Opening the Breath – by Chris Clayton

Breath is an obvious part of everything we do, yet many of us are always trying to catch it in some way. Its very nature is elusive, you cannot hold or grasp breath? Yet we can contain and literally embody it, so much so that we have an apparatus that does miraculous things with breath. Our respiratory system is simply a sensational masterpiece!

Many years ago, when I taught Fitness Industry Diploma and Cert III, IV level certification, one of the examples we would provide in the support of this great system we possess was that it would take an oxygen molecule a theoretical 1500 years to reach the centre of our lungs in a gravity state twice what we have here on earth. Yet we do it easily and efficiently every time we go through the process of inspiration and expiration.    

Breath :- It is the first thing we get and the last thing we lose, in the interim probably the best thing we have?

As a structural integrator, movement therapist and Martial Arts teacher, breath is a daily conversation topic for me. Even looking at my own patterns, with forty odd years of breath training I still find areas that need maintenance or awareness when assessing my own breath. For some of my clients it can be a journey into a dimension that they knew was there but had not really investigated in much detail. 

I have had many people say to me when asked if they practice mindful breath “of course I breath, I’m alive, aren’t I?”. My answer to describe how we approach breath is usually my car driving analogy. Most of us drive cars don’t we? The answer is “yes that’s a given”, well, how many people actually drive their cars safely and effectively? The answer is “hmm, not many”. 

Breath is the same. We all breathe, but how many of us do it well? 

It is connected to good sleep, emotions, cardiovascular health, stress management and so much more – then how do we end up taking it so much for granted? Well, it is one of our autonomic systems, so the basic fundamentals of breathing is something we just do. It does kind of look after itself to a point. While having the rudimentary basics of breathing as an automatic part of life is great, we still need to be adaptable and robust enough to get by in this hectically paced world. Things like restrictions, adhesions, injuries, surgeries and emotional responses long and short term, can sneak in and alter our breath right under our noses (no pun intended). Even more difficult, sometimes these problems are no longer subtle but are suddenly glaringly apparent. Therein lies some of the problem, our autonomic nervous system caters easily for the basic fundamentals of our breath needs. But what about the nuances of life, that stressful day or that week when we are low on energy? 

While we are talking about adaptability, it is a good time to discuss which type of breath is best. I don’t have one type or preference; however, I am likely going to use the methods that I know best as my default. I am always keen to learn more, because it is the things that I don’t know that I need to learn. I do think different types of breath are best applied to the right situations. If we are running in a sprint, then a meditative breath may not be what we need in that moment. If we are stressed rapid and intense breath will not help as much as say the 4-7-8 polyvagal breath. We need to learn more about this gift and how we relate to it, to get the best that it has to offer. On a side note “Breath” by James Nestor is a wonderful read as a place to start your breath journey. 

So all of this is bringing us to the main point, it will be difficult if not extremely difficult to do any of this progressive breath development if we do not have the adaptability in our neuro-myofascial-skeletal system to support it. As an example, some of us may tend to have unusual habits like having a dominant breath on the inhale or exhale, some of us may hold our breath unnecessarily at times or breathe more into the upper lobes and less into the posterior lung. Some of these issues may be caused or exacerbated by restrictions from alignment, functional posture and long held patterns. 

To give a real-world example, this story of Structural Integration breath work is about a client that searched us out specifically for breath work. Why? They felt in themselves that they did not breathe well and wanted to investigate the idea of improving it somehow. We started with the normal pre-screen and overall body read, followed by a breath assessment. We set some goals and then started with simple superficial work. 

The breath assessment showed that a full breath was restricted with the diaphragm not achieving its full range of motion as well as the lower and mid costals not moving effectively within the breath cycle. It was like two big hands were holding from the outside and letting just enough air in to get by, but not much more. 

Their Superficial Backline was taught and working very hard to stop them from going into flexion of the thoracic vertebrae, in doing so restricted expansion of the rib basket even more. This was very evident at T4 where we would like to see some adaptability for the lungs to expand posteriorly, which was not happening in this case. We started superficially with gentle lift of rectus abdominis and by opening the chest with the sternochondral and clavipectoral fascia and pec major. We eased subclavius as well, and then went gently through the internal and external obliques. This was followed with some gentle sweeps of the internal and external intercostals using some gentle movement from the client to facilitate ease and education of their sensorimotor cortex. Finally some easing of the superficial back line with some detailed work and breath awareness at T4. 

The outcome, well for me, was personally very memorable. This person stood up, took a breath, sighed, took another (teared up) then a third breath and said with happy tears “I don’t think I have ever breathed before”. Looking back and knowing more of their story, I don’t think they had been breathing with ease for many, many years due to very difficult situations in their history. It was a moment where they got something back, something they knew deep down they was missing. It was beautiful to be a part of as a therapist, even more as I have so much respect for this person and their willingness to invest in themselves and how much work they had put in on themselves long before I met them. But in that moment, I saw breath get to where it needed to be, and a person display the joy of being able to take a satisfying and fulfilling breath. For them it felt like it was the first time. My wish for them is a lifetime of breaths just like that one. 

Structural Integration has given me tools to help people like this, that I did not have before studying ATSI. Most of all Structural Integration works, and provides a constant succession of joyful “aha” moments. 




Opening the Breath – Fremantle

26th & 27th January 2023

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