Breathing to improve well-being

Breathing affects all aspects of your life. This invited keynote, Breathing and posture: Mind-body interventions to improve health, reduce pain and discomfort, was presented at the Caribbean Active Aging Congress, October 14, Oranjestad, Aruba.

The presentation includes numerous practices that can be rapidly adapted into daily life to improve health and well-being.

Mind-Guided Body Scans for Awareness and Healing Youtube Interview of Erik Peper, PhD by Larry Berkelhammer, PhD

In this interview psychophysiology expert Dr. Erik Peper explains the ways how a body scan can facilitate awareness and healing. The discussion describes how the mind-guided body scan can be used to improve immune function and maintain passive attention (mindfulness), and become centered. It explores the process of passive attentive process that is part of Autogenic Training and self-healing mental imagery. Mind-guided body scanning involves effortlessly observing and attending to body sensations through which we can observe our own physiological processes. Body scanning can be combined with imagery to be in a nonjudgmental state that supports self-healing and improves physiological functioning.

Letting go of stress and worry*

Presentation1One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.”
“One is Evil –  It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
“The other is Good –  It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

–Author and source unknown

 Are you stressed and worrying what will happen? Are you thinking of all that could go wrong? Do you feel overwhelmed and anxious?

It is very challenging to let go of negative thoughts, images, memories and anticipations. These negative worries can be useful if they mobilize you towards active planning and action; however, in most cases, the thoughts continue to go around and around in our heads. The more we worry, the worse we feel. Often our shoulders and neck tighten and our stomach churns. The worries and concerns may become a pain in the neck and we no longer can stomach the stress.

Begin to take charge and realize that even though health and healing is not our control, we can contribute and support the healing process. Regardless how overwhelmed we are, begin with the basics. Start the day by respecting your body so that it can run well. It needs:

Proper fuel. Begin by having breakfast—not the sugar coated cereals or snack bars on the run—but an egg, oatmeal, and some fruit or other non-processed foods. Even when you think you do not have the time, fuel up your body so your body engine can work well. Drink only one cup of coffee with little sugar. Drink water or tea and avoid all soft drinks and any low calorie drinks. Remember that people who drink low calorie soft drinks increase their abdominal girth by three inches as compared to people who do not drink low calorie soft drinks (Fowler et al, 2015).

Follow-up with lunch and dinner, do not skip meals! Many of my college students do not eat breakfast or lunch before coming to class, as a group they are more reactive, anxious and perform significantly poorer on exams than the ones who do eat.

If you haven’t eaten, or eaten only high sugary snack foods an hour or two before, your blood sugar will lower and you become more reactive “Hangry” (the combination of hungry and angry). As the blood sugar drops, the brain reactivity pattern changes and you become much more impulsive (Peper et al, 2009).

Dynamic movement. The moment you do some movement your urge to snack, smoke, or  ruminate is significantly reduced. When you begin physical movement (especially when you do not want to), the built up tension from the personal and interpersonal stress will decrease. You are completing the biological alarm reaction. When you physically move, you dissipate the fight/flight response and are shifting your body to a state of regeneration. As the alarm reaction response decreases, it becomes easier to do problem solving and abstract thinking. As long as you are in the alarm state, you tend to react defensively to the immediate events. Thus, when you feel uptight and stressed, take a hike. Walk up the stairs instead of taking the escalator, get off Muni one stop earlier and walk rapidly to your destination.

Positive and peaceful thoughts. Remember your thoughts, memories and images affect your body and vice versa. Experience how your thoughts effect your body. Have someone read the following to you. It takes only a few minutes.

Sit comfortably, and gently close your eyes and imagine a lemon. Notice the deep yellow color, and the two stubby ends. Imagine placing the lemon on a cutting board and cutting it in half with your favorite kitchen knife. Notice the pressure of the knife in your hand as you cut the lemon. Feel the drop of lemon juice against your skin. After cutting the lemon in half, put the knife down and pick up one half of the lemon.


