Hardest Lessons Are the Simplest in "Psychology and Soul of Breathing" Class

Hardest Lessons Are the Simplest in "Psychology and Soul of Breathing" Class

Photo courtesy Brad Lichtenstein.
Seattle skyline in fog.

The professor questions his students from the floor, sitting cross-legged in the lotus position: "How are you holding your jaw? Your lips? Your teeth?

"What's happening in the space between your eyebrows?"

They are unusual questions, but then this is an unusual class. "Psychology and Soul of Breathing" is the newest offering from Brad S. Lichtenstein, ND, a core faculty member in Bastyr's Department of Counseling and Health Psychology. The course is part personal journey, part study in spiritual traditions and part physiological exploration of the most elemental of body functions, breathing.

It's meant to help students grow in their own self-awareness. It also trains them to be health professionals who can guide patients in breathing practices. The class illustrates the unique approach of Bastyr's health psychology programs, which draw on spirituality as well as science.

"We're not just interested in learning about the pathology and disease-based model of psychology," says Dr. Lichtenstein, who has a private practice as a therapist, wellness coach and yoga trainer. "We're interested in how mind, body and spirit all lead to health. I think we round it out even more by giving room for experiential work here at Bastyr, understanding that personal growth is important."

The focus on experiential learning is clear right away. At the beginning of a recent class, students unroll blankets and mats on the floor, share snacks and speak quietly about their weeks. Soft sitar music plays from an iPod dock. Dr. Lichtenstein rings a bell to begin and invites everyone to notice their posture.

"We're not trying to adjust your posture right now," he says. "Just notice the posture you're in."

We're too quick to control our bodies, he believes. He has a keen interest in biofeedback, the process of becoming aware of physiological functions with the goal of manipulating them. The first step is simply to pay attention to things like breath, posture, heart rate, sweat and muscle tension. From there, it becomes possible to make changes — Dr. Lichtenstein prefers the term "regulate" to "control."

"I'm interested in what we can do to help our health without anything else," he says. "Breathing is free. Posture is free. Meditation is free. You're not using anything else, not even a supplement or a plant."

Brad LichtensteinFor three years, he conducted research on the impact of meditation in end-of-life care, guiding hospice patients in breathing sessions. Patients taking morphine for pain felt their discomfort disappear as meditation changed their breathing. Other patients learned to lower their blood pressure through breathing practices.

But making these changes permanent takes practice. A lot. That's what Dr. Lichtenstein tries to impress on his students.

"Happiness, peace, calm, tranquility — these things are like riding a unicycle or becoming a concert pianist," he tells them.

In other words, they require training. The class, open to all Bastyr students, gives students a sense of what it requires to develop those qualities. Students keep a breathing journal and are expected to practice exercises every day. They receive lessons in physiology and in religious traditions that have developed breath practices. Many of them are Hindu and Buddhist practices — like pranayama and vipassana meditation — but the class also covers lessons from Taoism and Jewish and Christian mysticism.

Dr. Lichtenstein notes that nearly all religions have developed contemplative practices. (Studies have measured how praying the Catholic rosary slows breathing and heart rates.) Religions teach that we are embodied creatures who learn by practice — by doing. That's a lesson that applies to anyone, regardless of religion, Dr. Lichtenstein says.

"With any breath work, we're trying to neurologically rewire you," he says. "No matter what it is — if you breathe in the chest, if you take too long of an inhale or exhale — our nervous system gets conditioned to breathe a certain way."

He wants students to practice breath work daily so they can appreciate what they'll be asking patients to do some day. If they decide they're too busy with studies for meditation, what will they tell patients who are single working mothers?

Heather Flood, a third-year naturopathic medicine student in the class, says the daily practices are helpful in learning how much discipline meditation requires.

"It's easy to tell a patient 'go do this,'" she says. "It's completely another thing go actually do it yourself."

She took the class to learn new methods she can offer to future patients. Sarah Sue Burich, a third-year naturopathic medicine student, says she hopes to use these techniques in her practice as well. For now, Dr. Lichtenstein’s class is a way for her to slow down during the demands of the school year, she says.

"In every class of his that I've been in, there's been a sense of community," Burich says. "It makes me think, 'This is something special.'"

Burich still finds it difficult to sit still for 30 minutes, so she uses her bicycle rides home to practice intentional breathing.

The single most valuable breathing skill is to learn to breathe from the diaphragm instead of the chest, says Dr. Lichtenstein.

"It's so easy to learn and so incredibly difficult to practice," he says. "The exciting thing about breath is that it's under both voluntary and involuntary control. Thank God it happens without us thinking. But we can also modify it. When we turn our attention to it, most of the time we change it. So how do we learn to observe it without trying to control it?

"One of the messages of this class is that we always try to control everything. That's not doing such a great service for ourselves."

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