At the Speed of Life
A New Approach to Personal Change Through Body-Centered Therapy
By Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, Ph.Ds
Bantam Books, 1993
Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks' work has been called "as revolutionary as the work of Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, or Abraham Maslow a generation ago." At the Speed of Life puts together twenty years of ground-breaking experience in somatic therapy and makes it accessible to everyone.
Like many self-help books, it can verge on the corny, and indulges in a bad habit of Capitalizing Key Words as if they are about to be trademarked. Quantum Question, for example. Magnification Through Movement. And so on. But the book's corny cover and similar occasional Strange Lapses in Judgment are a small price to pay for the depth of wisdom offered here.
The Nuts and Bolts
The Hendrickses identify five different areas where warning flags let us know that "the stress of living... is so great that a tiny breakdown is occuring." These areas are breath, posture, movement, verbal, and attitude.
A breathing flag is simply the presence of fight-or-flight breathing. A movement flag can be anything - a wince, a gesture. A postural flag is anything that would be obvious in a photograph, like holding one shoulder higher than the other. A verbal flag can be either the tone of voice or a repeated word or phrase. An attitude flag is hardest to pin down; it can be something like a shrinking and meek manner, or a hostile attitude to the world. When they see these things, they reach for their huge arsenal of body-centered tools.
For therapists and people in health industries in general, the flags and tools they list and the many clear, colorful examples they give are invaluable. For lay people like me, the most important thing in this book might be the transformative information they provide around dealing with emotions and the breath.
I knew that the lungs are much longer and bigger than many people know - they go as far down as your ribs! And I knew that the bottom part of the lungs has most of the blood vessels that carry oxygen to the rest of your body. But I didn't know this:
"Unless the abdomen swells and expands with the in-breath, the diaphragm cannot make its full excursion. If this large and crucial muscle does not move with each breath, some predictable, unpleasant sensations begin to happen. There is a pressure in the chest and a feeling of heaviness. An antsy sensation seems to flutter in the blood itself. Speediness and nausea float around the head and belly."
Not breathing deeply prevents us from being able to feel our emotions and react safely to what's going on in the present
. It hinders our ability to live and learn and grow, because we remain trapped in fight-or-flight mode.
Ironically, breathing too shallowly also often prevents us from being able to feel the effects of incorrect breathing, because it makes us dissociate from our bodies. People end up not being able to feel most of what's going on with their bodies, and having very little idea what they feel in any way.
At the Speed of Life provides a lot of information about the breath. For example, it says that about seventy of the toxins in our bodies are flushed out through the respiratory system, and that inadequate breathing makes our other "systems of detoxification (such as the skin, urinary tract, and colon)" work overtime. Their information is helpfully backed up with both anecdotal and clinical data:
"When 153 heart attack patients were examined in a Minneapolis hospital, the finding was startling: None of them were breathing diaphragmatically. All were using Fight-or-Flight Breathing, tensing their abdominal muscles and breathing shallow, rapid, choppy breaths in their chest. A realted study conducted in Holland compared two groups of heart attack patients. Each person had sufferend one heart attack. One group of twelve people was taught how to breathe correctly... The other group was not taught the breathing techniques. Within a year, seven of the twelve in the nonbreath-trained group had suffered a second heart attack, while none of the breath-trained group had done so."
When I was in high school, I worked in a library
. One of the many fabulous books I read while shelving them was about the importance of breath. Besides the fun fact about the actual size of our lungs, it said that our bodies are built so that if we breathe from our abdomens, our internal organs get a tiny massage with each breath.
I thought that was the coolest thing ever, that people's bodies would be made that way. Tiny free massages! But I couldn't do it. I could breathe from the abdomen, deeply, the right way, but I couldn't keep doing it. The moment my attention wandered, my body would go right back into fight-or-flight breathing. Now, of course, I know that that's a very clear indicator of abuse, and that the only way out of it is through leaving high school and my parents' house and going through all the stored-up compressed feelings and trauma in my body. But at the time I was convinced that if I just kept on trying I could train my body to breathe in a safe, relaxed way. I even made New Year's resolutions about it over and over.
