Slow Limbic Breathing, Simplified
Majid Ali, M.D.
There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.
In mid-1980s, I coined the term limbic breathing for a specific type of slow breathing (normal breathe-in, slow breathe-out) to increase the supply of oxygen to all body tissues. I developed interest in breathing methods in those year as my interest shifted from the chemistry of disease to the physics of health.
Three Essentials of Slow Limbic Breathing
There are three essential components of limbic breathing, two mechanical and one energetic:
1. Abdominal breathing (the w a sleeping baby does)
2. Normal breath-in, slow breathe-out
3. An energetic component that begins with simple autogenic suggestions of energetic tissue expansion and ends with heightened awareness of tissue energy and profound physiological benefits.
As for the first element, abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing, simply stated, is a natural mode of breathing controlled by the movement of diaphragm, the muscular sheet that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. The diaphragm muscle contracts to push down the abdominal viscera and expand the chest cavity, with a resultant rush of air into the lungs to fill the expanded space in that cavity.
In the early years my research in the “oxygen-energetics” of breathing, I used electromagnetic sensors to objectively observe changes in the various energy patterns in the skin, muscles, heart rate, and brain waves. In order to focus on the autonomic nervous system and for patient education, I shortened autonomic regulation to autoregulation.
I critically examined the effects of limbic breathing on various physiological parameters, such as changes in blood gases, blood pH, and lactic acid. I described my early electrophysiological and metabolic observations and associated clinical benefits in my book The Cortical Monkey and Healing (1990).1 I proceeded to describe a large body of clinical and biochemical observations with autoregulation in a series of subsequent books, including The Ghoraa and Limbic Exercise (1993),2 What Do Lions Know About Stress? (1996) 3 and Healing, Miracles, and the Bite of the Gray Dog (1997).4 In this column, I briefly summarize those early findings, review the recent literature on the subject, and offer reflections on the right place of limbic breathing and other related breathing methods in integrative medicine.
A Healthy Baby Sleeps With Limbic Breathing,
A Baby With Pneumonia Sleep With Cortical Breathing
A sleeping baby breathes “limbically” through the abdomen — the lungs expand passively as the abdomen rolls out. By contrast, a baby with pneumonia “chest-breathes” — the chest wall heaves up with each breath while the abdominal wall retracts. Most adults develop the poor practice of breathing like a baby with pneumonia — they breathe “cortically” through their chest. The difference between the abdominal breathing and “chest-breathing” can be readily and fully appreciated by doing the following simple experiment. Ask a companion to gently place her/his hands on the lower part of your rib cage in the back and try to sense the difference between two types of action: (1) you take a very deep breath by fully raising your shoulders and upper chest; and (2) you push your abdomen forward fully while keeping the shoulders still. Now ask your companion to tell you if she/he feels any difference between the two types of breaths. Your companion is likely to grin and say she/he indeed felt a clear difference. Your lower rib cage retracted and moved up in the first step, and it expanded and moved out and down during the second step. Next, you reverse the roles and ask your companion to take the same two breathing steps while your hands rest gently on her/his lower rib cage in the back, and you try to sense the difference between the two breathing steps. You will recognize that there is a much greater degree of expansion of the lower lung fields with the limbic breath and only minimal expansion of that region with chest (“cortical”) breathing. You can see with your mind’s eye how the air rushes in to fill the lower and more voluminous lobes of the lungs with limbic abdominal breathing and does not do so with cortical chest breathing.
Breathing and Spirituality
Punjabi is my primary tongue. The Punjabi word saah refers not only to physical breath but also to physical relief, emotional support, and spiritual reprieve. For example, the Punjabi phrase outhee rooh nouhn saah ayaa means “her soul found peace.” The Urdu word sance is the exact synonym of the Punjabi saah. So I was not surprised to learn that the Hebrew word nephesh means breathing in a limited sense, but a linking together of breath, life, and soul in a broader context. The Arabic words nefs and ruh also link breath with life and soul. In the Slavic languages, the duch is synonymous with the Hebrew nephesh and the Arab nefs and ruh, having extended its meaning from breathing to spirit or soul. The meaning of the word duk of the Romany dialect is also inclusive of breathing, spirit, and soul. The Swedish word anda refers to breathing as well as the core of something, a thought, or a spark that triggers something. Similarly, the German geist and the Javan nawa also link breath with the spirit and the soul.
Breathing Is the Essence of the Human Condition
The word inspiration refers to a reach for higher recesses of consciousness. In that sense, inspiration is about the human spirit—all letters of the word spirit, of course, are drawn from those of the word inspiration. In most world cultural traditions, conceptually the simple act of breathing is inextricably linked with spiritual pursuits. It did not escape the ancients that the process of breathing can be seen as repetitive and unfailing reminder of one’s ultimate vulnerability — death. In the prevailing high-tech, no-touch medicine (for which I use the term Star Wars medicine6), inspiration merely means a part of the mechanics of respiration; the deeper meaning of the word inspiration is seldom, if ever, connected to the essential spirituality of human nature in clinical medicine.