by Kate Binnie, Life of Breath researcher
First and last breath – the soundscape
I started making this ‘breath-voice collage’ by recording an ‘anchor’ breath, which would act as a metronome throughout the piece. This was the sound of a heartbeat timed to a ‘coherent’ breath. This breath, commonly used by meditators and yoga practitioners, is timed at five breaths per minute, and has been shown to help people recover from trauma and anxiety disorders, and to relieve physical and psychological pain and I often use this in therapy.
I then interwove recordings I had saved on my phone over the years; my children as babies, their sleeping breaths, an old recording of my partner and I singing our child to sleep. I also recorded the breathing of a patient with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and his words, describing how he felt about his loss of breath. Lastly, I used a recording of my father’s breathing during his final days in the hospice where he was dying with prostate cancer. During that time, the sound of his breath was extremely important, precious and fragile because we knew it would end. In the liminal phase between life and death I sang to him, often starting with breathing together, then voicing the breath to become a sort of lullaby or – as he grew more ill – a “lullament” (lullaby/lament). Dad’s childhood was spent in Scotland, and I often found the melodies I sang becoming Celtic folk songs. The Skye Boat Song was one of his favourites…
Breath-Body-Mind regulation – what is it?
As a singer, yoga and mindfulness teacher with specialist palliative care training and clinical experience as a music therapist in end-of-life settings, I have a particular interest in the power of breath regulation as a tool for emotion regulation and symptom control.
What is it about noticing, tuning into, and allowing space for the breath that seems to help patients who are in pain, breathless or anxious? What is it about sitting with someone who is suffering and their family (who often don’t know what to do, and feel frightened and anxious themselves), and directing the attention to the breath that creates a sense of calm in the room of the dying person that affects everyone there?
I think the answer lies in the primacy of breath within our embodied experience. When we are born, we take our first inhale and life in this body begins. When we die, we take our last exhale and the body ceases to function. Along the way, we are breathing all the time of course, but for most of us, this is an unconscious and autonomic function that is not something we “do” – it just is.
However, our breath and the way we breathe is intimately connected with our reactions, emotions and body sensations. If you are in pain, you may hold your breath and body as a defence against the pain (which actually “winds up” the pain and makes it worse) and if you are short of breath or anxious you will notice that your breathing becomes shallow and tight and again, this increases the sense of being confined, restricted and frightened. We hold our breath when we are shocked, excited, angry or scared. When we are relaxed, safe and connected our breathing rate is slower, deeper and our bellies are soft so that the diaphragm can flow. When this release happens, there is a corresponding cascade of neurophysiological reactions which is sometimes referred to as bringing us into the “Green Zone”, or the feeling-state where we can rest, digest and connect with others in an open and undefended way. In this state – where the body-mind is relaxed and clear – we are not at the mercy of our amygdala (primitive, reactive brain) but are able to access the cerebral cortex (higher reasoning centre) so that we can remain calm, self-regulate our reactions and emotions and reflect and respond to what is happening within or around us.
What is potentially of great use in clinical settings is the way in which we respond to each other’s body postures, breath patterns and feeling tones without any words necessarily being exchanged. When we breathe together, quite naturally we attune to one-another, co-regulating not only our breathing rate, but at the same time our affect (emotions). This non-verbal, emotional resonance has enormous power to help people who are frightened, breathless or in pain feel safe, and when they feel safe, they find their symptoms (the soma) are less urgent.
I have seen this time and again clinically in the hospice, and also with my own parents during their dying phase. I have also used these techniques with dementia patients and people with other cognitive and developmental difficulties. Because the target is bodily-felt affect (not cognitively processed verbal instructions) this body-up approach is useful throughout the lifespan and across disease-types. We are simply tuning into what is probably THE basic building block of emotion: breath.
For more information and training on Breath-Body-Mind integration see www.sobelleducation.org.uk/product/breath-body-mind-integration-foundation-level or contact Kate at email@example.com
Kate will be hosting 3 Breath-Body-Mind Integration workshops in Bristol at the Brunel Building, Southmead Hospital, on Thursday 17 October 2019. The timings will be: 11:00am-12:00pm; 12:30pm-1:30pm; 2:30pm-3.30pm. You can read about these events on our What’s On page, where you can find out about timings and booking details.
Kate Binnie works as a researcher on the Life of Breath project. She is a Music Therapist and Mindful Yoga Therapist with an MSc in Palliative Care from King’s College London, for which she won a scholarship to research mind/body therapies and pain. Kate draws together these techniques into her work with patients suffering from anxiety, breathlessness and pain in a variety of supportive and palliative care settings in Oxfordshire.