|July 31, 2005
Prager Body-Mind Exercise or “Are
We Breathing Yet?”
By Judith Prager, Copyright © 2005
In The Beginning….
It is the 70’s in Harvard Square. We are a circle of about
ten women lying on a rather worn carpet in a big old stone church — We
are stretching, breathing, laughing, yawning, shaking, a-moanin’ and a-groanin’.
I am giving my first body-mind exercise class, which I call “Conscious Exercise,” because
of the emphasis on body awareness and breathing, at the time a seemingly
revolutionary concept (in a time of many “revolutionary” concepts.) The church
is the home of Ananda, the first “holistic” healing group in New England,
where I am part of a women’s massage collective.
To my delight, everyone seems
to be getting very relaxed. In addition, a lot of pesky back, neck, and
shoulder pain is going away as we work through these
seemingly simple exercises and breathing techniques. Plus we are having
a lot of fun at the same time, and in some cases, bringing up a lot of
feelings, again something that people were exploring mightily in this era.
you who are old enough may remember the “primal scream” groups, for instance.)
And when we end with a group chant — very much like “oming” — people
report a spiritual “high” — partly from hearing how their sounds produce
resonances together, giving them a “we-are-all-one” feeling, and no doubt,
partly from the loosening of their muscles, and the unusual amount of breathing
Breathing, Alignment, and Body Awareness
And speaking of breathing, are
you, the reader, breathing right now? That might sound ridiculous, but,
based on my experience of working with thousands
people, I’d bet that about 85% of you aren’t breathing, or are doing a very
shallow form of breathing. And notice the position you’re in. Are you slumped
over? (This also makes it harder to breathe fully.) Twisted around in some
way? Head forward? Straining your eyes? Clenching your jaw? Are my words
causing you to straighten up and breathe? This is the constant experience
in my body-mind exercise class. After an hour or more of this, while stretching
and releasing, people report some very striking degrees of relaxation and
well-being, sometimes even ecstasy!
Also, what happened in your head while you were sensing your breathing? Did
you just start breathing without thinking anything, or did you say —“*/#x/*
I’m not breathing!”, or possibly — “What’s wrong with me — I’m a bad person, ” or
(the idealized version) “How interesting — I’m not breathing!” (Don’t worry — we
all need something to strive for!)
And now, are you judging yourself again, for judging yourself for not breathing?
OK, you get the idea… See if you can catch the judgments and just let go of
them, and maybe even laugh about them. If you keep that up, some day you
may even have fewer judgments coming up, but for now, just let it all go.
all in the same boat…
The Constructive Rest Position
And now, back to lying on the floor in my
first body-mind exercise class: We are in the Constructive Rest Position:
knees up, feet flat on the floor about
hip width apart. A large part of this class, and most of my classes, is done
in this position, so called because just being in this position for a while
with awareness, will tend to “correct” your alignment, stretch out your back,
and lower your tension level. (Pretty good for just lying on the floor with
your knees up, eh?)
I became very familiar with “Constructive Rest” while I was spending many hours
lying on another floor in the early Seventies. This was a polished hardwood
floor (a little harder on the back!) in the studio of Bob Cooley, at the Moving
Center in Boston. I was part of a group of eager young bodyworkers and “explorers” who
appeared twice a week for about two years, and spent two hours together laying
on the floor and faithfully reporting their sensations — both what they
felt (inner awareness) and what they saw (“outer” awareness), with suggestions
and anatomy lessons from Bob, who was an injured dancer going back to the basics.
I learned how powerful the simple body awareness and sensing could be. The Constructive
Rest Position (which was inspired by Mabel Ellsworth Todd — “The Thinking
works because you do not have to hold your body up and fight gravity — you let
the floor do it for you, and so can relax, and give all your attention to sensing.
Your lower back will naturally arch up somewhat, and as you sense it and lie
there, gravity will help pull it into a more relaxed position, and give it a
little stretch. This position will also tend to even out “twists” of the pelvis
and torso. The whole idea is to sense, relax, breathe, and let your body sink
into the floor, many times while listening to a guided sensing “journey.”
