My Body Mind Spirit

By Amy Moon, San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 2007

Back to basics: learning how to breathe

San Francisco, USA -- I recently went in for a therapy session. Nothing major, really. Basically, the therapist had me sit there and breathe.

Like I said, nothing major. But although breathing may seem like the most basic activity in the world (Does it really require paid consultation? I'm doing it anyway. Or I'd be dead, right?), it's actually a powerful tool that can have a profound effect on your well-being.

It all started when a friend of mine was going through a major freak-out and told me she noticed she wasn't breathing. So the next time I was freaking out (which happened soon enough, no worries there), I realized that I was not breathing. And it was making things worse. A lot worse.

So that's what brought me on a rainy Friday afternoon to the office of Bret Lyon, who calls himself a Reichian therapist (although he later admits that he's probably post-Reichian; more on that later).

No one answers my knock, so I push open the door. Even on this rainy day, the high-ceilinged space is full of light. My first impression is of being in a yurt or Bedouin's tent (only not so cluttered) -- or a Bay Area therapist's office. I notice rugs -- Turkish, Pakistani, Afghan -- on the walls, covering the floor, even on the rocking love seat he has me sit on. Not to be corny, but I am kind of agitated from rushing around that morning, and I immediately notice that I feel calmer. One might even say it feels healing.

I hear a voice behind me, and Lyon walks up wearing, yes, another ethnic rug, but this time in the form of a vest. Underneath, he's wearing slouchy jeans and a faded blue fleece jacket. The overall effect is one of comfort and warmth.

"Comfort is a big deal," Lyon says as he tells me to take off my shoes and offers me a pair of Peruvian knit booties from his basket of socks. "Our whole society has no idea what comfort is." As I settle into the rocker, Lyon adjusts the stack of earth-toned pillows under my feet to make sure it's the right height. "See? You can feel your feet against the pillows," he says. "That's grounding."

Then Lyon sits down across from me and steadily and calmly looks at me. I don't know if he's smiling, but the effect is Yoda-like. Later, when I tell him that I'm aware of my relative agitation compared to his stillness and how when I came in it was instantly soothing, he says, "Whoever is more committed to their breathing, wins." He adds, "And I'm very committed to my breathing."

Lyon didn't enter this world as a breath master. He started as a theater professor at Tufts University and Pomona College in Los Angeles, until he took a massage class, which led to his first Reichian workshop 25 years ago. That was all it took. "I got it in one session," he says. "I'd been out of my body for 29 years. It was time to get in there."

"My mind stopped, and that feeling was overwhelmingly pleasurable," he says. "But this isn't necessarily true for everyone." He quit teaching theater and started teaching a class based on Reichian techniques to actors in L.A. That lasted for about 20 years, and when he'd "had it with L.A.," he headed north and settled in Berkeley, where he's been the past four years.

Over the years, Lyon has created his own way of working with breath, which started with his introduction to Reichian therapy and has since grown to include Feldenkrais body awareness, meditation techniques, Focusing, Buddhist philosophy and the trauma-healing work of Peter Levine. "Nobody does what I do," says Lyon. "People do pieces of it, but no one does what I do."

In a nutshell, Lyon believes that we have lost touch with our natural selves. As we deal with the pressures of society, the effortfulness of striving makes our muscles tighten and our breathing become restricted. "An attempt to not feel feelings results in armoring," says Lyon. "Our bodies stiffen." We lose the ability to feel the pleasure of just being in the moment. Instead, we feel split -- we're self-critical and we worry, figure and plan.

Lyon offers an antidote to our tension-torqued lifestyle. "The more you breathe in a natural way, the more you feel your feelings," he says. "Feelings are a manifestation of energy flow. When energy flows, we feel pleasure. It takes us to our natural state, like we were when we were babies, who have full energy flow."

Now for people who meditate or do yoga, the idea of consciously breathing is not such a big deal. Breath is a central focus of meditation and all religions as well as yoga. The model we're most aware of is from the East. However, Lyon makes a distinction between that kind of breathing and the breath work that he does. According to him, that kind of breathing is really about calming and soothing yourself, not about going into your emotions.

"Yoga is generally about control, about not getting emotional," says Lyon. "It gives you a structure for breathing." For instance, I've been in yoga classes where they have you breathe in for four counts, hold it for two and then breathe out for six counts. Or whatever.

Lyon promotes tidal breathing, which gets you in touch with the normal cycle of breath. "Most meditation is like sitting in the lifeguard's chair, safely away from the water, watching things happen," he says. "In Reichian work, you're in the water. Sometimes up to your neck. In mine, it's more like you're up to your knees."