The miracle about this book, for me, was that it taught me how to breathe again. After I read it, my body spontaneously started breating right. It was getting enough oxygen for the first time in decades. It was like a little mini-vacation for my body. There was finally quiet space inside of me.
It eventually faded away and went back to the sort of tense shallow breathing that I can barely tell is there, but it had already changed my life. It made space for me to see something different and choose to get out of the ongoing tension and stress and repressed emotions in which I'd been living my whole life. It gave me concrete examples of breathing exercises that I could do to find out everything that I was feeling and to move through it. It was like the light at the end of a very long tunnel.
When they put their information on breathwork together with what they know about feelings, miracles occur:
"Physical pain can be reduced and sometimes eliminated through (breathing). Nowhere is this process more observable than in birthing. Sometimes we are invited to coach women as they are giving birth. We often marvel at how fast the pain of contractions disappears the moment the woman begins to breathe with the pain rather than holding her breath against it. Once we arrived late to a birthing to find a friend of ours, an hour away from delivery, in a wide-eyed state of exaltation. We asked her what she was experiencing.
The mainstream Western medical community is still extremely dependent on drugs and on keeping information about patients' bodies from them.
"'It works!' she said, referring to breathwork. 'I've been learning how to turn pain into ecstasy. When I match the pain with breath, it turns into pure sensation. Then if I remember to breathe into the sensation. it turns into ecstasy.'"
The authors' work is in direct opposition to this, and often cites cases where serious medical conditions were cured or alleviated much more easily through the techniques they describe in this book. Their field of expertise, however, is in psychology
, and it is in psychological areas where they are most helpful.
One of their major areas of expertise is in helping people understand their emotions and sensations. They offer a variety of different ways to get to this information:
Quantum Questions: These are key questions which cut through all of the things we tell ourselves in order to hide our feelings. A few of them are:
Where are you experiencing this feeling in your body?
What are the specific sensations you are feelings?
What does this situation remind you of?
Can you conceive of yourself completely free of this issue?
The authors explain that "One reason these questions are so helpful is that many of us become awash in our feelings, resulting in a state of emotional overwhelm. Feelings can seem bigger than we are at times. Locating the feelings in the body, in a specific place or places, brings about an important shift in perception. Suddenly the feeling is something that is happening in a particular location. It is no longer bigger than we are. It has been restored to its proper place in the totality of ourselves."
This is another key concept mentioned throughout the book. We may know that we're feeling angry, or enraged, or terrified, or depressed, and think that that is just how it is - there is no way to change it, it is a feeling that has us in its thrall. But Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks know better: they ask people to describe what that emotion feels like in their bodies. Suddenly, instead of only knowing that we feel depressed, we might know that it feels as though there's a lead weight on our chest and like our skin is cold and numb. Not only do we know more about what we're experiencing, but the feeling can move from just being a grey funky cloud into having a specific location. Most importantly, when we start listening to and naming the sensations in our bodies, the sensations often are free to leave.
Telling the Truth: Besides just being there with our feelings (more about that below) Gay and Kathlyn recommend the simple act of telling the truth about them. They often work with clients on biofeedback machines, and have noticed that if a client is very scared and says something as simple as "I'm scared," their stress level will drop.
"In other words, the very act of acknowledging fear puts mind and body in harmony again.... Many people are amazed to discover that sensations change or disapear the moment they describe them exactly. Obviously there are limitations to this idea: If someone with stiletto heels is standing on your toe, describing your sensations won't change them much. But many sensations are signals, and when you get the message, the phone stops ringing."
