By Roberto Merante, physician and TCM instructor (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and William Giordano, certified massage therapist
That winter evening I was the first one to arrive at Asclepius' Club. I immediately felt a strange sensation as I got out of the cold and foggy weather to be embraced by a warm and calm atmosphere.
Our maitre (an impenetrable man named John, with a serene yet detached attitude, suitable for a perfect Englishman) told me right away that Wilhelm was not going to be there that evening, but that he had left a letter for me. I sunk myself into the best couch, took the letter and started reading:
anche se non potrò esserci a causa della solita influenza di stagione ti voglio far partecipe di una mia riflessione sapendo quanto ci tieni alle nostre chiacchierate. Premetto che l'ho scritto tra un colpo di tosse ed un altro e pertanto ti risulterà facile comprendere il perché di tale riflessione.
The most natural and deep act that man, together with all other living form on earth, carries on thousands of times day and night, without even noticing it – is such a small action in the end. So simple and so important that it constantly comes with us throughout the entire span our life allows on this gorgeous blue planet called Earth.
Each movement of our body, each emotion, each most intimate thought is doubly linked to breathing; it communicates with us through the rhythm scanned by our experiences, whether love or hate, anxiety, fear or sex; we only are asked to share those experiences with our breath, in exchange for the energy that we need to enjoy them all.
Breathing shows up to the newborn in all its strength and dramatic need at the moment of his birth, marking that instant in a decidedly unpleasant fashion; it then reveals itself in all its beauty as it opens the doors to a new life, as the exchange vehicle between the little one and the outside world in the as air entering and exiting to and from his small body; that is the miracle of life. Each one of our states of mind – positive or negative – is scanned by the rhythm of our breathing; together with the heart and all organs, it is one of the principal vital functions since it carries out the interactions between many aspects of our body and mind. A healthy and natural breathing habit ensures a good psychophysical balance and joy for life.
Breathing therefore, consciously or unconsciously, affects and is affected by our state of mind –positive or negative – our health condition and all kinds of physical activity, whether our heartbeat were 180 per minute after a crazy run or at its minimum speed during a meditation moment or while praying, during a deep and restoring sleep. Our breath never asks anything in exchange for its services, it carries out its job in a perfectly natural way and it never betrays us.
When I observe a patient laying down on a bed or on a futon right before a treatment I feel the movement and the alternation of his breath, whether he is breathing through the belly or through the chest: this allows me to understand and partly evaluate his physical and psychological state. The observation of his breathing provides me with important information about the patient's attitude toward life and the treatment I am about to begin, allowing me to interact with him in the most appropriate way.
For this reason I start each treatment by gently placing my hand on the patient's belly, in order to establish a first contact with the person and begin an exchange on the energetic level. This way I am able to receive suggestions on how to approach him/her in the best possible way; I could also introduce breathing exercises in case there were specific tensions that needed to be released or simply to help him/her relax.
This is why during any massage session – whether Shiatsu, Tui Na or Thai massage – it is important to bring our attention onto breathing and introduce deep and guided respirations: this allows a much more effective treatment because it frees the patient from most of its tensions.
Breathing is also the simplest and most effective instrument for bringing one's attention 'here and now', which reminds us that breathing is the first thing we experience when we come to life and the last thing to leave us when the moment of death arrives.
"It is true", I thought, "too many times as a physician I see breathing only as the way for the body to take oxygen in– essential to cells – and expel carbon dioxide through the air it breaths out. It is certain that, from a physical standpoint, the balance of all bodily functions – particularly of our brain and of our heart – depends on the correct balance of those gases in our blood. There are so many emotional states that can modify and alter the regular rhythm, detecting one's discomfort."
Then I remembered to have seen some videos online of a few youngsters who, taking very fast and deep breaths, provoke themselves an altered mental state that led to loss of consciousness. Right: in the illusion of increasing the level of oxygen in the bloodstream they were lowering, instead, the carbon dioxide level, changing this way the chemical balance of the blood. The respiratory alkalosis (as can be observed in prolonged panic attacks) produces tingling in the limbs at first, with a subsequent stiffness in all muscles. This situation can be truly dangerous in case of cardiac or neurological alterations that one is unaware of.
Following this train of thoughts I couldn't avoid a smile while thinking about the incredible luck of having such a deep friend, able to bring me back so naturally to a profound sense of life.