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Introduction to Limbic Breathing

Majid Ali, M.D.

There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.

                                                                                                                     Nietzsche

Limbic breathing is a specific mode of breathing for self-regulation and healing in auto-regulation.

In limbic breathing, each breath is taken to achieve some well-defined objectives. In early training, a person uses limbic breathing to become aware of the process of breathing. Next, limbic breathing is practiced to dissolve the feelings of anxiety and anger, and to control the stress response. With more training, limbic breathing is used to learn control over the functions of heart, arteries, brain, skin, and other organs. With still larger experience, this mode of breathing is the most effective method for the initial work for self-healing. Finally, limbic breathing ushers a person into higher states of consciousness.

In the working model for self-healing which I call auto-regulation in this book, I use the term limbic state to refer to a state of the human condition which is necessary for success in self-regulation and healing. Since awareness and practice of the specific mode of breathing in auto-regulation is essential for clinical results, it seems appropriate to call this type of breathing limbic breathing.

The emphasis on the role and efficacy of breathing in the various methods for self-regulation is not new. The ancient masters considered breathing as the core activity for self-healing. The central role of various breathing methods in meditative techniques of Egyptian priests, Hindu yogis, Bhuddist teachers, Tibetan lamas, Christian monks, and Muslim sufies and dervishes are well documented.

The language of biology is energy. Language of molecules is oxidation and reduction. Oxygen breaks molecules down to smaller sizes and releases energy for various life processes; reduction builds them back and stores energy. Oxidation, by and large, requires oxygen. We breathe oxygen to sustain life. I have discussed the essentials of the chemistry and energy generation at the cell membrane in the companion volume The Dog and The Dis-ease Syndrome.

What is often not fully understood is that the mode of breathing, and the rate of oxygen introduced in our metabolic pathways with it, profoundly influences our state of biology.

The task for me in my work with auto-regulation has been how to select, adapt and adopt breathing methods so as to render them easy to learn for my patients. The issues for me have been clinical relevance and efficacy. Further, I clearly saw the need for precise measurements and reproducibility in my work with these breathing methods.

Three Observations about limbic breathing.

For the limbic mode to heal, it must first be freed from the relentless censor of the cortical mode. Switching off the thinking cortical mode is simple to understand at an intellectual level, but it requires considerable practical skills in real life situations. The harder one tries not to think, the more difficult it becomes. This is a universal experience. Limbic breathing, when mastered and practiced frequently, is the simplest and most effective method for shutting out the

unrelenting chatter of the cortical mode.

Three events stand out in my personal observations of limbic breathing. Each event brought me an important insight into the place of limbic breathing in self-healing. Each event led me to test the validity of this idea with several of my patients suffering from a variety of health disorders.

The First Observation

I made my first observation during a period of experimentation with various methods of breathing. I was trying to see how far I could stretch the breathing cycle. I drew a line on a paper each time I breathed in. When I finished this period of test breathing, I felt rested and charged with a high level of energy. I calculated my rate of breathing by dividing the number of lines on the paper by the number of minutes. It turned out to be nine breaths for every five minutes. That started me wondering. What was the state of my body metabolism during this period of breathing?

This observation of a high energy level resulting from a period of very slow breathing is quite intriguing. According to the prevailing and generally accepted concepts of human metabolism, we need oxygen to generate energy. Slower rate of breathing should give us a lesser amount of oxygen. A lesser amount of oxygen should reduce the level of energy.

At the rate of nine breaths taken during a period of five

minutes, I took in about one eighth as much oxygen as I would have with my usual pattern of breathing. With this drastic reduction in my oxygen intake, my tissues should have been oxygen-starved. I should have felt weak and energy-depleted. Yet, I had made a personal observation of a very high level of energy resulting from a period of slow breathing. Where did this energy come from? To what was this apparent paradox due? How might I understand and explain this phenomenon? These questions remained with me for several weeks.

At a superficial level, one can assume that a very slow rate of breathing can cause deep relaxation, and so reduce the need for energy for the basic biologic functions. In standard medical terminology, we call this the basal metabolic rate, but there is a deeper question here. It is one thing to conclude that slow breathing lowers the basal metabolic rate. It is another thing to try to explain why an individual should observe a much higher level of energy with this technique. I have discussed the scientific basis for this phenomenon in the companion volume The Pheasant and Suffering in Illness.