Another very basic concept we are working with here, and in fact, in
all my exercises,
is grounding. (And it’s no coincidence that we spend so much time lying on the
floor!) Grounding, in this case, is feeling your connection with the ground.
You should feel fully grounded before you try any releasing and/or expressive
exercises. It will be a feeling of safety, solidity, and support. It is necessary
to ground the lower body, whether standing, sitting, or lying down, and feel
supported by it, before you can release the upper body. One reason so many people
have so much neck and shoulder tension is that they are literally trying to hold
themselves up by their upper bodies instead of their feet, legs, pelvises, and
The Expressive Exercises
And one last floor of the Seventies, and another basic concept. This one is
quite different. It’s in an old farmhouse in Maine, and is lined with mattresses.
We are a group of people, again doing some inner “exploring”, but not so “contained” this
time. In fact, with the encouragement of a “body-oriented” psychotherapist, we
are kicking and screaming into the mattresses, and yelling things like “No, No,
No”, “Don’t leave me!” and even “I want my mommy!” (Well, it was the Seventies!)
The therapist introduces us to Bioenergetic-type exercises (2,3), which are exercises
which can express feelings, break through energy “blocks,” and enhance your total
energy flow. Shaking is viewed as a good sign of the energy flowing, and is sometimes
deliberately increased by holding somewhat stressful positions for periods of
Get Off My Back
A good (and dramatic) example of this type of exercise is the “Get
Off my Back” exercise,
where you stand with legs apart and bent knees to form a good solid base, and
swing your elbows back while yelling ”get off my back.” As with all of these
exercises, this one should be “eased into” with a lot of preparatory work. It
can be incredibly releasing, and I have seen many a back (and a being) have a
sudden relaxation from this one, and also a good surge of energy. As you might
imagine, it helps to visualize someone or some thing that you are angry with
while you’re doing this. The idea is to help yourself feel your feelings, and
also let them pass through you. I have found over the years that there is a great
benefit from doing expressive exercises, even if they feel “fake” to you, or
if you start out doing them in a “fake” manner (meaning, of course, that you
are not feeling those feelings at that time, it is more of a mechanical expression.)
This leads me to one of my favorite and probably most characteristic exercises:
The Laughing Exercise
This exercise is a beautiful combination of fun, expression and breathing. I
think of laughing here as a diaphragmatic exercise. You lie on the floor, probably
with bent knees, but any position will do. It can also be done sitting or standing.
Start off with a fake “ho, ho, ho” and just let it build. Of course, there’s
a good chance it will turn into a genuine laugh, especially in the company of
other ho, ho, ho-ers. I would like to emphasize that you do not have to feel
happy to do this, and it does not have to turn into a real laugh, although it
is likely to. In fact, you do not have to be having any fun at all! This exercise
is a great anxiety – releaser to use at any time (when you feel free to make
noise, of course.) Not only does it open up your breathing, but it tends to put
things in perspective!
Go at your own pace.
This is a good point to say that there is never any pressure to feel any particular
way or to do any particular expression with these exercises, or in my classes.
You go at your own pace, and do whatever feels right for you. This is very important.
If you (and I) don’t honor where your body-mind is at that moment, you will just
increase your tension. It is always OK to do what appears to be nothing. Resting
is great, and nothing should feel really painful.
Discharge — Another Key Concept
Yawning, shaking, eye-tearing, even laughing – all
these are forms of what we
could call “discharge.” They are signs that the energy is moving in your body,
and that you are releasing tension. You can use them to pick out exercises that
are really working for you – anything that makes you yawn, for instance. Even
burping and farting are good signs of discharge, when they occur during these
exercises (perhaps unfortunate for other students, but good, nonetheless.)
Many of these exercises result in sudden releases of tension.
It’s good to think
about this as different from a stretch, which would be a slow lengthening of
the muscles involved. This can happen in the shoulder shrug, where you hold
your shoulders up high while inhaling, and then let them drop down, with a sudden
exhale. Another good example is the buttocks’ contraction, described later in
this article, which many times results in a sudden release of lower back pain.
Sample Body-Mind Workshop Sequence
To begin “getting out of your head and into
your body” I like to use some general
warm-ups. Here’s a classic one:
Warm-Ups : Shake out
Stand up, get a good solid base by moving your feet apart and bending your knees.
