breath is our internal, primary food source, we can actively and consciously nurture the core body with more consistency. Indeed, when we go to the gym, take a body-centered class, or go on a long walk to enhance wellness, our breath becomes more present. However, what are our breathing patterns when arising, answering the phone, driving, working, interacting with others, or when we're going to sleep? Are we allowing it to become more acidic or are we creating it to be more alkaline?
In our day-to-day life there is a patterned tendency to give our breath away to situations that arise. In doing this, we compromise our health. When clients come with shortness of breath, even before the individual gets on the table, we breathe together, slowing the breath, deepening the breath, and coming home to the breath. This also serves as a reference point for us to return to during our time together; I find easier access into the client's body from this. I am calmed and nurtured in the present moment as well. I give them signs to post that say, "Breathe Deeply, Breathe With Ease."
On the exhale and inhale, internal tissue massage is activated by the movement of the diaphragm, lungs and spine. Because of this action, circulation and digestion are enhanced as the aorta, vena cava and esophagus pass through the diaphragm. In addition, since there are muscles connecting the pericardial sac to the diaphragm, any tightness at the diaphragmatic area will tighten the heart muscle. A full breath reaches deeply, aerating the new-found spaciousness, lowering blood pressure. Loehr and Migdow, in their book Breathe In Breathe Out,1 state: "for high blood pressure,the Meninger Foundation in Kansas uses deep breathing ... 90 percent of the Foundation's high-blood-pressure patients shift their pressure to normal range using this technique." Swelling in the liver is also decreased by slow, deep breathing. The large vein that supplies blood to the heart from the liver is partially emptied through mechanical suction developed by the lungs through breathing. Shallow, irregular breathing slows the process, blood accumulates in the liver, and swelling results. Easy concentration on full exhales and inhales can shift this situation.
Thinking patterns also change our emotional and physical balance. The endocrine system is affected by our thinking patterns. Thoughts create chemicals that pour into the rivers and streams coursing through our body. Within 20 seconds, the chemical composition of the body is altered by a thought, having an acid or alkaline effect on our body. Patterns of positive thinking, added to the attention of the breath, can serve to enhance our health and well-being. As we perseverate on limiting negative thoughts, our nervous system sends chemicals to muscles; our physical body contracts and thinking becomes foggy. On the other hand, spaciousness in thinking is creative and life-enhancing. Neurotransmitters balance. As the Zen monk Seng-ts'an reflects, "Step aside from all thinking and there's nowhere you can't go."
As a suggestion, think of an acidic experience for 20 seconds; notice the effects. Then breathe into an alkaline experience and notice the body's response. Also, notice the effect on muscular tension and diaphragmatic action when focusing on these thoughts. Mahatma Gandhi offers, "A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes." There exists that sweet spot of thought where there is a core quieting. The body then can self-regulate. Conscious thoughts respond well to conscious breathing. Deep self-massage occurs when the thinking, breathing body is awake to its thought patterns.
Finally, repetitive movement patterns often can embed discomfort into the body. The form of our body is not fixed in space. Emilie Conrad reminds us in her book Life on Land2 that "Once our world is encapsulated we become closed systems, recycling the same information and/or insisting on only one kind of information. Without knowing it we become self-limiting, and all that we encounter will be engraved with that limitation." As we open to new movement vocabularies, and as breath spirals through the body on an alkaline thought, nerves are calmed; there is less muscular tension and greater circulation. The flow is easier through opened, aerated muscles.
Opening into the laterality of the body expands internal spaciousness. Raising the rib cage, extending the heart upward, increasing the spaciousness of the diaphragmatic area with creative playful movements originating from bone, muscle and fluid systems, add to breathing awareness, thought patterns and the internal movement vocabulary. We can enjoy the interesting interplay between gravity and levity. Conrad mentions that the essence of fluid is to expand. Since we are mostly fluid beings, it is natural to expand breath, thought and movement. This loosens patterns. Potential now exists in this transformation of internal space. Playful exploration into the potential of breath, the awareness of thought patterns, and the vocabulary of movement teaches us the body can fulfill itself. As the late Carl Sagan wrote, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." That "somewhere" is the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self that can spiral away from patterned debilitating responses and move us into a creative, spacious realm of being.
- Loehr J, Migdow J. Breathe In Breathe Out. Alexandria, Va.: Time Life Book, 1999.
- Conrad E. Life on Land: The Story of Continuum. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2007.