The Second Observation

I made the second personal observation about breathing while Talat, my wife, and I were returning home from our office. She was driving. I started experimenting with different modes of breathing. At one point I wondered if I could feel

my right hand swell up as I shifted my breathing awareness to it. By this time I had acquired a fairly precise control over my pulses, and was able to freely change the patterns of circulation in my hands and other parts of my body. An ability to open up the arteries in hands and other body organs is a very basic and useful skill in auto-regulation. It brings extra blood to the tissues, warms them and gives a clear and pleasant sensation of heaviness. See the section on The Directed Pulses in my book The Pheasant and Suffering in Illness.

During this experiment, I felt a warming effect and a throbbing sensation in my right hand within a short period. Within several minutes, I felt the effect I had hoped for. I felt my right hand swell up each time I breathed in. Next I tried the same approach with my left hand. Again it worked. I felt my left hand swell up each time I breathed in. Encouraged by this insight, I explored several other parts of my body. I felt my right leg swell up with inhalation. I followed it with my left leg and then thighs, and then stomach and other body organs. Each time this effect was more pronounced than the preceding time. I decided to extend this observation with some of my patients.

This skill of enhanced perception of body tissues, and ability to selectively change the intensity of such perception, came naturally and effortlessly to some of my patients. For other patients with indolent and debilitating illnesses (those who needed limbic breathing the most), I was to find out later, it proved to be a very demanding task.

The Third Observation

I made my third personal observation about limbic breathing in the coffee shop of the Ramada Inn in New York City. That evening my wife, Talat, and I saw Baryshnikov play Gregor in Kafka's The Metamorphosis. It rained hard as we stepped out of the theatre. We walked two blocks and thought of getting out from under the rain. We went into the coffee shop and asked for some tea. As we waited for the tea, I decided to go limbic, and this is when it happened. Of all places, in a busy mid-town Manhattan coffee shop.

In the coffee shop I was not prepared to make an all out effort to reach the limbic mode. I just felt like doing some limbic breathing. Each time I breathed out, I did so slowly, evenly, and with full awareness of my limbs, my torso, my face, my head, and other tissues, all at once and simultaneously. It was not my considered decision to reach for an intense awareness of all tissues concurrently. It just happened so. I stayed in this state with the limbic breathing for several minutes. The waiter put the tea pot on the table with a loud thud. I opened my eyes. At that moment I realized I had been in the true limbic mode.

This was the very first time I had been totally devoid of all thoughts, and, yet, I had been deeply aware of all the tissues in my body throughout this period of time, the life and energy and vibrancy of living tissues. Evidently, the intense awareness of the impact of the limbic breathing on my body tissues had completely freed my limbic mode from the unrelenting censorship of my cortical mode. Quite unintentionally and unwittingly, I had succeeded in achieving the goal which had eluded me for such a long time. There was an important lesson in this:

We can forever think and struggle to shut out the cortical mode, and stumble in the "cortical tunnels". Or, we can use simple methods to bring about a change in the state of our biology which allows us to escape into the limbic openness.

We do not have to be sequestered in Tibetan mountains to be able to reach the limbic mode at will. It is possible to do so in a busy life in a modern city. Serendipity taught me this important lesson. After this initial observation, I put myself to test on several different occasions. Most of the times I succeeded without much difficulty.

Thinking about How Not to Think: a Catch 22

In our model for self-regulation and healing, the entry into the Limbic mode requires that we ablate all cortical thoughts. This is easier said than done. This is a classic catch 22 situation: thinking about how not to think. It is a competitive effort. All competitive functions are cortical functions; trying hard not to think assures continuity in thinking.

The limbic mode arrives when we allow our biology to change. This is what occurred in the Ramada Inn. Even though I had become quite proficient in the various auto-regulation methods by this time, I still found it difficult to slide into the limbic mode, consistently and predictably. Caught off guard and out of a competitive mode, I went deep into limbic breathing and slipped into the limbic mode.

Taken from The Cortical Monkey and Healing (1990)

 

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