This is grounding. Feel your feet connecting with the ground. Start by shaking
out your arms. HAVE FUN! Shake out each hand. It’s amazing how much tension
most people build up in their hands and fingers, especially those of us who
do massage, use computers a lot, or, for instance, play musical instruments.
As you do the shaking, if you’re in a place where you feel relaxed about this,
make some sounds, like blah, blah, blah, or whatever comes to you, having as
much fun, or being as expressive as you can. This will also help you to keep
breathing! Shake out each leg. Shake your head, and let your lips be loose.
Try doing the old “raspberry” that you probably had a lot of fun with in your
childhood. This is a great lip and face loosener. Move your whole face around,
and make some more noises.
Now notice how you feel compared to when you started. Are we having fun yet?
And by the way, it doesn’t have to be fun. I don’t want you to feel any pressure
to be any particular way –that’s part of the whole body awareness experience – sensing
where you are and being there. Loosening up in this way may just be energizing
and/or relaxing, but it may also enable you to feel your feelings more, so don’t
be surprised if some sadness or anger comes up, and this is true of my whole
workshop. Try to let it just be there, but if you are more comfortable going
off and being with those feelings – and, for example, crying, or punching into
the air, or screaming (maybe into a pillow), that’s fine too.
Warm-Ups : Counting
This is a great transitional exercise – For example:
at the start of a workshop, when you want to calm down, and get into a more grounded
aware state. It’s also a great exercise to use while walking — I use it myself
many times when I’m walking home from work – the number of breaths can be timed
to your steps.
• Sit in a comfortable position (or stand, or lie down.) Inhale twice, fairly
sharply, through your nose, then exhale twice though your mouth. Do this
in a regular rhythm four times, — in, in, out, out, in, in, out, out, etc.
Feel your diaphragm moving, or going up and down as you do this. Keep
your shoulders down, and your face relaxed. At the end of the 4 pattern,
take a nice big
hold, and slowly release.
• Now move along to a pattern of 3 inhales and 3 exhales done 4 times, and again,
a nice big inhale, hold and release.
• Keep raising up the number of inhales and exhales till you come to your place
of maximum comfort for the moment. It can be 4, it can be 6, it can be 12.
find, if you do this repeatedly, that your overall breathing capacity will
probably increase. When you are more tense, you’ll probably have a smaller capacity,
so this exercise is also a good way to monitor your tension and over-all
Another great use of this exercise is as a substitute for “nervous eating.” I
use it at night, when I can tell I’m not really hungry, and probably just want
to chew. Instead of eating, I do a few rounds of this counting breathing, and
usually that takes the place of the eating for a while. (Imagine if you became
addicted to breathing, instead of to late-night snacks!). If the urge comes
up again, I just do it again (and again…you can get a whole lotta breathin’ goin’ on
Initial Non-Judgmental Sensing (shortened version)
This can be done in a chair or on the floor. As an example, let’s use the floor
sensing done in the Constructive Rest position: Lie on the (padded) floor with
your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, about hip width apart.
• Sense your back on the floor. Do you feel like you can let it sink into the
floor, or are you holding it up off the floor?
•Are you breathing? Sense what your breathing is like – full? Shallow? Which
body parts are moving as you breathe? In this type of restful position, you can
be basically just doing “belly” breathing.
• Sense your pelvis and lower back on the floor. Can you feel any tension in your
• Feel the way each side of your pelvis is laying on the floor. Is one
side more into the floor than the other? That side may be more relaxed, or it
that your pelvis is tipped to that side. The specifics here are not really important.
It’s more that the close, non-judgmental sensing will enable your pelvis and
lower back to sink more into the ground with any physical effort on your part.
sense your whole back on the floor again. How does it feel compared to when
we first started? Is it more into the floor? Notice that the non-judgmental
sensing is relaxing in itself.
Isolation of the Body Parts — Using the Pelvic Tilt As An
Upper Body Relaxer
that our backs are more relaxed, and our body awareness has been sharpened, we
will proceed with one of our most basic exercises, the humble pelvic tilt.
