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Breathing: Some Contraindications

I’m not talking about creating zombies here, dear Readers, I’m talking about some popular ways that have been taught, some for centuries, that just do you no good. You can match up your favorite dogmas with the next paragraph and see how they stack up.

Here is the main thing, as told by Ida Rolf and at least 2 other experts of the last century. Normal breath goes out and then the normal breath comes in, governed by reflex. No fooling around with it, no chest going up while the belly goes down, no stopping at the in and out turn around for holding, no pushing, shoving, no controlling, no “helicopter parent” of the breath.

How do I know this is right? I didn’t do a scientific experiment. I breathed for years (you are an expert, too, in that) and used the breath to play all kinds of instruments and a number of sports including being a Red Cross water safety instructor.

Then I ran into breathing trouble, and I looked for a guru and found Ray Still and Wilbur Simpson in Evanston Illinois. Then I found my way to a Rolfer, and to the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration (RISI) where I graduated in 1984. Besides gifted teachers at RISI I was lucky enough to get to study some with Carola Speads, and also with a wonderful singer who is a practitioner of the work of Carl Stough.

Stough’s book Dr. Breath, The Story of Breathing Coordination is simply the best book on breathing that I know. It is out of print now, even the 1981 second edition, but can be bought on the second hand market for about $65.00 (at this date, anyway.)

I found a lot of similarity of idea as I took in what was out there, even though methods for getting there could be different. In 1982 I went to hear a master class by Anna Moffo in Philadelphia where she transformed some Curtis Institute singers by having them free their chests, breathing also into their chests as well as belly with their air going—you guessed it—freely in and out, not being pushed by the diaphragm and hardened rib cage.  The students were different, but as she worked with them each had more breathing coordination in the breathing mechanism. Afterwards the students didn’t hear what she said really, just wanted to prove her wrong by the fact that she had lost her voice by then, in an unfortuitous combination of dealing with the onset of her singing career all over the world in the first airplane age of singing in Europe one night, and Asia the next, etc.

Then in the ’90’s I met Karen Saillant, who had been a student of Carl Stough. It is hard to know why Stough’s work hasn’t become better known, and why there aren’t more practitioners of his work. I suspect it is because the arduous process by which he came to do the work of what he called breathing coordination was not repeatable by him, and most of his students couldn’t get the ground floor level of work.

I wish Stough’s students (except for Karen, she needs nothing) could have had the manipulative experience of working with Janie French, Annie Duggan, and Rebecca Carli-Mills that I had in the late 1980’s. There was manipulation there, which French and Duggan called “joffling”, laid on the ground floor of Rolfing manipulation. The manipulation was used to get (especially) the ribs working in the appropriate manner, the ribs go up down like a bucket handle and in and out….while breathing. The Stough method in addition to more manipulative specificity added a missing piece, a special emphasis on creating a good exhale by having the client count out loud with a focused sound while the ribs were being worked.

When the upper body and ribs are jammed there can even be arm and finger troubles by virtue of nerves that are pinched off at the rib heads or at the gristle which surrounds the ribs and connects them. The manipulation and technique can be used to help even aberrational patterns that have developed over the years of breathing, some like those of B.K.S. Iyengar being self-inflicted so that he is so stuck in the inhale pattern that he is very breathless when he speaks. You can hear this on his videos from Estes Park, Colorado teachings. I’m told by one of his disciples that he can do OM forever, that is kind of interesting that he has developed one function over another.

Carl Stough was a singer and leader of very successful children’s choirs. Later he became somewhat famous for his work with emphysema and high altitude breathing for athletes. He still chafed at the medical world’s inability to accept two of his most stunning findings.

These quotes from his book are hard to hear: “Two of the startling achievements of breathing coordination were the development of the involuntary muscles and the alteration of chest position, both of which had been considered impossible. In numerous instances, visible proof had failed to dismiss skepticism.”

A Stough experience:  Lie on your back with your head supported, a small towel under your lower back, and a pillow under your knees. Take a regular breath through the nose, that easily fills your chest and belly. Open your mouth and count with a good tone up to 5 or so repeatedly. When your belly gets hard and you are forcing, let the air come in your nose. As you get better at this, you will feel a small kernel of hardness in the lower belly that will be the signal to turn the breath over, to inhale, and you won’t have to let your belly get hard and forced.

Here are a couple of folks who know how to breathe: and following is a clarinet player who thinks he can breathe….look, he is still standing! but notice the little pot belly and sunken chest, sure signs of abnormal breathing:  –Love the piece, though.



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