I have noticed that it works for me, too, and it can be a very effective shortcut when sitting with my feelings seems too overwhelming or time-consuming. It is also a useful technique for communicating better with the people we trust in our lives. Answering a question like "How are you?" or "What's up?" truthfully, where appropriate, is an amazing way to build deeper relationships and get more support. In fact, they offer several specific exercises around telling the truth, alone and in relationships. Here are two:
"In one classic experiment, (psychologist James Pennebaker) asked people to write about their most traumatic experience for fifteen minutes a day for four days. From a clinical perspective this would hardly seem enough to scratch the surface of such a trauma. But the results were profound. Following the writing process, people had measurably stronger immune systems, and their visits to medical doctors decreased over the next six months."
It's a good way to start learning about interpersonal boundaries and communication. And as anyone who has been to a twelve-step meeting probably knows, there is something very powerful about being in a space where everyone is simply telling the truth about their lives.
"You can do (this) with a partner or by yourself. For two minutes, say as many sentences as you possibly can that meet the following criterion: Each statement must be something that no one could argue with. They can be either simple or profound, from 'I have a tie on' to 'My father moved out of the house when I was five' to 'My mouth is dry.' ... If you are like our workshop participants, you will find that communicating the truth for two minutes is harder than it sounds."
Presencing: That is, being present and truly feeling what is going on with us. As humans, we tend to spend a tremendous amount of energy and of our lives trying to suppress our feelings. Often, this is because we are afraid of what they will mean. For example, if we admitted how we really felt about our partners, we might have to leave them, and that's scary. Or if we really felt the deadening, isolating, or maddening things that went on at work, we might have to quit and find a new job that was actually satisfying. Change is terrifying: it is very hard to believe that a leap into the unknown will land us safely somewhere better. It seems much easier to repress our emotions and continue on in a difficult or painful situation. And that's only the more mundane emotions; we often have deep reserves of unfelt pain from our lives which we are struggling to keep numbed. The Hendrickses explain:
"Deep feelings have two main qualities that make them overwhelming. They feel as if they will endure forever, and if we open up to them, they will make us die or fly apart. When we explore with our clients what they most dread about their deepest fears, angers, or griefs, they always tell us the same thing: If they allow themselves to experience them, they will die or go crazy.... If we were accompanied by guardian angels during traumatic events, we might hear a message that sounds like this: 'You are having an awful experience right now. You are feeling scared and confused and angry.... These kinds of feelings you are experiencing right now are like thunderstorms. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The best you can do at this moment is to feel the feelings you have until they move on through. Breathe with them, participate with them until they pass through."
We are probably all familiar with the idea and experience of stress. Sometimes it seems to be the dominant experience, as if everyone is stressed out a lot of the time - especially in school or work environments. It's often hard for people to explain exactly what stress is, or what it feels like to them. But the authors define stress in a very specific way: it is what we experience when our bodies and our minds are not working together. More exactly, it is what we experience when our minds are trying to deny what our bodies are feeling.
I have found, after reading this, that it's true for me. When I experience a lot of anxiety or stress, I notice that it's usually because I'm trying not to feel something. Before I read about "presencing," I was relying on large doses of kava capsules to manage my stress and anxiety. After I read it, I decided to try something new. When I wanted to take some kava, I would stop first and try to check in with my body; breathe, and see if I could tell what I was feeling, and try to really feel it. Sometimes it can be very difficult, especially when I have a lot of repressed feelings trying to come out, but the breathing helps a lot. And the other day I realized that I haven't even thought about taking any kava in well over a year.
Magnification: Paradoxically, they say, making a thought, feeling, or sensation bigger often resolves it. Sometimes it goes away; sometimes it reveals something deeper underneath.
"Tune in to some thought, feeling, or sensation you are having that you would like to get rid of. It could be a worry thought about something or perhaps a hurt or fear you are carrying. It could even be a simple sensation like hunger or tiredness. Notice it and be with it for a moment. Once you have tuned in to it, see if you can make it bigger. Exaggerate it, amplify it. If it is a rapid anxious thought, speed it up. If it is a sluggish depressed feeling, make it even more torpid and heavy."