In my workshops, we usually do a lot of work with different types of pelvic
tilts, which can be done in a variety of ways by emphasizing different sets of
types of breathing, and degrees of forcefulness, but for the sake of simplicity,
let’s focus on the pelvic tilt done by contracting the buttocks’ muscles:
from the Constructive Rest Position, contract your buttocks’ muscles.
Notice that this produces a pelvic tilt, in other words, it presses the lower
back to the floor, and rotates the bottom of the pelvis upwards, perhaps just
very slightly lifting it off the floor (Don’t do the lifting part on purpose.)
Exhale as you contract, then release and inhale. Your lower back will arch
up slightly as you do this. Don’t worry if you reverse the breathing – it’s
still much better than not breathing at all!
• Now do it again, and contract the buttocks very tightly –(“Tight, tight, tight,” as
I say in my classes). Now relax, and feel the surge of warmth and relaxation.
This is a great example of a release as opposed to a stretch.
• Contract the buttocks
again. ** Notice if you are contracting your shoulders along with the buttocks.
Your jaw? (Non-judgmental, remember). If you are,
this is actually a great discovery, and a path to a relaxation of these areas.
again a few more times, with the breathing. If you have trouble relaxing your
jaw and shoulders, just start off easy – try the very gentlest pelvic tilt
that you can do, and see if you can isolate the pelvis from the shoulders.
if you can’t separate the upper body from the lower body at first — this is
Many people going through this sequence in my workshops are totally
amazed that they are using their shoulders and/or their jaw to help them contract
buttocks! (or move their pelvis.) If they are able to let go of this, they
very dramatic relaxation of these areas, many times much more so than direct
exercise and stretching of those muscles. Think how much extra work they (you)
are doing by constantly using these muscles when you don’t need to. Not only
do the “extra” muscles become tense, but the process is very inefficient. This
effect is even more common in very strenuous exercise. I see people in the
health club tensing their jaws as they lift weights, or as they try to keep
up a fast
pace on the elliptical trainer, for instance. Later on they will wonder why
their jaws hurt!
Separating the movement of the shoulders from the pelvis illustrates
the Isolation of the Body Parts. Even though it sounds a bit lonely,
it means only using
the muscles that are really necessary for that particular movement. I urge
really try this out, as it is hard to grasp the feeling just from reading it
on these pages.
The “Tarzana” Exercise — Opening the Chest Area
This is another good example
of a multi-dimensional, “fun” and energizing body-mind
exercise. Here we are focusing on opening the chest, which is usually a “storehouse” of
emotions. By doing exercises like this, we create an “open platform” into which
the neck and shoulder muscles can expand. A body part cannot really relax
if a part below it, which should be supporting it, is tight and constricted.
• In a sitting or standing position, pound your chest as if you were in
an old Tarzan movie. Pound all over the sternum, and make sure to include the
and the upper trapezius. Make some sounds and have fun with it.
Exercise or No. No, No Yes, Yes, Yes!!
I love to end my workshops with the empowerment
exercise, because it is so
rousing. It is a great example of how an exercise can really change where you
and in this case, help you stand up for yourself.
• Stand with a good solid base,
feet about two feet apart, and knees bent. Clasp your hands above your head,
and then bring them down forcefully, yelling ”No!” Repeat
about five times. Then, raise both arms strongly above your head, yelling “Yes!
as if you really mean it, and are affirming the Universe.
• Repeat this about
five times, and then go through the whole sequence again. Of course, the more
people doing this at once, the more energy you will feel.
There are other powerful
tools of body-mind exercise such as visualization, self-massage, dialoguing with
your symptoms, and classic stretching (with awareness) which
are an integral part of my workshops, and my own practice of body-mind exercise.
I’ve tried to cover some of the most basic exercises and concepts here, and
to explain some of the most unique exercises.
