Originally created 09/14/99

A breath of fresh air



Breathing. You figured you already had this down pat. But it turns out that thousands of Americans are attending classes and buying books to relearn this basic bodily function.

Some of the breathing authorities are steeped in ancient Eastern traditions such as yoga, tai chi and qigong that for centuries have stressed the importance of breathing awareness.

Others have created contemporary cocktails of breathing techniques, psychology and spirituality. These often combine inspiration and respiration in a package designed to appeal to Westerners. This group has given birth to a new category of holistic helping: "breathwork."

Does breathwork work?

All sorts of claims are made for the power of positive puffing. On the high end, there is the promise of altered states and personal transformation. But more traditional practitioners scoff at such elaborate claims, saying deep breathing is relaxing but little more.

It's relaxation and stress relief that authors such as nurse Stella Weller (The Breath Book, Thorsons, $14.95) and psychologist Robert Fried (Breathe Well, Be Well, Wiley, $14.95) are offering.

Mr. Fried is head of the respiratory psychophysiology lab at New York's Hunter College and director of the stress and biofeedback clinic of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York. In his new book, he links abdominal breathing to other relaxation techniques for relief of such complaints as anxiety, asthma and hypertension -- all of which can be triggered or worsened by tension.

Mr. Fried says that shallow breathing doesn't cause these and other disorders but that deep breathing can help.

"You don't get hypertension because you're not breathing properly," he says. "But you can reduce your blood pressure by breathing properly."

Then there are teachers who trade in the time-tested traditions of the East, including yoga, tai chi, qigong and Sun Do. Breathing is not just the intake of gases in these practices, but the door to the body's -- and the universe's -- essential energy.

Hyunmoon Kim, director of the Sun Do Mountain Taoist Breathing Meditation Center in West Hartford, Conn., says he teaches students to breathe from a point between the navel and the pubic bone -- the tan cheon in Korean.

He says that tan cheon breathing is even deeper than diaphragm breathing. Babies, he says, breathe from their bellies. Later, children learn to breathe from the chest. He trains students to return to the more primitive breathing. "They're refreshing themselves and getting their energy back."

Though teaching yogic breathing exercises is, technically, breath work, the label is more typically used to describe Westernized breathing techniques that are a melange of Eastern wisdom, Western psychology and New Age metaphysics and spirituality.

Judith Kravitz of Center Sandwich, N.H., who began as a spiritual healer in the 1970s in California, has developed what she calls Transformational Breathing. Ms. Kravitz says that most of us are only getting 10 percent to 20 percent of the air we could be inhaling and that deep breathing can increase oxygen levels in the blood. She says that her technique -- taught in a one-day or evening presentation -- can increase energy, improve mental and emotional health and provide "an opening and connectedness to higher levels of reality."

Lois Grasso of West Hartford, who has been conducting Transformational Breathing sessions since March, says a series of 90-minute "breath sessions" helps "clear out the emotional baggage." The technique give her access to higher intelligence, she says. "I call it God."

Dr. Mark Metersky, a pulmonary and critical-care specialist, assistant professor of medicine and director of the pulmonary and critical-care training program at the University of Connecticut Health Center, says healthy people already know how to breathe and that blood cells are already 99 percent saturated with oxygen. "The idea that everyone needs to breathe better, I'd stridently discourage," he says.

Those with emphysema and a few other rare conditions can benefit from breathing exercises, he says. Deep breathing can be relaxing, he says, but that's it. "I'd discourage these frivolous health claims."

Bridging the world of the M.D. and the holistic healer, Herbert Benson was a mind-body researcher decades before "mind-body" became mainstream. Dr. Benson is president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, as well as chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

He believes that conscious, deep breathing can reduce stress and thereby help people deal with many common ailments, from anxiety to high blood pressure. But the effect may have nothing to do with the actual intake of air. It is the repetitive nature of the breath, coupled in hundreds of techniques with a meditative word, phrase or prayer, that derails the train of everyday thought and leads to a greater sense of well-being.

Dr. Benson says there has been no research to determine whether sucking wind also may help produce a meditative state. He's keeping an open mind.

"What harm can be done?" he says. "It might be physiologically helpful."