Dennis Lewis on How Our Self-Image Influences our Breathing

Leslie–In light of the great piece from Kelly McGonigal, I thought you might be interested in all or part of this excerpt from the chapter entitled “How Our Self-Image Influences our Breathing,” in my book “Free Your Breath, Free Your Life,” (Shambhala 2004).
I’m looking forward to the symposium.
With warm regards,
“Everyone has a self-image. Everyone has a subjective identity fashioned over the years out of the material of thought, feeling, sensation, posture, and movement. For many of us, however, our self-image–which includes the conscious and unconscious sensory, emotional, and mental attitudes through which we view ourselves and others–is extremely narrow and bears little resemblance either to how others see us or to our own inborn potential. As a result, most of us live stunted or illusory lives expressing only a small part of who we really are and can be.

Our self-image-which includes our vanity, self-love, low self-esteem, insecurity, and so on–has a powerful influence on the way we live and breathe. The breathing that ‘nature intended for us,’ as Durckheim puts it, is not meant to be fixed in one place in ourselves. It is meant to embrace us in varying waves and pulsations of energy and movement. When we live in true harmony with ourselves, these waves and pulsations arise from our true center deep in our abdomen and radiate throughout our entire body. The expansion of the breathing spaces of our belly, back, and chest on inhalation and their retraction on exhalation enable the diaphragm to move freely through its entire range of movement downward on inhalation and upward on exhalation. Unfortunately, the distorted, illusory way that we perceive ourselves and live often restricts this alternating movement of expansion and contraction. Though we may not notice the adverse effects of these restrictions when we’re in our 20s and 30s and still bubbling over with energy, we may start noticing them as we move into our 40s and 50s and beyond as our armor tightens, our breath diminishes, and our life force and recuperative powers begin to wane.

Overly Tight Clothing

Our self-image influences our breathing in a variety of ways, many of which we give little attention to. Much of the clothing that we wear, for instance, especially the overly tight clothing that some of us wear to show off our physical assets or demonstrate our fashion IQ can greatly hamper our breathing. Tight, armor-like clothing stimulates the sensory nerves and stretch receptors in our muscles, organs, joints, and skin to send messages to our brain and nervous system to reduce movement.

Overly tight jeans, for example, as sexy as they often are, can in some cases undermine the natural movements of the pelvis and lower abdomen, and not only restrict the flow of breath but also reduce our flexibility and mobility as we move through our daily activities. The tight bras that many women wear can restrict the movements of the middle chest and back, and combined with overly tight jeans, pants, or stretch undergarments, force the breath up into the shoulders and top of the chest. The tight belts that many men wear to try to hold in their bellies keep the belly from expanding on inhalation and thus keep the diaphragm and other breathing muscles from moving as nature intended. The tight-fitting shirts and blouses that men and women often wear send a message to the nervous system to reduce the movements of the chest and back during breathing. Perhaps you remember a time when your shirt or blouse or suit jacket was so tight that you were afraid to take a deep breath lest you pop the buttons.

Another important influence on our breath is the kind of shoes that we wear. The high-heel shoes that many women wear to streamline their legs, for example, actually shape the ankles, calf muscles, thighs, and pelvis into unnatural configurations that throw the spine, belly, and diaphragm out of proper alignment and make breathing extremely inefficient. High-heal shoes and platform shoes, along with the narrow fashionable shoes that many men wear, make it virtually impossible to move in a grounded and relaxed way, which in turn tightens up all the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the body, raises our center of gravity from our lower abdomen to our upper chest, and thus ensures a fast, tiny, restricted breath.”

The Smells of Vanity

Our self-image has its smells, too, and these smells, emanating from both ourselves and others, often have a pernicious influence on how we breathe. Many years ago I worked in downtown San Francisco and spent time in offices around the entire Bay Area. I have numerous memories of getting on elevators and going into offices filled with strange, unpleasant mixtures of various both common and exotic perfumes, colognes, aftershaves, shampoos, and deodorants. The cacophonous smells that assailed me were frequently so strong and noxious that I often had to hold my breath so as not to grimace or even gag. Or, if I didn’t hold my breath, I would instinctively breathe less and breathe through my mouth so I didn’t have to smell these obnoxious mixtures. At the time, I had not yet gone deeply into the various issues connected with healthy breathing, and I was little aware of my own breath. But I remember these experiences well, and I remember seeing others having the same kind of reactions.

Lest I give you the wrong idea, I do enjoy wonderful smells, especially the wind-driven smells of ocean, flowers, trees, and grass, or the subtle hint of an unusual perfume or incense. But the strong perfumes, aftershaves, deodorants, and other fragrances we often use on ourselves to cover up our own natural odors or to attract others seldom mix well, especially in enclosed environments where people come together in large numbers. In the name of spirituality and healing, some people even fill their meeting rooms with clouds of exotic incense that they believe will help transport us into higher realms of consciousness. The resulting mixture of incense, perfumes, deodorants, aftershaves, and many varieties of plain old sweat, along with the exhaust fumes that one finds in large cities, often results in obnoxious smells that even the most diabolically clever among us could never have dreamed up. The body’s instinctive reaction in such situations is to breathe less, hold the breath, or breathe through the mouth to avoid the unpleasant odors. Constantly repeated over a long period of time, none of these instinctive reactions is good for our breathing.

But there’s an even darker, more-dangerous side to the smells of vanity. Even the best smelling chemical fragrances can be poisonous to us. To understand why this is so, it is important to realize that the fragrance industry is not regulated. The industry is protected by trade secret law, and most of us therefore have little idea what is actually in the fragrances we use. A quick perusal of the 20 most common chemicals found in chemical fragrances makes clear that many of chemical fragrances that we use are filled with many of the same ingredients that can be found in gasoline, cigarettes, and other dangerous substances. These chemicals have been found to be associated with a variety of problems, from irritation of the trachea and lungs, to allergies, asthma, and cancer. So listen to your body when you find yourself breathing less or even holding your breath in certain places around certain smells. Get out of harm’s way. And use your common sense. If you must wear a fragrance, use a natural fragrance if possible, and use it sparingly. Some people are allergic even to natural fragrances, and when people come together in enclosed spaces with little or no fresh air the resulting smell of the various fragrances can be both unpleasant and harmful.”

Dennis Lewis, a former businessman and long-time student of Taoism, Advaita, and the Gurdjieff Work, teaches natural breathing, qigong, meditation, and self-inquiry in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally.

Lewis is coeditor, with Jacob Needleman, of “Sacred Tradition and Present Need” and “On the Way to Self Knowledge,” and the author of “The Tao of Natural Breathing” (now out of print), “Natural Breathing” (three-CD audio program), and “Free Your Breath, Free Your Life.” He lives in San Francisco.

(Material quoted from Free Your Breath, Free Your Life is copyright 2004 by Dennis Lewis.)

He can be reached through his website at

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