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Review of "Breathing"

By Andrew Weil
Sounds True, 1999
Review by David Wolf on Dec 29th 2004

Rarely does the implied promise of any self improvement program lead to complete fulfillment in its delivery. Half-believing, we think, "Oh well, let's try this," then we listen or read, as the case may be, and end with mixed results. Gradually, we learn not to hope for much.

Andrew Weil's Breathing is an exception to all this. He appears to promise very modestly: how much can we expect from such a title? But listening to these tapes reveals a startlingly easy, effective, almost magical power for health and healing, as Weil says, "literally right under our noses." What's more, it's free and non-toxic. Breathing is about breath, energy, spirit, health, healing, better lives, balance; specifically, the power of working with breath to correct problems of health and spirit.

Andrew Weil, M.D. is a graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School who has been widely read and heard in recent years, both as physician and as an expert in the uses of healing herbs, integrative medicine, and other alternatives (or additions) to the traditional medical model. He is a professor of internal medicine at the University of Arizona, founder of Weil Lifestyle LLC, and world-renowned author of bestselling books like Spontaneous Healing.

The first bridge to the power of this two-cassette program is Weil's careful, physician's reintroduction of breathing itself in the first tape. His central insight is that breath is the only voluntary link to our otherwise involuntary nervous system. Those who remember a bit of high school biology will recall that the human nervous system has two branches, one voluntary, the other involuntary.  For example, running down the street: voluntary. Heart beating: involuntary. Weil reminds us the involuntary is called the Autonomic nervous system, itself divided into two, the Sympathetic, that revs us up, and the Parasympathetic that calms us down.

 Absolutely unique to our lives is breathing: it's both voluntary and involuntary, thus it is served by both branches of our nervous system. This makes breath the "doorway to the autonomic nervous system," as Weil says, because we can influence that involuntary system using our voluntary breath. Not only is this an insight of singular distinction, it is one of great potential power for anyone willing to apply it.

You don't need to think of the possibilities, because Weil thinks of them for you and spells them out in fascinating detail. It's really quite trilling to recognize the potential power in getting a voluntary grip on things, like stress, threatening our health.

Our nervous systems are out of balance today. Constant Sympathetic stimulation creates stress, leading, in turn, to imbalances that cause things like high blood pressure, heart disease, and a long list of bodily diseases. Learning to use our breath, as Weil explains, can resolve these stressors and help us deal with, or even eliminate, disease vectors.

Also, breath work--the guided use of voluntary breathing--can center the mind and help turn our direction away from the physical to the spiritual world. Although the power to do this originated in ancient India, it does not require deep or deeply cultural knowledge to achieve; it's available to anyone who makes a brief study of the matter and practices a few simple techniques that Weil teaches in this program. He imparts simple but powerful methods he has used on hundreds of patients during many years of practice.

The value of this becomes apparent when we consider the alternatives everywhere in society:  prime examples, the use of suppressive medications, the misuse of addictive drugs like nicotine and alcohol, the abuse of food. Today, people are turning increasingly to pharmacological answers that are expensive and harmful to the body. In contrast, Weil gives case examples of patients who have, under his care, used breath as a way forward from drugs and the harmful effects of stress.

How does it work?

We need to learn how to breathe "more slowly, more quietly, more deeply, and regularly," says Weil. These are the governing principles. Learning about our breath and doing it voluntarily and correctly "increases Parasympathetic tone," therefore brings our two systems back into balance. It does this over time, not immediately, so it's not a quick fix. It is a powerful and lasting solution to many defects and physical problems, however, one that has no unwanted side effects. This program introduces, explains, and offers practice in breathing exercises (tape two).

Related but nonetheless distinct is the advantage of voluntary breath as a link between the conscious mind and the unconscious. Psychotherapy has long sought to do this. Breath can provide greater access to dreams, for instance. Breath work can also harmonize the physical body and the mental life. Part of the intrinsic harmony of breath work is that it participates in the rhythms of all life, the yin and yang or in and out of energy and, indeed, the whole of creation. Not a bad program for self-improvement available in so small a package.

Who should buy this program?

First of all, it's for healthy people who want to stay healthy and get more out of life in every way. It's also for all those whose response to stress has already resulted in some symptoms of degenerative disorder--high blood pressure, elevated LDL cholesterol, overweight, anxiety or depression just to name a few probable conditions. Still more urgently, those who are ill with diabetes, artery disease or any other disorders in treatment should consult with their doctors, after listening to Weil's program, about how to put this program to work to augment their treatment plans.

Dying patients have special needs. This program can go far to help them physically, mentally, and spiritually. It would also be a valuable program for those who work with the dying. Learning to breathe well and using it as a mode of physical and spiritual balancing--breathing more regularly, more slowly, more deeply, more quietly--can be a profound comfort when under stress of any kind; it has unlimited possibilities for healing and for renewal.



© 2004 David Wolf


David Wolf is the author of Philosophy That Works, a book about the practice of philosophy. His book page for orders (hardback & paperback) is ; readers can also see the first chapter there.

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