Everyone can benefit from the relaxation possible with a few minutes of Belly Breathing.
Our breathing provides a continuous rhythmic exchange between our lungs and the ocean of air that surrounds us. It is said that humans can live for 40 or more days without food and perhaps as many as 4 without water. However, without oxygen to the brain, we cannot survive more than about 4 minutes.
Given that, it’s the quality of these respiratory movements that determines how pleasurable and beneficial breathing is to our wellbeing. Our rate of respiration shifts with our emotional state: while we might take about 6 slow, deep breaths per minute when we’re relaxed and at rest; breathing becomes fast and shallow with as many as 16 per minute when we’re frightened or anxious. Dr. Andrew Weil1, a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, believes that breathing is so crucial to the body’s ability to heal and sustain itself that he says, “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”
Let’s consider three habits of breathing: clavicular breathing, chest (thoracic) breathing, and belly (abdominal) breathing. Clavicular breathing uses the shoulders and clavicle to move the air, and is automatically called on most often when people feel stressed, panicked or are struggling for breath. Breathing centered in the chest, with chest and lungs expanding, is the most common kind of breathing; however, the expansion is often restricted by muscular tension around the ribs and abdomen, providing less airflow and more rapid respiration. Abdominal breathing usually needs to be learned and done with intention: Purposely empty your lungs of air, then, as you inhale, inflate the abdominal cavity (the belly) in a 3-D way, allowing it to expand without effort. It seems this deep breathing can activate the vagus nerve and result in a relaxation response from the parasympathetic nervous system; allowing the body to heal, repair and restore.
Belly Breathing is one of the 26 Brain Gym activities included in our “Midline Movements” category. We use Belly Breathing as a way to release stress, increase relaxation, and sustain focus of attention.2 We also use Belly Breathing in teaching students how to access vocal strength and expression for reading and phrasing. The slow expansion of the belly provides a pleasant deepening of inhalation and more complete exhalation, as well as a decrease in the frequency of respiration.
In a recent research study3, diaphragmatic breathing was highly correlated with sustained attention, decreased negative affect, and lower cortisol levels. It has also been associated with reduced fatigue and anxiety (Zeidan et al., 2010), and with the ability of children with ADHD to manage symptoms of inattention (Amon and Campbell, 2008). These studies build on many others connecting diaphragmatic breathing with significant and varied physiological benefits, from oxygenation (Bernardi et al., 1998), to reduced blood pressure (Wang et al., 2010), to states of calm and arousal (Krasnow et all, 2017), and more.
1) Andrew Weil, M.D., Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing, audio CD, Sounds True, 1999.
2) Dennison, Paul E. and Dennison, Gail E. Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., 2010.
3) The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Xiao Ma, Zi-Qi Yue, Zhu-Qing Gong, Hong Zhang, Nai-Yue Duan, Yu-Tong Shi, Gao-Xia Wei, and You-Fa Li. Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 874. Published online 2017 Jun 6. doi: PMCID: PMC5455070
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Sip Water—a great way to support hydration.
In the Brain Gym program, since 1986, we’ve included drinking water as one of our key 26 activities. We’re advocates of staying hydrated, as we find that it strengthens so many markers of vitality, attention, and memory. According to the Mayo Clinic(1), “water is your body’s principal chemical component and makes up about 60% of your body weight….Every cell, tissue and organ in your body needs water to work properly.”
Research studies(2) are now finding that states of reduced water intake (dehydration) correlate with fatigue, mood swings, confusion, decreased alertness, increased headaches, weight gain, sleepiness, and more. Some of these effects were found to be reversed in just 20 minutes after drinking some water. In one study(3), half of American children were estimated to be dehydrated, with about one-quarter of them not drinking adequate water on a daily basis.
In Brain Gym: Teacher’s Edition (2010, p.54), we write: “Water is essential to the proper lymphatic function on which nourishment of the cells and removal of waste depends. The average daily water loss for humans through natural body processes (such as urination, respiration, perspiration) is about two and a half quarts (ten glasses). Psychological or environmental stress also depletes the body of water. Scientists have yet to reach consensus regarding the likely need to replace this loss by eating fruits and vegetables, avoiding diuretics and dehydrating food, and drinking a like amount of water. We consider Sipping Water to be an effective way to restore hydration. As with light rain falling on dry ground, water is best absorbed by the body when taken in frequent small amounts.”
