Breathing And Bodywork


by Kevin Smith

You may have heard the saying that we should never form too firm an impression about someone else without first “walking a mile in their shoes” in order to understand their reality. Well, there’s an even better way to try to get in touch with what someone else might be experiencing.

One of the most basic foundations of Touch Practice is the concept of mirroring partner’s breathing pattern, matching the inhale/exhale cycle in frequency and quality. While this requires intentional effort at first, over time it becomes instinctual and something that happens almost without thinking about it. Once we find it, it feels almost like the two partners are breathing with the same set of lungs.

Breathing with someone else’s body forms the basis for compassionate relationship. It is the best way for us to try to understand what it might be like to be inside of that body, because the breath is highly reactive to experience, and a remarkably reliable indicator of “stretch.” In terms of monitoring both our own experience and that of partner’s, we really can’t do it without the information that breathing provides.  There’s probably no single thing more important in Touch Practice than paying attention to breathing.

For starters, get to know your own, and you can try these exercises during sitting meditation in order to deepen your relationship and sensitivity to your own breathing.  First, where is it in your body? Do you feel it in your nose, your throat, your upper chest, all of those places, elsewhere? What is the quality of the breath–smooth and creamy, or does it have sharp edges and “rub” in certain places? Does it go in on one steady stream, or does it feel like it turns some corners on the way down, and where are those corners? Is the breath wide or narrow? Fast or slow? Thin like a thread or broad like a river? Develop a relationship with your own breathing based on curiosity: “what’s happening now? where is it? what’s it doing?”

Notice what happens if you suggest, and allow (not force) the breath to move slightly lower, to sit a little bit more in the belly than it usually does. In the course of normal, progressive relaxation, the tendency will be for the breath to sit slightly lower each time the body relaxes. If during panic our breath tends to be in our throat (we use the phrase “my heart was in my throat,” but it’s actually the breath that’s up there) then during periods of profound relaxation the breath tends to sit more in the belly.

It will only sit there comfortably when the entire rest of the body is relaxed and the psyche is comfortable, so don’t try to just force your breath into your belly, wipe your hands and say “we’re done here.” Breath in the belly is more of an indicator than a technique. It’s a process that can take many minutes, but once the body and mind are calm and still, it will move there on its own if you allow it and follow it.

If you’re skillful with paying attention to your own breathing, you can extend that skill to monitoring what’s happening for your partner. This can be tricky, because it’s necessary to pay equal attention to both yourself and other. If you get so taken up with partner’s breathing that you forget your own, you’re back to square one, because you’re ungrounded, unaware of your experience and a danger to others. One piece of skill and practice is to learn to distribute attention equally, 50/50, so that you’re equally aware of your breathing and your partner’s. Synchronizing the breath, of course, makes this a little easier; if something changes with partner’s breath, it’ll happen to you too.

Here are some of the useful things I think you might notice on this journey of synchronized breath practice that may be good to watch for. First, a successful Touch Practice creates a container in which the other person can feel safe and can relax. This will be characterized by breathing that gradually (without manipulation, organically) slows somewhat, shifts from shallow to slightly deeper, moves from higher in the body to lower in the body, and feels smooth and continuous rather than edgy or jerky in any way.

These are general observations; notice how it works in your own body, and watch this in partner’s.  These things typically happen within the first ten to fifteen minutes of a successful practice.  On the one-to-ten scale of “how comfortable are you,” with “one” being “totally comfortable,” they roughly represent the typical motion from 5-6 down to 2-3, where we can really begin to work with each other.

Partner’s breath will shift when there is stretch, and stretch comes from many places. When I work with people I often will “wipe” the body down from head to toe as a way of greeting or saying hello to the body with my hands. Inevitably, there will be some place on the body where partner holds his breath or “loses” the breath (the breath becomes so shallow that you can’t sense it.) Certain parts of the body may be more challenged by touch than others, so really pay attention to where these are. They may be places where trauma or memory is stored; they may be parts of the body that partner doesn’t like, has judgments about, bring great pleasure, or house injury of some sort.

When I hit a part of the body where I lose partner’s breath, I will often say “belly” or “breathe” as a reminder. It’s important to say this gently and lovingly so it doesn’t sound like scolding or annoyance. It’s a form of support. It should sound like care, not nagging.

People instinctively hold the breath when they hit a patch of strong emotion, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative emotion. A person who suddenly feels like crying will momentarily stop breathing as they “process” what they’re feeling. In Touch Practice, people will also hold the breath for “thinking,” where they leave their bodies, go up into their heads and bat things around. People hold their breath when they experience memories.

When I am doing genital touch work (always with permission) partner will almost invariably hold his breath the first time there is contact with the genitals. A powerful exercise there can be “breathe into my hands” so that we normalize that part of the body and bring it into unison with the rest of the body.

So connecting to your partner’s breath will tell you when to slow down, when to pause, and allow you assess what level of stretch your partner is experiencing, while the part of you that is coaching and helping partner through his experience can gently remind “belly” or “breath.” There is so much wisdom to simply taking a breath when we experience challenge. Holding the breath is a form of bracing against our experience; breathing into the challenge, breathing into the stretch, is a way of embracing our experience.

On the most crucial level, you risk harming someone if you’re not aware of their breath. The body of a person who is relaxed and comfortable and the body of a person who is dissociated (re-experiencing trauma) can sometimes feel almost exactly alike; they are liquid, limp and non-resistant. The critical difference is in the breathing; the dissociated person is generally not grounded and experiencing slow, deep, conscious belly-based breathing.  One person is fully engaged in their experience while the other has left the room, so it’s easy to mistake shock for relaxation if you’re not really paying attention. And we owe each other “really paying attention,” at a minimum, if we’re going to try to create safe containers.

Take a breath. You can spend the rest of the day watching where it takes you.