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Take a Deep Breath and Let Go of Stress

by Harry Dalford and Julie Kingston(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 171 - June 2010

It seems for me [Julie] that the universe has been shouting breathing in my ear over the last couple of weeks. It started with an interesting talk by a colleague in Surrey on breathwork and how it can release trapped trauma. Also, as a teacher of Meditation and a Yoga teacher, observing the breath is something that I am very familiar with, and the ability of breath to connect us with the present moment. As a Trager practitioner, I was struck by reading that Milton Trager as a young man, working as a postman said he saw a poster on the work notice board "take a deep breath" and in that moment he felt his whole body in a way he had ever experienced before. This started his journey towards developing the Trager Approach.

The Trager approach

So at the beginning of an ordinary week, breathing just kept cropping up. My first client said she had been very moved by a story told to her about a young local woman that had a serious and unexpected heart attack in her early 30s from an undiagnosed congenital condition. The lady in question had known she was near death and just focussed on breathing one breath at a time, on the basis that if you are breathing you are living. She now measures her life in the breaths it takes to slowly walk to her children's school, each day a little further without stopping. Her breath has become a fragile cord that holds her to her life and each day in the present moment, with gratitude that she is being rather than not being.

My second Trager client that week had been suffering with severe pain in her neck and arm over many years; despite MRI scans and X rays the specialist had been unable to find a cause. It was clear there was severe tension in her neck muscle and unusual pain sensitivity when I ran a finger along her clavicles. I picked up a book on pain patterns to show her so that she could understand the link between arm pain and the neck. I observed that the pattern of pain she was experiencing was often linked to chronic hyperventilation. She gasped and said that her Pilates teacher had told her to stop holding her breath when exercising. She also remembered that as a small child she had nearly drowned and had got into the habit of holding her breath whenever she was upset or worried. She also revealed that she often has panic attacks; just thinking about breathing makes her anxious. The next day she had an appointment with the specialist and mentioned about the breathing, half expecting to be brushed off, but he had just attended a conference on hyperventilation and its symptoms. So he sent her off to the Physio who did some rather heavy work on her chest and breathing exercises, inducing such a bad panic attack that she was hospitalized.

Together we have been on a bit of journey gently introducing freedom in breathing, pausing regularly, being present, allowing tears to come and letting go of fear. The pain in her neck and arms has decreased and sometimes disappears altogether during her Trager sessions. More importantly, she feels that understanding the connection between breathing and the way she feels has put her on the road to recovery.

I had two other clients in the same week with chronic unremitting headaches and with no prompting by me, also began to link their shallow breathing with suppression of emotional turmoil over many years. Perhaps the Doctor at the pain clinic they attend had also been to the conference on hyperventilation!

The universe hadn't quite finished yelling breathing into my ear. In my last article we wrote about the increase in auto immune disorders and fatigue illnesses which seem to be very much a symptom of western lifestyle. Harry works as a volunteer in a complementary health centre attached to the cancer unit and is aware how much younger cancer patients are these days and that many cancers have a link to lifestyle.

I recently attended a course on yoga for people with chronic fatigue syndromes which include ME, FM, Lupus, PTSD amongst other illnesses.

An interesting bit of research was quoted in which it appears that measurement of breathing rates showed that people appear to breathing faster than they used to 20 years ago. An average adult resting and relaxed might take 10 - 12 breaths a minute. Up to 20 breaths a minute is still considered within a normal range, but the research showed people are taking on average 27 breaths a minute in a quiet resting state.