Biologist Carla Hannaford, in her book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, explains that “Our bodily systems are electrical. Ultimately, it is the electrical transmissions within the nervous system that make us sensing, learning, thinking, acting organisms. Water, the universal solvent, is essential for these electrical transmissions and for maintaining the electrical potential within our bodies. (2010, p.151)”
The Mayo Clinic comments on water needs by saying: “You’ve probably heard the advice, ‘Drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.’ That’s easy to remember, and it’s a reasonable goal. Most healthy people can stay hydrated by drinking water and other fluids whenever they feel thirsty. For some people, fewer than eight glasses a day might be enough. But other people might need more.(1)”
In addition, the American Optometric Association reminds us in an article on “Dry Eye” to blink and to drink plenty of water when we’re reading or working at the computer, as staring can be dehydrating to the eyes.
Finally, here’s a link to a terrific video with Thomas Myers, author of AnatomyTrains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, on why even small movements—shifts in body positioning—can help us better utilize the water that we drink.
1. Mayo Clinic article “Water: How much should you drink every day?”
2. Effects of changes in water intake on mood of high and low drinkers, Natalie Pross, 2014. For additional research articles on hydration, go to Hydration for Health.
3. Prevalence of Inadequate Hydration among US Children and Disparities by Gender and Race/Ethnicity: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2009-2012,” Erica L. Kenney, Michael W. Long, Angie L. Cradock, Steven L. Gortmaker, American Journal of Public Health, online June 11, 2015, doi:10.2105/AJPH.
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I have for many years cultivated a strong interest: that of seeing people self-empowered in their living and learning by gaining a better understanding of their own unique learning process and behavioral challenges. As an educator (one who assists another person in drawing out that person’s full potential), I enjoy helping people discover their own solutions to learning or special-needs difficulties. I see how the work we do together helps lighten the negative impact of stress or trauma by supporting self-regard and the development of creativity, communication, conflict resolution, self-assertiveness, and performance efficiency through nurturing education and client-centered counseling.
Since I began studying Educational Kinesiology in 2003, my work has given me many opportunities to assist children and adults in group programs and individual consultations in Saudi Arabia and other Arabic countries. For example, in 2013 I took the Brain Gym® activities(1) to a four-week summer program in Aramco involving seven high schools. Working with 1,800 high school girls in various cities of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, we used the activities to enhance skills of focus, reading, writing, vision, balance, listening, and self-esteem, and to share much laughter, fun, and play.
Early in 2014, over the course of two mornings, I taught an introductory Brain Gym workshop to a group of teachers at a small school in Dhahran, in the Eastern Province. As I usually do when giving a workshop or presentation using the four PACE activities (described below), I began with some easy and delightful games (2). I find that these games serve as a good icebreaker, while also showing the participants just how effective the four PACE activities from the Brain Gym program can be within the context of a goal. For example, we played games that involve skills of listening and attention, and then did PACE plus a movement called The Thinking Cap to see if and how those activities helped with our game skills. We also played “The Name Game” and “Simon Says” before and after doing the “PACE Plus” movements.
These 4-year-olds are beginning to integrate the rhythmic and reciprocal arm and leg motion involved in this complex motor skill.
“The Name Game”
The teachers formed circles of about eight to ten players per circle. Each teacher chose a name of a flower (or city, country, animal, famous person, etc.). They threw a beanbag randomly from one person to another as they got to know each other, each time saying their chosen name. In the second round, to see if they had learned all the names, I had them again throw randomly, while calling out the name of the catcher.
Now came the real fun. In the third round, each thrower would stand as far away from a catcher as possible. This time, and in each following turn, each teacher would throw the beanbag to a certain chosen person and the sequence would be continued until each player had received and passed the beanbag once, and in the end the beanbag would return to the first person.
Then we added more beanbags into the game. The first teacher would call the second teacher’s name and throw her a second beanbag, adding a third and then a fourth as the second teacher passed the previous one. Thus there would eventually be five to seven beanbags in the air, being thrown simultaneously between the teachers! Each teacher would call out the “name” of the person they were tossing a beanbag to, so the air was also filled with the many different names. People had great fun trying to distract each other as they threw and caught the beanbags.
We also added a round of a classic old game, “Simon Says,” before doing a series of Brain Gym activities, again with the purpose of noticing improvements in skills of listening and attention.
Finding Our Best Rhythm and Timing
The four PACE activities are from the Brain Gym® 101 course, and are used to assist learners in experiencing, in the moment, their best (most easy and relaxed) rhythm and timing for learning.The PACE activities can provide an experience of visual-postural coupling and of whole-body movement as a context for learning. The underlying purpose of each of the four activities is to help learners with hydration (Sipping Water) and then give them an experience of centralizing the eyes (Brain Buttons) and of whole-body movement while crossing the visual midline (The Cross Crawl), followed by vestibular activation (doing Hook-ups calls for balancing while standing or sitting rather still).
