As he slumped forward to take of his shoe he released a suppressed huffing sound as if it caused him pain to pull up his leg.

I asked and my client said with a pale sigh that this was always the same problem with his lack of being able to breathe. Jack, now in his mid 30’s, had learned early on in his difficult childhood that he could survive when he would only breathe a wee bit into his stomach. I am sure you can reflect on that way of breathing that we can barely see or feel.

We all know how it is when we are scared and better try to be invisible – our whole body contracts. Our chest tightens and all our muscles clench up simultaneously as we make our-Selves shrink. In its extreme our ability to just stop our body and withdraw from life is called “playing Possum”. It is a brilliant capacity of our ancient survival mechanisms.

Following the roots of your human instincts you can watch animals in the wild use a total “freeze” often very successfully in case of immediate danger. The attacker looses interest in a “dead” body and later the survivor wakes up, shakes off the experience and has lunch instead of being lunch. The often daily threat does not seem to have any lasting effects. Our human experience is different.

As kids many of us have learned to take refuge by limiting our vital expressions in Jack’s way and keeping ourselves just invisible enough to get through – sometimes for many years.
I call it survival breathing – receiving and moving just the bare minimum to stay alive; in contrast to allowing life to breath us fully.

Growing out of the dependence of childhood our life has often invited and allowed us to begin exploring more of our individual Selves. BUT – if that excellent strategy that has secured your survival for so long has taken over as an unconscious habitual pattern of limiting your Self you never really get to enjoy your life either – the way you somewhere know deep inside is possible. On more or less severe levels I know this to be true for myself as well as for most of us.

You can imagine that relaxing and breathing more freely is one of the most important prerequisites for your aliveness to radiate.

In that moment Jack’s habit of letting only tiny survival breaths into his belly did not work any more because his thigh was now pressing into his abdomen.
The constriction pattern in his body had also gotten hold of other life situations. Jack had already told me about his agony in the line at Pete’s coffee for instance. He finds himself expecting that all the other people there are thinking badly of him. It gets harder and harder to breathe because his freeze/self-judgment pattern can not allow him to soften any space in his chest and permit air in. Caught in this internal trap it is very difficult to feel ones body rooted and find a relaxed sense of clear Self- assessment.

By pulling up his leg on my chair he had taken the space away for his belly to expand the usual bit and so his old fear of not breathing “right – again” puffed out.

On one side [note]:
I need to point out that opening our body to a greater extend than we usually feel safe with [especially in the front around our heart just by taking in a deeper breath] can bring up a lot of emotion: one being the real fear of being seen, feeling unprotected, vulnerable and influenced by everything coming our way. So with our familiar protective survival instinct we tend to rather stay “safe”, contracted and put up with feeling quite miserable like my client. When we deeply honor this aspect of our truth our self-compassion softens our body-mind enough to begin stirring again. Notice your own breathing right now. May be you can feel a little release.

On the other side:
In the habit of very restricted breathing [and therefore a reduced experience of our energy] our body and our mind seem to loose contact and forget how our ribs can actually move and thus allow fresh air to fill all of the vastness of our lungs – I am talking not only about the most obvious spaces on both sides of our chest bone in the front. Re-member also the quarters of your lungs underneath your armpits on the sides and the huge expanse of the lung tissue in your back that reaches from the top of your shoulder blades almost all the way down to your waste line.

Did you know that your lungs live just as close to the surface in your back as they are in your front?
Feel it!
When you explore with your finger tips in-between your ribs [lets say underneath your right nipple or behind your left clavicle] you are feeling through muscles right onto your lung tissue. Equally so in your back – your lungs are snug up to the inside of your ribs filling the whole lumen of your rib cage. Right now I am experiencing my ribs moving when I lean against the backrest of my chair and exhale-inhale into that area.

I asked my client if he would like to explore. “Yes!” He sat down on a stool and felt his upper belly and lower ribs with both hands. The belly swells with inhaling and gets smaller with every exhale. Rising – Falling; Expansion – Contraction – the rhythm of life right at our fingertips. When he paid attention he began to feel that his lower ribs could also move up and apart when air filled the lung tissue that is waiting underneath. Jack got curious.

In the few months Jack’s been coming for sessions his main complaints have been the problems caused by his compromised breathing and how he would often totally forget to “do it”. When that happens he also has to feel the consequences of the lack of oxygen and motion right away – more physical and emotional tension, low energy, and fear all the way to anxiety and all the way to depression with tons of self-judgment. – A total recall of that “old darkness” that does not serve him any longer.

With small movements and his awareness he then explored the opening and closing of different parts of his whole rib cage. Some time later he was leaning his front on a big soft pillow and his forehead was resting on some folded towels. I was now gently touching his back and the spaces in-between his ribs feeling how the tissues were softening and his breathing was beginning to enter new spaces naturally.

After inviting one side of his back in this way I let him feel for any different sensations. Compared to the other side he noticed more space and a sense of warmth. Later when I began to integrate both sides he all of a sudden said: “This is really wonderful to be able to feel my breathing so easily and relaxed.” Jack was experiencing a whole new in-side. He was amazed. For me this was one of the very first times he had noticed and spontaneously expressed a positive feeling in his body.

As Jack was getting ready to leave our session he voiced his usual hesitation to trust that his mind could remember to use his newly found space for breathing. Remember life’s rhythm of expansion –contraction? So naturally his mind went back into the old tightly beaten groove of “having to do it” and “it better be right”. I listened intently noticing his now rosy cheeks and his eyes that had cleared up since he had arrived.

Next, he was talking energetically about something else as he rather swiftly and without any effort in breathing lifted his leg up high to put his shoe back on. No agony, no fear, no interruption of his life, just a natural flow. He did not even seem to notice. Now I smiled and pointed to his leg. That’s when he woke up to the ease and natural intelligence his body was just living.

At our next session Jack told me he had gone to Pete’s coffee for a tea afterwards … With a smile he had noticed his thought: “I guess I am feeling better than any of these people here.”

I invite your feedback, comments and your own experiences.
My gratitude for non-stop learning goes to all my clients and teachers and I trust You also will benefit from reading and feeling.
All names have been changed to honor the privacy of my clients. Still, the stories are written with their permission.

Thank you for reading
Love and light

You ONLY have to let the soft animal of your body love what is loves
– Mary Oliver

The author doesn’t take any responsibility for any possible consequences that might occur from your thoughts and actions.



Sabine Grandke-Taft

Embodiment Expert and Workshop Leader

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