Friday, August 1, 2008

Bite Your Tongue

Think for a moment. When was the last time you remember when you felt surprised about something?

The Feldenkrais Conference in Boulder ended today. The week was full of "Aha!" moments: things I'd never thought of before, delightful surprises, and many flashes of insight for how to help particular clients have breakthroughs. I'll tell you about one "Aha!" What made it all the more fascinating to me is that it came in the midst of a subject where I, as a singer and singing teacher, have some expertise: breathing.

If you're wondering, "What's so interesting about breathing?" then think about this: breathing is the most essential activity for living. Changes in activity, position, muscle tone, and emotion will be reflected in your breathing patterns. Many people are restricted in their breathing and are not aware of it. A change in the ease or depth of breathing can be a profound experience, leading to improvements in physical functioning and a lift of the "brain fog." And of course, singers, instrumentalists, and athletes need optimal breathing to perform at peak.

My friend Julie Francis, teaching the class, set the scene with a quotation from Fritz Perls:
"Anxiety is the absence of exhalation."
Indeed, the next time you are feeling stressed, pressured, or rushing, tune in for a moment to notice your breathing. Chances are, you're holding your breath. Resuming your breathing will lower the pressure you feel. If you continue breathing, you'll find that you can do something quite quickly without feeling hurried.

Julie then asked whether we had ever been told, as she had been, to "Bite your tongue!" The shift in the emotional tone in the room was palpable for an instant, as everyone accessed a painful memory of having been squashed, stifled, discounted, or controlled. I remembered hearing that, or its eqivalent, at times when parents, spouse, or other authority figures became uncomfortable with my annoying habit of telling the truth.

So we did a little experiment, which I'll invite you do participate in now, if you'd like to. Just sit quietly for a moment and notice your breathing. It will change a bit as soon as you begin to pay attention--don't worry about it. Just notice the pace of your breathing, and the depth you feel.

Then, slowly and really, really gently: place the tip of your tongue between your teeth, and softly hold it there. Continue to sit quietly, and return your attention to your breathing. See how it is to breathe. What do you notice?

. . .

I was dumbfounded. I had accessed the anxiety and the shame of being told, "Bite your tongue!" and was anticipating tightness, unpleasantness, and restriction in my breathing. Perhaps you were, too. Are you surprised to find that your breathing relaxed and became deeper? THAT was completely unexpected, and one of the biggest surprises of the week.

Why does this hurtful comment, "Bite your tongue!" apparently contain some beneficial folk wisdom? It's been shown that holding the tongue in this position relaxes the tone of the sphincter muscles, which all share a profound neurological connection. The entire system begins to calm. To gently hold your tongue between your teeth can help visceral pain and pelvic floor pain. When feeling angered, or perhaps in that moment just before saying something you'll regret, take a moment to (gently) bite, or hold, your tongue. Your cooler head will prevail.

People who live with fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, increased pain, chronic fatigue, balance difficulties, brain fog, memory loss, anxiety, and depression, tend also to chronically suppress their breath. Every Feldenkrais lesson, whether directly or indirectly, improves breathing.

No matter how accomplished one is in a certain field, there is always more to learn, more to experience. There is great benefit to be had from viewing the "old familiar" from a different perspective, to question assumptions and try something new. There might be a cool little surprise waiting around the corner. Notice your breathing, and begin.

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Anonymous said...

I haven't tried the breathing exercise yet, although I intend to shortly. I, too, am just back from a trip--3 days in Madison,Wi, for my nephew's wedding. Short trips like that always have a particular effect on my physiology, so right now a breathing exercise that will relax the tone of my sphincter muscle should help!

I remember taking a mini workshop from a yoga guru in Tucson a few years back. He taught us all a style of circular breathing that really calms the body down. He told us all that it is impossible to feel anxiety if you deep breath in that fashion for 3 minutes. At first, it was hard to deep breath for that long, but once we were able to settle down for a whole 3 minutes we discovered he was right! The method is also terrific as a set up for meditation. I think your bite your tongue approach will be even better. Among other things, it attracts less attention on an airplane!

I enjoy your blog. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful discovery! The blog and the tongue wisdom. I started doing yoga about three weeks ago and am hooked. It's amazing how disconnected we can become from our own bodies and equally amazing how quickly we can turn it all around.

Anonymous said...

Holding the breath and anxiety are absolutely linked - spot on! I help people to overcome stage fright and anxiety in public speaking and the number of people with this issue who hold their breath is very high.
Spot on discoveries Mary Beth!

Anonymous said...

"Hi MaryBeth,
Yesterday I rode a bicycle on a highwire, three floors above the floor.
(At the Science center in LA)
Sure, it was counter weighted and there was a net, but it was still three floors up on a wire.
While pedaling, I allowed myself to look down, and to look behind me, noticing its effect on my balance. The panic mechanism was kept at bay by holding my mouth slightly open and concentrating blowing the out breath out. No need to even think about the in breath, because panic breathing is all about in breath and holding it in. By streaming the breath out I kept the butterflies at bay and enjoyed riding the wire."-- Silani