These exercises have changed
I know that as you practice them, they will change you too, in ways that will
be gratifying and surprising. I used to get terrible headaches, and cricks
in my neck that had me walking around bent to one side for days. Over time,
symptoms have fallen away, (in spite of a serious car accident, and being in
traction for 4 months, not to mention a few extra years!). I have much more
ease in my body and my being. As new symptoms appear (and they always will!)
have the tools to sense them and work with them. As you feel more supported
by your body, you will feel more grounded, relaxed, energetic, and secure.
drop levels of tension from your muscles, you will drop layers of defenses
and insecurities, and will be closer to your real “core” and more at home in
Sidebars — 2 Great Breathing Exercises
1) Arms Overhead Breathing — This is
a great overall relaxer, and also chest releaser. It’s good for insomnia.
Lie on the floor, knees up, feet flat on the floor, about hip width apart (constructive
rest position), with your arms
by your sides.
Upstroke: Slowly bring your arms up over your head, and back
down to the floor behind you, or as close to that as you can reach, as you
do a big inhale. Don’t
worry if at first, your inhale is not long enough for the movement, just speed
up the movement a little to match your inhale. When you get up to the top hold
your breath for a few seconds, or try sniffing in a little more air to expand
your chest still further. Notice how you chest feels, being so filled up with
air. Let your back relax on the floor – don’t arch up as you do this exercise.
If you have a tendency to arch, just do a little pelvic tilt.
Downstroke: Slowly bring your arms back down
to your sides, as you do a nice big exhale. When your hands hit the floor again,
smoothly start up your
inhale, and keep going at your own (slow) pace, for about 10 “strokes,” experimenting
with holding your breath up at the top and/or sniffing in more air.
your body afterwards: Feel the “glow” you got after doing this exercise. Do
you feel more relaxed? How does your chest feel? Does it have more sensation
you started? Is your back more into the ground?
2) Belly Breathing with Visualization
This is possibly the most dramatically
relaxing breathing of all.
Again start in the constructive rest position.
(This can also be done sitting, or in other positions.) Place your hands gently
on your lower abdomen.
Inhale through your nose. Let your belly rise up like a balloon. Exhale
through your mouth. Let your belly sink down. Continue doing this at your own
your breath could go to the lowest part of your abdomen, — way down
to your pubic bone. Make sure that just your belly is moving – not your
shoulders or your chest (or jaw.) This may take some doing for some of
your chest can really relax as it does not participate in this breathing.
If you just get this one sensation from this article, it will be tremendously
rewarding. It may feel like a collapse to not breathe with your chest
here, but just try to go with it. Good work! To lower your breathing still
imagine you can breathe into your legs, and then way down to your feet.
Imagine you can breathe in and out through the soles of your feet.
come back up to your abdomen, and imagine you have a glowing ball of healing
light and energy just under your hands, filling up your belly. Pick a
color of light that feels healing to you right now. It can be a white light,
light, a beautiful glowing golden light, or any color that works for
Every time you inhale, the light glows brighter and brighter. And now
light and energy going down through your legs…up through your torso, shoulders,
arms, head, face,… till it fills up your whole body.
If you like, use this as a time to heal a particular area. Imagine the
healing light and energy glowing very brightly in that area, relaxing
healing it. Know that you can come back to this place any time you choose.
Judith Prager has taught hundreds of body-mind exercise classes and workshops
since the 1970s on a national and local level, including the AMTA National,
and New England Conferences, Interface, and the Ananda Center for the
Arts, the first holistic health Center in New England. She has also had
her own massage therapy practice in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area
30 years. Judith is a graduate of Vassar College (B.A. Chemistry) and
Massachusetts College of Art (B.F.A. Painting), and was a member of the
Center for Body-Oriented
Psychotherapy in Somerville, MA.
Judith has a CD available “Release and Relax,” which
contains many exercises and sequences which are featured in this article,
and also specific neck,
shoulder, face and jaw exercises. She can be reached at 617-491-1350, email@example.com,
and her website at www.pragerbodymind.com.
You can also see her paintings at www.pragerart.com.
1. Todd, M.E. The Thinking Body. Dance Horizons
2. Lowen, A. Bioenergetics. Penguin Books, 1975.
3. Lowen, A. and
Lowen, L. The Way to Vibrant Health, A Manual of Bioenergetic Exercises.
Harper Colophon Books, 1977.
Judith would like to thank the many,
many teachers and authors who have inspired her, and are too numerous to