When children are first learning to do the Cross Crawl, they often look down; as they discover how to automatically coordinate their arms and legs, they naturally look up and around.
Here are the PACE activities, with descriptions (1) of how to do them (click the link at left to see a video with teens doing the activities.):
- Sipping Water: When drinking the water, hold each sip in your mouth for a moment before swallowing.
- Brain Buttons: Make a “U” shape with one thumb and index finger and place them in the soft depressions just below your collarbone and to each side of your sternum; hold your other hand still over your navel. Rub the Brain Buttons for about thirty seconds as you move your eyes slowly to the left and right along a horizontal line, then switch hands and repeat the activity.
- The Cross Crawl: Stand comfortably and cross the midline of your body as you smoothly and rhythmically alternate touching one hand or elbow to its raised opposite knee and then the other hand or elbow to its raised opposite knee. Can you feel this contralateral movement originating form the core of your body? Once you feel comfortable crossing the midline while doing the basic Cross Crawl, explore variations that call for you to use your body in new ways.
- Hook-ups, Part I: While standing or sitting, cross your ankles. Next, extend your arms in front of you and cross one wrist over the other; then interlace your fingers and draw your clasped hands up toward your chest. Hold like this for a minute or more, breathing slowly, eyes open or closed. As you inhale, touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth at the hard palate (just behind the teeth), and relax your tongue on exhalation. Part II: When ready, uncross your arms and legs, feet flat on the floor, and touch your fingertips together in front of your chest, continuing to breathe deeply for another minute and touching the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth when you inhale.
The other Brain Gym activity we did to improve our listening and attention skills is called the Thinking Cap.
A 4-year old does the Thinking Cap
- The Thinking Cap: Use your thumbs and index fingers to pull your ears gently back and “unroll” them. Begin at the top of the ear and massage down and around the curve, ending with the bottom lobe. Repeat three or more times.
After doing the Brain Gym activities, the teachers reported a noticeable increase in their attention. Some were joyfully surprised about the increased ease of hearing their name called among all the other noise during “The Name Game.” During “Simons Says,” they all followed my verbal cues without letting themselves be distracted by my different physical cues, and it was much harder for me to trick them into copying my body moves instead of following my verbal requests. When one teacher reported that she could hear the birds outside despite the noise from the AC and other sources in the building, others agreed that they, too, could hear much better than before.
Some Beautiful Sharing
As we gathered on the second morning of the course, the feedback shared by teachers was beautiful, touching, and motivating. One young teacher, on taking her experiences home the previous day, had shared just the PACE activities with her only child. This four-year-old boy had, until that day, never felt much need to show affection to anyone, and had a much lower level of emotional expressiveness than his peers. After his mum completed the PACE activities with her son, she went about her daily chores. Half an hour later, the son suddenly came running to her, gave her a big hug, and said: “I love you, Mummy.” This was the first time he had ever verbally expressed his feelings to her. As this teacher shared her experience with our group, we could feel the happiness and love in her story, and none of us could hold back tears of joy.
Another teacher had shared PACE at home with her two sons, grades one and three, and her husband. Before starting the activities, she asked each to do a two-minute pre-activity: the younger boy copied a few lines of text, the older one wrote a little story about a visit with his friends, and her husband made a to-do list for their next holiday. After the two minutes, she saw that the younger son had written just a few letters of the first line, the older brother had set down a few disconnected sentences, and the husband had finished a very sketchy to-do list with one-word bullet points.
After doing the PACE activities together, they repeated the writing challenge, and this time there was a big difference: the younger child copied all three lines completely and legibly, his older brother wrote a small story, each sentence meaningfully connected to the previous one, and their father wrote a new list and added some creative ideas—all written as short sentences and in greater detail. Also, each one finished before the two minutes were over.
A third teacher’s experience was a bit different. She had a nine-month-old baby at home, and did an extended version of pace with him, following up with the Thinking Cap. The baby seemed quite indifferent to what his mum did, and happily continued exploring his world, although he seemed a bit happier for the rest of the day. So when the evening came and they got ready for bed, the woman again did pace, including the Thinking Cap, with her baby, and then while the baby lay next to her playing with his feet, she started to fall asleep.
However, the baby wasn’t sleepy at all. He kept moving, making babbling sounds, and inviting his mum to join his play. Her attempts to soothe him to sleep didn’t work, and so after a while she again did pace and the Thinking Cap with him, hoping that this would help him sleep. However, he still showed no signs of being tired, and played for most of the night, rendering his mum somewhat tired the next day. When she told her story, she yawned repeatedly and looked as if she could sleep within a second if we let her.
