Book reviews

Book Review: The Breathing Book

Title : The Breathing Book – Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work
Author- Donna Farhi
Format : Paperback
Pages: 237
Availability : Widely available – amazon

Donna Farhi is a renowned yoga teacher and teacher trainer. Her experience and skill have made her a popular guest teacher and retreat leader throughout the world. She has authored four books including Yoga, Mind, Body and Spirit, Teaching Yoga, Bringing Your Yoga to Life and The Breathing Book. The Breathing Book is a bit different from other books on breathing. As Farhi explains, it is not a “how-to-do”manual but rather, a “how-to-undo”manual. We spend our lives constantly striving to achieve and accomplish, always trying to catch up (Farhi refers to this as the “hurry up bug”) We convince ourselves that we will take the time to relax later, always later. We are always “trying hard” in our lives. This is not the correct approach to breathing. Instead of trying hard to learn a specific technique of breathing, she suggests that we instead we learn to identify and remove the obstacles which obstruct our essential breath. It is more about uncovering and rediscovering than about learning something new.

Breathing seems simple. After all, we do it as soon as we are born. We breathe when we are sleeping. As simple an act as it may seem, breathing has a direct impact on every aspect of our physical and mental well-being. The quality of breath is essential to the quality of life. True, no one has to teach a baby how to breathe, but somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we have forgotten how to breathe correctly. And now, as adults, we must unlearn our unhealthy breath holding patterns and rediscover what we knew as small children.
The book begins with a number of exercises ranging from ten to thirty minutes. But these aren’t typical exercises. Farhi refers to them as inquiries – inquiries that the reader makes of his own body. First he must become conscious of the connection between breath and movement. Next he learns to become conscious of his own breathing patterns and identify any obstacles obstructing his natural breath. These inquiries are executed alone or with a partner, standing, sitting, supine, squatting…The book follows with a brief anatomy lesson, describing the primary respiratory muscles and the secondary respiratory muscles, and the role of the three diaphragms (thoracic, pelvic and vocal) in the act of breathing. A restriction in any of these diaphragms will prevent quality breathing. Farhi next describes common breath holding patterns: including reverse breathing, where the belly moves in on the inhalation and not, as it should, on the exhalation; chest breathing, where the abdomen is in a state of constant contracting, preventing the thoracic diaphragm from its downward journey; collapsed breathing; hyperventilation: throat holding; and breath grabbing; and frozen breathing. These holding patterns must be unlearnt.
Farhi proposes a number of gentle yoga stretches to relax the body and stretch the tight muscles that restrict the body from moving as it should during a full breath. She also includes several restorative yoga poses. These poses are designed to relax the body. Achieving deep relaxation allows the reader to “follow the lure of the breath”, not grabbing, but letting the breath come naturally and enjoying it. Farhi also includes a few traditional yoga breathing techniques, including Kapalabhati,,considered a cleansing breath in yoga, and alternate nostril breathing. She also includes breathing through a straw (breathacizer, anyone?). She provides some fun alternatives to breathing through a straw, including bubble blowing, chanting, singing or blowing through a musical instrument. Farhi also includes a number of exercises to be performed with one’s partner.
In the last part of the book, Farhi includes practice guides for specific problems, from asthma, to eating disorders to pain relief.

The Breathing Book is as much about mindfulness and living in the present moment as it is about breathing. As noted above, it is not a book that teaches us a correct way to breathe, but causes us to question ourselves, our bodies and how our lifestyle affects and perturbs our breathing and consequently, our well-being. It is not a book that provides answers, but one that asks questions. It is up to the reader to find his own answers. How does he breathe? What are the obstacles? How can he remove those obstacles?
Is this book for you? Perhaps I can help you answer that question by describing by my own experience. Performing some of the preliminary inquiries when I first purchased this book a few years ago led me to realize that I was holding my breath. A lot. We are supposed to have a natural pause at the end of every inhalation and exhalation, but we are not supposed to actually hold our breath for more than a few seconds. Additionally, I was holding my stomach in most of the time. Contracting one’s abdominals at all times prevents the diaphragm from descending as it should. This has a host of negative effects. I realized how difficult it was (and still is) for me to actually relax my stomach. Society conditions us to pull our stomach in, (perhaps to appear thinner?). I am able to relax my stomach muscles while performing breathing exercises in the privacy of my home, but not while I am out and about. ( Lest any of you feel “judgey”, come back and talk to me after you’ve had four kids!) A few years ago, I thought I had herniated a disk. I was determined to heal it on my own by holding my back very straight to give the disk the chance to heal and the herniation to be reabsorbed. Consequently, I held my back very straight, engaging my abdominals at all times. After about a month, I started experiencing nausea regularly. I assumed I had developed acid reflux . Both my parents and my brother suffer from it. I sadly resigned myself to giving up acid foods, chocolate, basically everything I love. Soon after, I experienced chest pain. For about five minutes, I actually thought I was having a heart attack. I don’t have any risk factors, but my father has heart disease. After a bit of research, I started doing some breathing exercises and relaxing my abdominal muscles. And lo and behold, all of my nausea and chest pains disappeared and have never returned since. I have resumed eating my beloved chocolate and drinking my green chai tea. Since that time, I have questioned everyone I encountered who suffered from a herniated disk and inquired as to whether they also had digestion problems. Almost everyone responded in the affirmative.

I will not say whether this book is for you, but I would suggest that you take a few moments to examine your own breathing. Does it flow freely and naturally or do you find yourself gasping for breath. Do you shoulders rise when you inhale? If so, it is possible that you are a chest breather, which causes you to use your secondary respiratory muscles, the scalene, trapezius, sternocleidomastoid and pecs as your prime movers, instead of the primary respiratory muscles, diaphragm, intercostals and abdominals. This can cause tension, neck and shoulder pain, headaches… My father, who as I mentioned has heart disease, is a chest breather. Just saying…. If you find that you are not breathing well, than this book could help you. The Breathing Book, unlike some of the other books on breathing that I have read, is not an intimidating read reserved for yogis and teachers. It is a book to keep by your nightstand, to reach for when you have a few minutes for the inquiries, a book to give to your eighty year old mother or your chronically stressed best friend. IS it for you? Well, you decide…