It appears that many people are now living in a state of hyper-stimulation which means that they are always functioning in the sympathetic nervous system rather than in the parasympathetic nervous system, in which rest and repair takes place. Humans were designed like animals to be able to take flight or fight in response to short term stimulation; however most of everyday life should be in a relaxed state, in parasympathetic mode. If the nervous system is always on red alert then the chemical makeup of the body changes, with a host of long term detrimental effects on the immune system, the circulatory system, nervous system and endocrine system. In fact in one form or another, stress is at the bottom of most illness. What happens when the body is stressed: heart rate increases, breathing increases in rate but decreases in volume, becoming more shallow, digestion stops, blood flow changes, the mind become hyper-alert, muscles tense, hormone output changes, the immune system alters. There are other effects designed to be short term, but increasingly become the way we spend our lives on a daily basis.


Why might it be that people are breathing faster, living faster, thinking faster, exhausting faster?

There is a cartoon in one of my meditation books in which the guru says gently to the seated meditation student;
"now very slowly let go of your mobile phone and put it on the floor"
Are you one of those people that cannot bear to turn off your mobile? Do you know someone that constantly texts and takes calls even at the most inappropriate times. Sometimes it feels as if constantly taking calls has become a public demonstration of worth, a validation of existence. We have had clients that won't turn off their mobiles just in case they miss a call from school, work, husband, mother etc and then jump every time it rings. I have seen a person stop on a motorway slip road and take a call whilst blocking up traffic for miles behind, a wedding where the mother spent the entire best man's speech on her mobile talking over him. Do we need to be available to everyone all the time? Anyone that knows Julie knows that her mobile number is only given to friends and family, and is only turned on when she thinks that someone might need to contact her, once a week at most. Do you really need to give your bank, insurance company, online networks, Credit Card Company and even good old M&S your mobile number?

Do you read your emails before you go to work, all day at work and then again when you get home? Do you take your blackberry and laptop on holiday so you are always contactable and spend a few hours a day on holiday answering your emails? Has the number of people copying you in on emails and expecting instant answers increased? Do you sit on the train working at your lap top? Do you feel pressure when you are ill to check your emails?

Harry and I live in Surrey, land of the business commuter. Most of my clients' lives are something like this: Get up, check emails, sit in traffic jam or jammed into a train on the way to work, making calls on hands-free mobile. Grab a double espresso plus sugar and fat filled pastry on the way to office. Now their blood sugar is over stimulated making the person more anxious and wired. Then into the office, head down answering emails, shoulders scrunched up at the computer and working through lunch with perhaps a bar of chocolate or a snack to keep them going. Blood sugar highs and lows and constant input from work colleagues with deadlines is causing rising irritability. They then go home via gym, and plug in the ipod at full volume to fool themselves they have some energy left. Grab a take-away microwave meal, get home late, open a bottle of wine, deal with domestic chores, brief nod to family relationships, sort out children's schedules, play a few computer games, check emails, collapse into bed and wake up in early hours brain racing. The same thing week in week out until illness happens. It isn't much better for our children with pressure at school, homework, after school activities, computer games, facebook and social networks to keep on top of, and pressure to go to school even when ill, in case they get behind and because the parents can't get time off work. Is it surprising that illnesses like PCOS in adolescent girls and ME are on the increase in children?

It is exhausting just reading about it. Have a look round you and notice if people are plugged into some sort of electronic activity, think about how your friends and family live their life. Spend a week observing the everyday pressures people are under including your own. Our minds and bodies are becoming fractured, unable to concentrate, addicted to stimulation, rarely aware of our surroundings and the present moment.

No Time like the Present to Take a Deep Breath

So what is the antidote? Our nervous systems are like a switch, so we need to switch off by doing the opposite of the symptoms of stress and hyper-stimulation. Only by doing the opposite can we switch into the more resourceful creative and relaxed mode. So if Stress feels like rapid breathing, rushing, talking fast - what would be the opposite?

