The inbreath requires muscular
contraction, but the outbreath does not. There is no reason for muscular
exertion during exhalation; the positive pressure of air within your lungs is
enough to create the force. The air naturally wants to be pressed out by the
structures in your thorax like a balloon that is deflating. It takes energy for
us to get air into a balloon, but it takes no energy to get the air out. The
balloon deflates all by itself. It is the same with your lungs. Unfortunately, many
people tense the breathing muscles during the exhalation, and this traps them
in a state of fight or flight. Stopping this requires awareness and practice.
To perform the passive exhalation
all you need to do is let your breathing go limp while you are exhaling. You
should actually be able to feel the diaphragm relax. The diaphragm is the
dome-shaped muscle that sits above the stomach and below the lungs.
Focus on the word limp. Imagine that
the bottom has fallen out from under your outbreath. There should be nothing
holding it up. You should find that your face calms, your shoulders descend,
and your whole body relaxes. Moreover, your anxiety will disappear, and your
social composure will go through the roof. The more often you practice these
passive exhalations the better acquainted you will become with your bracing
patterns. Gradually over time you will tense these muscles less and less, and
you will exhale passively by default. Over the course of a few days a sense of
irritation in your chest will dissipate. This irritating feeling is caused by
muscular overload, trigger points, and inflammation in the muscles. When the
pain is totally gone, you will feel unburdened, less neurotic, and more content.
To get a better idea of what is
going on, try the following. Open and close your hand four times. Now try to
open and close it four more times, but with lots of tension in the hand. Turn
your hand into a stiff claw while you do it. This is how most people breathe.
All traumatized mammals breathe this way. Needless tension in the diaphragm is a
core symptom of trauma. This tensity is avoidable and superfluous. Now open and
close you hand four more times with as little tension as possible. This is how
you want to breathe.
The way most people exhale is very
uptight and neurotic. It’s like gripping a toothbrush with all your might as
you try to brush your teeth. It is also like trailing a toddler with your arms
out worried that the toddler may trip and fall. Most of us breathe this way. We
breathe in suspense because we are worried something is about to go drastically
wrong. Bracing the breathing muscles gives us a sense that we are prepared for
the worst and makes us feel like we are being vigilant. But because doing it
all the time is unhealthy, we must surrender this defensive breathing habit.
Here are three few techniques that
can help you get a feel for the process of passive exhalation. 1) Take a deep
inhalation before you perform a passive exhalation because there will be more
air to passively release. It gives you more time to sense how the relaxed
descent of the diaphragm should to feel. 2) You can similarly prolong the
process by exhaling through your nose. 3) Take a deep breath and then hold it.
As you hold it try and let the turmoil in your diaphragm settle. Then when you
feel settled let the air out (my mother recommended this).
During a conversation about this, my
mother asked me if a passive exhale gets enough of the air out of the lungs. It
does. She also asked me if active exhalations are bad and whether or not we
should use them too. It is helpful to occasionally use active exhalations.
Joseph Pilates recommended that we breathe out very intensely and try to get
all of the air out of the lungs as if we were wringing out a wet towel. This is
very useful but we can’t do it all day long. Practiced just a few times a day,
it will help to provide exercise for the diaphragm which will allow it to relax
further so that the default exhalations can be even more passive. Just a few
minutes per day of braced exhalation is fine. It is when it goes on for hours
that it become deleterious. The sad fact is that most adults do not experience
exhalations that are not braced.
So why is braced breathing in our
nature? Why don’t we exhale passively all the time? Well, we did as very young
children, and we do when we are calm. You will find that you exhale more
passively while being massaged, when you are unburdened or relieved by
something that happens, or when you feel joy, love, or gratitude. But life
stress insidiously undermines the passive exhalation and makes us hold the
exhalation tightly. Don’t hold it, let it drop. Let it freefall. Let the air
ooze out of your nostrils all on its own.
When you start exhaling passively it
might make you feel guilty. At first, my mom felt like she was not being
vigilant enough. She felt that she might make a mistake or miss an opportunity.
When I started exhaling passively, I felt like I was being disrespectful to
others. In unbracing the exhale you may feel vulnerable, defenseless, or
exposed. You may also feel like you are being rude, too calm, or like you are
trying to flaunt your ability to relax. Recognize that these impressions are
superstitious and self-defeating. We should never feel we need to manufacture
tension and stress just to cope with life.
As you become more aware of the
relaxed exhale as a phenomenon, you will realize that certain stimuli, people,
places, and type of threats cause you to brace your diaphragm more than others.
These things will grab hold of your diaphragm and make it tense. Pay special
attention to what kinds of things have this effect on you and teach yourself to
allow yourself to remain calm even in their presence.
A passive exhale is generally slower
than a braced exhale. It takes more time for the air to come out if you are not
pushing it out. This is great because extending the exhalation stimulates the
vagus nerve and the resting and digesting branch of the autonomic nervous
system. However, it is still totally possible to have a very long exhale (5 to
20 seconds) while still bracing the diaphragm. It’s not the length of time that
makes the difference, it’s the intensity of unnecessary muscular contraction.
Keep in mind that your
inhalation is also braced; it is just much harder to notice. The exhalation can
occur with absolutely no muscular contraction. This is not true of the
inhalation. An inhalation requires work because the contraction of the
diaphragm down into the gut creates a vacuum to make room for air to be drawn
into the lungs. But this contraction is happening with too much force, like the
opening of a tightly braced hand. As you learn to find, map, and understand
your diaphragmatic tension during the exhale, this will help you to become
aware of how it effects your inhale. Over the course of a few weeks, you should
be able to teach yourself how to lessen the unnecessary tension occurring
during the inbreath. Your breathing will become much more efficient and less
labored. You will be “breathing easy.”