As to whether his work could complement the breath work that someone who meditates or does yoga is engaged in, Lyon says that "depends on whether people want to get in touch with the emotional part. If so, then it is." He mentions the term "spiritual bypass," which Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche used to describe people who meditate or do yoga so as not to feel their feelings.

I mention that on the contrary, tantric yoga seems pretty similar to what Lyon espouses, and he says tantric yoga is the closest thing to Reichian work. "It's designed to bring you through emotions. Into and out of emotions."

The end result, says Lyon, is that we feel more alive. Not necessarily that everything is A-OK, because just feeling your feelings once doesn't clear everything away forever and ever. Especially if it's an old, deep wound, it may come up again and again.

So what's the point of going there? Lyon admits that by allowing yourself to feel your emotions, difficult moments may be more intense. But, he says, their duration is shorter. Basically, you move through your emotions rather than repressing them and getting stuck.

Lyon says the key to healing is feeling your feelings while observing yourself. "[You're] in the present observing something happening in the past. Just talking is not enough. Just re-experiencing is not enough. You need to observe and re-experience. Doing it with a companion is ideal." Although it's not necessary, having a witness (like a therapist, a mate or good friend) can be central to the healing process. "For one to exist in the mind of the other or be mirrored by another is extremely important," he says.

Another important concept in Reichian work is "becoming resourced": developing the resources within and without to better deal with trauma and overwhelming emotions. Doing this enables us to live more freely, and as a consequence, "your pleasure becomes greater," says Lyon.

So how does this differ from traditional psychotherapy?

The main difference is the emphasis on the holistic experience. It isn't just your mind. It's your everything: your body and your spirit as well. Lyon's breath work and somatic work in general are on the cutting edge of psychotherapeutic practices today. This can get very esoteric, as when Lyon starts throwing around terms like post-Reichian and neo-Reichian and the names of various schools of somatic therapy and explaining the subtle distinctions between them. According to Lyon, the Bay Area is ground zero for this work, which is why a lot of what he does these days is teach therapists how to incorporate his approach into the work they're doing with clients.

I'm curious to experience this theory in practice, so Lyon gives me a mini-session to help with anxiety. First off, he makes sure I'm comfortable. Comfort, again. Very important. "Being pampered, having someone make you comfortable is very soothing," says Lyon.

Next, he has me start to breathe. When people get anxious and notice they aren't breathing, they usually start breathing in really hard. Instead, he says, "Focus on the exhale."

And then he has me bring my breath into my feet and lower body. "The lower body is the grounding part," he explains. "It's the connection with the earth. Generally, we think too much. We're too much in our heads."

He asks me what I'm noticing, and when I start telling him about the constriction around the middle of my rib cage, he says, "OK, now focus on what feels good." He says whatever you focus on increases.

So I focus on the exhale, breathe into my lower body and pay attention to what feels good. I do feel calmer. (And I've put these techniques into play in my life in little ways since then and they help.)

At the end of the session, when I say that I'm really trying to work with my anxiety rather than just stuff it down, he says: "Acceptance is in some way the biggest part of this work -- when you own something as your own. Gently accept it and that experience -- if you feel it on a body level -- that feeling is the physical manifestation of the presence of God. You feel your connection with everything."

That is how Lyon got into this work. He felt it. His change was not philosophical, it was sensorial. As to what he does with clients, he says, "All this stuff is through me. What you get in a session is me."

As for me, he says: "Taking time -- sometimes I think that's the most important thing I teach. We're conquerors, and there is a place for man as doer, but we also need to remember to just be."

When I say, "Sometimes I just don't have time to take time." He admonishes me, "If you ignore your body, it'll send you stronger and stronger signals and create crisis and sickness."

He tells me to take time to breathe and rattles off a couple aphorisms: "Doing nothing is something," and "We're human beings not human doings."

And finally, he says, "When your breathing expands and your energy expands, everything else improves."

Lyon's private sessions are fully booked (he works only three days a week because he says he needs the time to do nothing, be present and breathe), but he has a couple of public workshops coming up. His main work and main pleasure is training therapists, who he says are becoming more and more interested in the non-verbal realm.

Upcoming workshops:

Breath of Life: Freeing Your Voice, a one-day workshop; Sunday, March 18, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., in Berkeley.

Creating Safety and Building Empathy Through Reichian Breathwork, Focusing and Non-Verbal Communication, a one-day training workshop for therapists; Saturday, February 24, 11 a.m-6 p.m., in Berkeley.

For more information, call (510) 540-5115 or e-mail