The simplest way is to start with the breath. Sit comfortably or lie comfortably and observe your breath. Rest one hand comfortably on your upper chest and the other on your stomach and feel the rise and fall off your breathing. Imagine slowly pushing your hands gently away with the breath, slowing it down and allowing the out breath to lengthen. After a while, place the hands on the sides of the rib cage and feel the rib cage widen. The diaphragm moves a little like a jelly fish opening and closing as it moves through the water. Imagine that slow rhythm of opening and closing. If the mind is chattering, breathe in to "I am peaceful", breathe out to "I am calm". Feel the world slowing down and the mind becoming calmer. Whenever you feel overwhelmed take a few moments to breathe slowly and deeply, become present and aware of your surroundings. Meditation for Dummies has detailed breathing exercises and a CD.

Walk more slowly because when we are stressed we rush, so slow down become focussed on your surroundings, share a smile or a word with a fellow human being, connect to the here and now. Walk slowly, breathe easily and be present. Leave the ipod and mobile behind.

At work take regular pauses, scan the body, ease out tense muscles feel the weight of your hands and arms and let them soften, feel the feet uncurling, allow the legs to be heavy and soft and breathe. Draw a slow lazy spiral with your nose in both directions to free the neck. Allow the head to feel as light as a helium balloon and float upwards. It takes seconds to become self aware and take action to unwind. If you want further ideas a colleague Audrey Mairi has written an excellent book and produced a CD of self care movements called, Trager for Self healing - A Practical Guide to Living in the Present Moment.

If the morning is chaos, get up earlier, move more slowly and have a healthy breakfast whilst enjoying either your family or some silence. If everyone in your house is rushing, perhaps consider helping the family to plan better for the morning and modelling calm.

Plan a little time each day for silence and relaxation. This can be in the form of a walk or some time at home. Observe if you feel panicked and time deprived when you take some time for yourself. Are you irritated and listing all the other things you should be doing? This is a sign of stress. Prioritize happiness, well being and health, and simplify your life.

Buy a cheap mobile and only give the number to family and friends and tell them that is the only number you will be available on evenings and weekends. When you leave work, switch off your other mobile.

Have an electronic gadget free day at the weekend, no mobiles, no TV, no computer.

Simplify your life. Would a smaller house and mortgage give you more free time? De-clutter your environment, create less stuff to look after, maintain and less housework. Having more stuff is bad for your bank balance and bad for the environment. It takes time, money and energy to keep up with the Jones', Smiths and Patels; material things rarely bring happiness. Live well on less. If you end up with ME, your BMW is going to get dusty in the garage.

Aim to spend more time doing the things that make you happy and less time on the things that don't.

Take time to breathe and simply be living right now, right here. Take a breath and see where life leads you.......................


Mairi, Audrey. Trager for Self Healing: A practical Guide to living in the Present Moment, New World Library. 2006.
Finando, Donna and Stevan. Informed Touch. Healing Arts Press. 1999.

Further Information

If you would like to learn more about the Trager Approach or perhaps spend a day experiencing self care please see for trainings and practitioners outside the UK . If you would like to learn more about Self Care there is a public course 7th August; please contact Julie Kingston.


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About Harry Dalford and Julie Kingston

Harry Dalford BEng(Hons) IPTI LTP is a former Paratrooper, sky-diver, skin-diver and rock-climber who practises and teaches Aikido. He is a self-employed, Engineer/Surveyor/Builder and practises Trager in the self-built studio he shares with his partner of 15 years Julie Kingston. He is the current Chairman of Trager UK, and is also the Trager UK Newsletter Writer/Editor. He may be contacted via Tel: 01483 894741;            

Julie Kingston BA(Hons) LTP BWY MIPTI MICHT IHHT VTCT became a British Wheel of Yoga Teacher in 1993, went on to study CranioSacral Therapy, Life Coaching, Indian Head Massage and Swedish Massage.  She has two grown-up children and practices Trager and other therapies in her home studio. She is also a partner in a drumming company, Drumheads Live organizing community, education and corporate djembe drumming events. She is currently UK representative and the Trager International vice president on the Council of Trustees of Trager International, and has also served on the TUK Board of Directors. She may be contacted via Tel: 01483 894741;

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