I said, “Thank you for sharing your story! And, ladies, here you see an excellent sample of the beautiful power of these simple and easy-to-do Brain Gym movements. This story reminds me to add a possible benefit I forgot to share with you yesterday. It’s something I repeatedly noticed myself after doing the Thinking Cap, and others have told me about similar effects. For me, the Thinking Cap works like a big cup of strong coffee: it makes me awake and alert. So maybe, just maybe, you don’t want to do the Thinking Cap at night, ladies, right?”
The whole group burst out into laughter, and a merry tone was set for the rest of the day. We were together in this workshop for only two mornings, yet at the end of the workshop our hearts were heavy, and some had tears in their eyes when we said goodbye.
Those are just three of the stories the teachers shared, and at the end of the second morning they all were eager to use the Brain Gym activities in their classes. (I had given them a sample list for how to gradually add new activities over a period of 10 weeks.)
After the Workshop
Following the workshop, the teachers enthusiastically incorporated the Brain Gym movements in their daily schedules, modified each day’s academic content, and added more play time. The teachers had enjoyed this playful break from their daily routines; it improved their relationships with each other, with their students, and even at home. Their increased cheerfulness created a serene and joyful atmosphere for all concerned, and some previously shy and quiet students came out of their shells.
Within the next two weeks, many parents noticed changes in their children and called the school to ask what was going on. They noticed that the children had become calmer and more joyful, showed more social skill, and exhibited increased emotional intelligence. One parent reported that her child was speaking in longer, more meaningful sentences, even making up eloquent stories that had a beginning, a middle, and an ending—while before the Brain Gym course he would have recounted a story in short, unrelated sentences, the meaning becoming clear only after some clarifying questions had been asked. The parents of children who had previously spoken very little said that their children would now suddenly open a full conversation. Some parents observed much less sibling rivalry and better emotional expression among their children.
The teachers would send out to the parents little videos (like the one above) and photos of what the children were doing at school, and this increased the feeling of connection between the school and the parents. The teachers also reported that, although they now spent less time covering academic content, the children showed increased progress in getting ready to read and write.
I enjoy supporting people in groups and one-to-one settings in the areas of special needs, learning challenges, neuro-developmental delay, self-development, and mental health care. I offer more than 30 different courses and workshops like this one, tailored to the particular needs of schools, hospitals, companies and social groups, and centers for special education.
So this is the story behind this little joyful video.
Mona K. Al-Fajem is a German kinesiologist and educator for mental health who has lived with her family in Saudi Arabia for 30 years. A licensed Brain Gym® Instructor/Consultant, she also teaches the Visioncircles and Brain Organization Profiles courses. She trained in Germany and North America with Brain Gym founder Dr. Paul Dennison and other international faculty members of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. She teaches in English, German, and Arabic. Mona is also a licensed Touch for Health® instructor of Synthesis Levels 1-4 and an instructor for Touch for Health® Metaphors as well as Top 10 Pain Releasers® . She holds an international training license for Rhythmic Movement Training® , Levels 1 and 2. A certified instructor for Reality Therapy/Choice Theory/Lead Management® and a faculty member of the Dr. William Glasser Institute (USA), Mona counsels people in the area of mental health, with a strong emphasis on the educational component. In her work, she combines the above therapies with the following modalities to offer a comprehensive program for optimal results. She holds a diploma in advanced clinical hypnotherapy and psychotherapy. She also uses her skills and knowledge in the area of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, specifically in cases of eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Editor’s Note: For many youngsters, Brain Gym is their first experience of self-organizing movement. In most situations, Brain Gym® teachers lead the activities while children follow along and have fun doing them; we find that children gradually work out any mix-ups on their own.
(1) The 26 Brain Gym activities are from Brain Gym® : Teacher’s Edition, 2010, by Dennison and Dennison; the descriptions of the PACE activities are from page 27.
(2) In Edu-K, we commonly use these and similar games from the New Games books, including Best New Games by Dale LeFevre, 2001.
(3) The music CD used on the video is by Tessarose Productions: Brain Gym® Music for Encouraging Young Children to Complete the PACE Activities. The playful song is offered in six musical styles. It’s fun to do PACE to many different kinds of music. For a list of our favorite folk, classical, and children’s music, see Brain Gym® : Teacher’s Edition, pages 117-118. You might also like “Come and See My Rainbow,” Barb McIlquhamk; “Dance With Me: Songs for Young Children,” Sharon Novak with Sarah Waldron; and for more ambient rhythms, “Music for Movement and Imaginations,” Richard Maddock.
© 2014 Mona K. Al-Fajem. All rights reserved
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