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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

Breathing and Armor

by John Lawson © 1996, 2006

    Breathing is an essential function, yet few people breathe adequately.  Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that there is little real agreement as to what good breathing is.  Physiology texts inform us of the names given to faulty respiration.  "Dyspnea," for example, is a term referring to a condition of labored breathing.  Exactly what is "labored breathing," however, and how is such a condition identified?  Principles of Anatomy and Physiology (third edition), a standard college text by N. Tortora and G. Anagnostakos, includes only one paragraph under the heading "breathing" in the chapter on respiration.  I believe this is inadequate, based on my view that breathing problems are nearly universal in contemporary culture.  Just as Irwin Stone and Linus Pauling argued that a condition of "sub-clinical" scurvy is a common problem due to insufficient intake of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), I consider that a fairly generalized condition of "sub-clinical hypoxia" (lack of oxygen) is characteristic of human metabolic functioning under modern conditions of stress.  The factor responsible for this situation, on the immediate level, is a significant degree of respiratory stasis (immobility, sluggishness).  Stated simply, most people do not breathe adequately.
    Without attempting to prove the above assertion, I suggest that it can be demonstrated simply enough by requesting that any adult individual, randomly selected, breathe deeply and regularly for a matter of a few minutes.  It will then be seen that the individual either fails to breathe deeply (jaw clenched tightly, chest immobile, back arched unnecessarily, abdomen stiff, expiration incomplete, etc.) or deeper than usual breathing will be discontinued due to feelings of discomfort (tingling, anxiety, boredom, irritability, and so on).  Why should these difficulties present themselves in the context of such a preeminently natural function as breathing?  Before we can answer that question, we must gain some understanding of what is meant by "adequate respiration."
    There are three types of breathing that can be immediately singled out.   The first is breathing in which there is a clear problem of a clinical nature.  Among such conditions, the two which most readily come to mind are asthma and emphysema.  The latter condition is particularly devastating because it represents an irreversible deterioration of the alveolar walls of the lungs.  Another type of breathing might be called  "functionally adequate" or "healthy" breathing.  As I have said, I believe this condition is rare.  Between these two extremes of respiratory functioning - clinically disturbed and healthy - there lies a vast territory of problematic breathing in which respiration is less than optimal.  It is this category of restricted and disturbed respiratory functioning that we might call "average."  It is indicative of a state of chronically diminished well-being.
    There is a saying that if a fish were a scientist the last thing he would discover is water.  In other words, we tend to take for granted that which is exceedingly common in our experience.  In terms of breathing, this is especially true since the generally accepted criterion for adequate breathing is the absence of respiratory pathology.  This view, however, fails to appreciate two important considerations.  First, even in the absence of specific pathology, improved breathing will tend to bring about an improvement in overall functioning, a movement toward the optimal end of the spectrum.  Second, "sub-clinical" problems in breathing may be (and I believe are) often related to clinical disturbances in the functioning of the individual.  This follows from the central role of respiration in the metabolism and energy economy of the person. 
    To return to our question - what is really adequate breathing? - we may answer that healthy, relaxed breathing is deep and full.  This means that there are no chronic blocks to the pulsatory waves that originate with each breath in the diaphragmatic region and undulate headward and footward along the axis of the body.  Adequate breathing is both extensive (it is not restricted in its expansive movement in either direction) and deep (it engages the core of the body, reaching the vital organs).  If one has learned to breathe deeply, and if one has studied the functional process carefully, it is possible to discern with considerable accuracy where holding patterns are interfering with an individual's respiration.  The mechanism for such holding patterns is found in habitual organismic tension and imbalance.  Why do such holding patterns exist?  What is their function?
    The basis for answering these questions was provided by Wilhelm Reich.  Reich came out of the psychoanalytic tradition and was interested in the emotional roots of human problems.  In contrast to the direction pursued by Freud, Reich related difficulties in the emotional sphere directly to functional problems on a bodily level.  One key he hit upon in seeking to understand problems in personal functioning was that difficulties on an emotional level are reflected in disturbed breathing.  The reason for such a correlation is that inhibitions in respiration serve as a means of deadening feeling.  In Reich's view, for example, the classic defense of repression is anchored in restricted respiration, which acts to decrease or block the movement of emotional energy.  The blocking of feeling, motility, and energy in the body is accomplished through varying degrees of contraction in the different functional segments of the organism.  These functional blocks - involving the eyes, jaw, throat, chest, diaphragm, abdomen, and pelvis - vary in intensity according to the developmental stage of the person at the time they were established and to the severity of the factors provoking them.  The chief precipitating factor, analytic research shows, is inadequate response on the part of care givers to the needs of children.  The function of such blocking is to create an armor that defends one from the experience of threatening internal impulses (e.g., rage) and from external dangers (e.g., parental hostility).  In adulthood, the patterns of armoring become congealed and solidified into a person's character structure.
    Reich's concept of armoring provides one of the cornerstones in the improved understanding of human functioning.  It ties together the psychological comprehension of the defenses with structural anatomy and functional physiology.  This linkage, as Alexander Lowen has pointed out, is most obvious in the case of emotional depression.*  A person whose functioning is depressed will feel depressed and will exhibit a depressed posture, especially a sunken chest (which may be masked by an inflated pose).  Most important, the person's breathing will be restricted.  What more direct and immediate way could there be to dampen one's energies than to limit the supply of oxygen to the body's tissues?  By the same token, what more direct and immediate way could there be to open one's system to the flow of life than to breathe deeply and freely?
    Reich's work laid the indispensable foundation for a more integrated approach to the task of furthering personal growth.  The good news is that much can be accomplished in promoting our individual development by working to free our breathing and stimulate more natural functioning.  The "bad" news, of course, is that the task is not easy.  To think that serious growth and change can be easy and quick, however - given the complexities and difficulties of modern life - is naive.  Such naiveté must inevitably give way either to disillusion and despair or to the struggle for genuine growth and enhanced functioning.  The latter alternative makes for a more satisfying and meaningful life.

*  See Alexander Lowen. Depression and the Body (Baltimore: Penguin books, 1972).

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