for Children with Juvenile Arthritis
The Perceptible Breath, an artistic form of breath education developed by
Prof. Ilse Middendorf (1910-2009)
What is the Perceptible Breath?
The Perceptible Breath educates us to trust and appreciate our breath as it comes and goes on its own, to perceive its undisturbed, natural rhythm. It is a breathing practice that is not dominated by our will. The primary emphasis is not to control the breath coluntarity by drawing it in or pushing it out, but to allow it to find its own natural rhythm.
Most of the time in everyday life and when we sleep, our breath comes and goes naturally, involuntarily without us becoming conscious of our breathing. We do not have to allow it, it happens by itself. Prof. Middendorf called it “unconscious breathing” and contrasted it with the voluntary breath under conscious control. In between the unconscious breathing function and the voluntary breath, there is a third form of breath, which Middendorf called the “Perceptible Breath”. Her studies are grounded on the perception and the experience of the unconscious function of the breath raising it into our consciousness without disturbing it.
The breath accompanies every act of the body and the mind. Every activity, every thought, every life situation we find ourselves in changes our breathing pattern. Happiness and joy permit our breath to flow freely, easily and effortlessly. Fear, anxiety, and pain on the contrary restrict our breathing, which is harmful to us. As a result, our muscular and connective tissues become tight and inflexible, and disturb the normal function of our organs and immune response, which can lead to illness.
"Our breathing reflects every emotional or physical effort and every disturbance."
Mosché Feldenkrais (1904–1984)
Scientific studies show that breath therapy reduces pain perception. It modulates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and stimulates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which facilitates relaxation and digestion.
How do you teach the Perceptible Breath to children?
I contrast the free flow of the breath with other breathing practices that require some form of control over the breath or manipulation of the breath as in pranayama, the yogic forms of breathing* and let her feel and express the difference.
At the beginning of a practice, the child is encouraged to extend all parts of her body into the space around her just like a cat pandiculating upon waking, which will prompt her to breathe deeply. The larger respiration ‘breathing in and breathing out’ supports the smaller respiration on the cellular level. Every cell in the body requires oxygen. Every cell in the body is dependent on the breath. When breathing in, the child will begin to sense more internal space and when breathing out more vital energy. As soon as she brings her awareness to a specific part of her body, she begins to feel that part of her body entirely.
For example, when you place your hands around your ankle, you not only bring your awareness to your ankle and sense it between your hands; you also arrive there with the full presence of your Whole Self. Consequently, you begin to feel and consciously experience that part of your body entirely: the underlying structure of your bones and tissues, the temperature and moisture of your skin, and the rhythmic throbbing of your arteries. As you are there, so is your breath, if you allow the breath to come naturally.
Children find joy in expressing themselves through movement. With carefully chosen instructions pertaining to the breath, they are encouraged to move as they like. Once they make the connection of breath and movement, their movements become clear, light, expressive and graceful. Children love imagination and visualization and find joy in comparing themselves to a feather floating through space or a bird spreading its wings to fly. After each practice, the child rests lying down on a blanket with his hands on his stomach sensing the up and down movement of his breath. With time, the child will learn to calmly observe his breath without disturbing it.
The breath in particular carries an infinite ability to heal. It holds the key to your child’s health. In consultation and coordination with your child’s primary healthcare provider, I recommend integrating the practice of the consciously perceiving breath between your child’s doctor visits and monitoring potential benefits of this whole person care approach.
* I would like to emphasize that yogic breathing practices have their own health benefits and shall also be part of your child’s daily routine.