You should also notice that when
your exhalation happens passively, it reaches a point where it slows and then
stops on its own. This is where your diaphragm would rest if you were dead.
When the diaphragm is braced, you usually exhale to a point either above or
below this baseline. Instead, as you near the end of the exhalation, the
diaphragm should slowly deaccelerate as it reaches this central resting point.
The end of the exhalation should be so faint that it almost feels like a brief
pause, and it should last one to two seconds. When this happens, you know you
have stopped bracing your diaphragm.
Breathing is Sisyphean labor. In
Greek mythology Sisyphus was a man who was condemned to rolling a boulder up a
hill. As soon as he got the giant rock to the top, it would roll back down. He
spent eternity doing this, and it is considered a tragedy. Now, imagine that
Sisyphus did not let the boulder roll down the hill. Imagine that he
unnecessarily lowered it down using his hands, step by step at great effort. If
this were the case then the poor guy would REALLY never have a chance to rest.
Right? So, when you keep your diaphragm braced during your exhalation you are
depriving it of rest.
"One must imagine Sisyphus
happy." Albert Camus
All of the body’s muscles need brief
respites during which they can stop contracting. If there are no short periods
of inactivity, they cannot regenerate properly. When this happens, muscles
enter a state of hypertonia (too much tone) in which they cannot heal. Many of
the muscles of our body just need a second or two to rest, and this is called a
microbreak. Your breathing muscles need a microbreak, and you should give it to
them. Whenever you can tell that you are not exhaling passively, imagine
letting go of the boulder and letting it roll down the hill on its own. Let’s
discuss one more analogy just to drive this home.
Imagine driving a car up and down a
hill. The hill is not very steep. It has a very minimal incline, so it’s easy
to drive up. The road is also completely straight so you don’t have to worry
about turning the wheel. Now, imagine that for some reason you are responsible
for driving it up and down, over and over again. For a while you keep the
engine on during the descent. But since the descent lasts for a few minutes,
you realize that you can turn the engine off and put the car into neutral and
just let it coast without having to touch the brake, the accelerator, or the
wheel. This is what a passive exhalation should feel like. After you finish
your inhale, just take the keys out of the ignition.
Let everything in your chest go limp during your exhales and
give your breathing muscles the microbreak they need to relax and regenerate.
The passive exhale is just one of
eight tenets of optimal breathing that I discuss as part of the Program Peace
self-care system. Here are the others:
The Eight Tenets of Peaceful
deeply (high volume): Breathe more fully, breathing all the way in and out.
longer (low frequency): Breathe on longer intervals where each breath lasts for
smoothly (continuous flow): Breathe at a steady, slow, constant rate.
assertively (confident): Do not let social concerns or stressors conflict with
the other rules.
passively: Allow your breathing muscles to go limp during each exhalation.
nasally: Breathe through the nose with nostrils flared.
Breath: Relax the back of your throat and breathe as if you are fogging up a
of Heart: Knowing that you have only the best intentions will help you breathe
To find out more please visit the
website at www.programpeace.com
week I was with a very mentally ill man over a long weekend. He is an old
friend, who is also a criminal, a belligerent street fighter, and is now
homeless. He tricked my roommate into letting him stay with us. Just being with
him was so trying that I was forced to develop the passive exhalation method
outlined above. I had started to practice passive exhalations, but the
experience with him helped me to learn to do it socially and learn to do it
even under stress.
other friends who spent a couple of hours with us that weekend described the
ordeal as extremely upsetting. One friend said that the man was demonic and
that he acted like the energizer bunny from hell. The other friend said that
the experience was excruciating and that the man berated and tortured us the
entire time. This is how they described being with the guy for two hours. I was
with him for 72 hours.
physically imposing. His voice is deeper than any I have heard. He yells all
day, and his voice is just as deep the next day. He was binge drinking and
taking mushrooms. He tried to fight 15 different large strangers in the street
yelling profane language at them. Not wanting to fight, each one of them
eventually hung their heads and walked away. One group of men took him up on
his invitations to fight and he beat them up and left them on the concrete. He
started shouting obscenities at my neighbor, a seventy-year-old lady next door.
He did the same to my other neighbor. The threats and violence were
indiscriminate. He got out of the passenger seat of my car at a red light and,
while yelling incoherently, and tried to pull the eighty-year-old couple in
front of us out of their Mercedes. Right after that, he tried to fight a
sixty-year-old man at the gas station. In another instance, I watched him make
a grown man cry. He continually insulted me in the worst possible ways. He
threatened to kill me, my roommate, our common friends, and to destroy our
was a whirlwind weekend and as I was trying to put out the fires that he was
creating, I was also trying to reign in the panic in my chest. At a certain
point I became so aware of the tension in my diaphragm that it was easy to let
it go. It felt very dangerous at first to let this happen. When he saw me
become calmer and calmer in front of his eyes, he realized that his actions had
no control over me, and his chaotic behavior slowly improved. As my composure
grew, my voice deepened, and I became unperturbable. By the end of that Sunday,
he was back to being a more normal person. I recount this story to
show that passive exhalation can completely change your reaction to trauma.
This can in turn, profoundly influence others for the better.