This makes sense in light of their other discoveries. If many sensations are actually phone calls of a sort from our bodies, or some other part of ourselves, then magnifying the sensations can be a way of speeding up the communication. Not only are we finally listening, we're actually turning up the volume to hear the message better. Magnification can also be a great relief from difficult thoughts or feelings, ironically, like when we worry about something and exaggerate it more and more until we have the late phone bill mutating into a giant monster which will take down all of the world's economies. Truly feeling things, and right-sizing them, can be a huge relief.
Grounding Exercises: The book devotes a good amount of space to the idea of grounding. It is a useful idea, and they really put it to work. To them, it means, connecting learnings from therapy to the real world; being able to function both physically and emotionally; and balancing experience with what you express about experiences. It also often means being able to move out of being triggered - that is, to stop reacting to something traumatic from the past instead of being in the present.
Many people who deal with these issues offer some variant on a grounding exercise in which people press their feet against the floor and name different objects they can see around them. Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks have a different grounding exercise, one which was new to me.
"In this technique you walk in place rapidly, crossing the midline of your body with your arms and legs. Specifically, you alternate touching your right hand to your left knee and your left hand to your right knee. This technique causes your brain to process information rapidly from right to left hemisphere, bringing about a state of integration."
They suggest doing this for ten to twenty seconds or until you notice positive results. Personally, I find it helpful to continue doing it for a little while after noticing positive results, to avoid backsliding. They also list a few other simple grounding techniques, including telling the truth while making eye contact with someone, and making an action plan for whatever you want in your life. ("Figuring out what you want, as opposed to what you don't want, is both a grounding and a manifestation technique.")
Breathing Exercises: They offer a variety of different breathing exercises to remind the body how to breathe correctly.
One exercise goes as follows:
Lie on your back with your knees up. Your feet should be 12-18 inches apart (or up to half a yard apart), flat on the floor, and a comfortable distance away from your butt. Breathe slowly and gently until you feel comfortable.
Gently press your pelvis into the floor. Notice that it probably makes the small of your back arch slightly. Rock your pelvis slowly by flattening the small of your back against the floor and alternating that with pressing your pelvis into the floor. Let the movements flow smoothly together and be small and subtle.
Now add your breathing. Breathe in, all the way into your belly, as you arch your back. Breathe out as you flatten your back. Practice this for as long as you want. Remember: "Coordinating your breathing with correct spinal movement is a secret ingredient to staying flexible as you get older."
They also offer a Daily Breathing Program which reduced subjects' tension and tiredness by more than 50% after ten minutes. First, it involves breathing and rocking this way for about two minutes. Then there is are two more exercises. In the second exercise, you breathe in as deeply as possible, hold your breath, and clench and unclench your belly rapidly (around once per second) "until you need to take another breath. Breathe normally for 15 to 20 seconds, then repeat the above process" for about two more minutes.
In the third exercise, which improves joint flexibility and motion and relaxes the body, you stretch your arms out in a T shape. (All these exercises are done in the same knees-up lying-down position as the basic breathing exercise.) You begin by rolling them in opposite directions - that is, so that one palm ends up tilting upward and the other tilting downward, and the arms stay in a T shape on the floor. Then you start letting your knees drop toward the rolled-down arm, so that as you roll your arms up and down your knees go down to the floor on one side and then up and down to the floor on the other side. Once you have that figured out, you begin turning your head in the direction opposite to the knees. It sounds complicated, but once it all comes together, it makes sense - everything is just being stretched back and forth in certain patterns. And you do that for two minutes as well.
This book is aces, Johnny, aces. For the interested reader, not a page will go by without some new revelation or some interesting connection or tool. It has the power to change everything about the way we view ourselves, our bodies, our feelings, our relationships, our lives, and our doctors and therapists. Even with all these quotes and examples, I have only scratched the surface. Read it; it is tasty and good.