As you look at it, notice the drops of juice glistening in the light, the half-cut seeds, the outer yellow rind, and the pale inner rind. Now get a glass and squeeze this half of lemon so the juice goes into the glass. As you squeeze, notice the pressure in your fingers and forearm. Feel droplets of lemon juice squirting against your skin. Smell the pungent, sharp fragrance. Now take the other half of lemon and squeeze the juice into the glass. Now take the glass in your hand. Feel the coolness of the glass and bring it to your lips. Feel the juice against your lips, and then sip the lemon juice. Taste the tart juice and swallow the lemon juice. Observe the pulp and seeds as you swallow (Adapted from Gorter and Peper, 2011).

What did you notice? As you imagined the lemon, did you notice that you experienced an increase in salivation, or that your mouth puckered? Almost everyone who does this exercise experiences some of these physical changes. The increase in salivation demonstrates that these thoughts and images have a direct effect on our bodies. Similarly, when we have thoughts of anger, resentment, frustration, or anxiety, they also affect our bodies. Unknowingly we may tighten our shoulders or our abdomen. We may unconsciously hold our breath or breathe shallowly. This response interferes with our ability to relax and heal. If this kind of tension is a constant habit, it reduces the body’s ability to regenerate.

Although we may dismiss our experience when we did the imagery exercise with an imaginary lemon—it was only an imaginary lemon, after all—it is fundamentally important. Every minute, every hour, every day, our bodies are subtly affected by thoughts, emotions, and images. Just as the image of the lemon caused us to salivate, our thoughts and emotions also cause physiological change.

What to do when consumed by worry. Although it seems impossible, you have a choice to focus on the negative  or positive thoughts. When you feel stressed and overwhelmed, ask yourself, do I have control over this situation?

If “No”, acknowledge that you feel frustrated and stuck. Recognize you want to let it go and have no control. Ask yourself “does this thought serve any purpose or help me in any way” If not, let go of the thought and the sensations in your body”   If there is a purpose or value act upon the thought (go feed the parking meter, make that call). Then do the following thought interrupting practice.

Sit up and make yourself tall on your sitz bones with your lower spine slightly arched at the same time look up and take a breath in. While inhaling, think of someone who loves you such as your grandmother an aunt. For that moment feel their love. Exhale softly while slightly smiling while still looking upward. As you exhale think of someone for whom you care for and wish them well.

Each time your brain begins to rehash that specific event, do not argue with it, do not continue with it, instead, initiate the thought interrupting practice. Many people report when they do this many, many, times a day, their energy, mood and productivity significantly increases. Initially it seems impossible, yet, the more you practice, the more the benefits occur.

If “yes,” make a list of all the things over which you have control and that need to be done. Acknowledge that this list appears overwhelming and you do not even know where to start. Begin by doing one small project. Remember, you do not have to finish it today. It is a start. And, if possible, share your list and challenge with friends or family members and ask them for support. The most important part is to move into action. Then, each time your brain worries, “I do not have enough time”, or “there is too much to do,” practice the thought interrupting practice.

               Watch your thoughts; they become words. 

               Watch your words; they become actions. 

               Watch your actions; they become habits. 

               Watch your habits; they become character.

               Watch your character; it becomes you

  – Frank Outlaw (1977)


Fowler, S. P., Williams, K., & Hazuda, H. P. (2015). Diet Soda Intake Is Associated with Long‐Term Increases in Waist Circumference in a Biethnic Cohort of Older Adults: The San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 63(4), 708-715.

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Takabayashi, N., & Hughes, P. (2009). How to do clinical biofeedback in psychosomatic medicine: An illustrative brief therapy example for self-regulation. Japanese Journal of Biofeedback Research..36 (2), 1-16.

Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer-A Non Toxic Approach to Treatment. Berkeley: North Atlantic: Random House.

Outlaw, F (1977). What They’re Saying Quote Page 7-B, San Antonio Light (NArch Page 28), Column 4, 1San Antonio, Texas, May 18, 1977 (NewspaperArchive).

*Adapted from: Peper, E. (2016). Legend of two wolves is a beacon across time for healthy thinking. Western Edition. January, pp 6, 8.

Training Compassionate Presence

“Healing is best accomplished when art and science are conjoined, when body and spirit are probed together. Only when doctors can brood for the fate of a fellow human afflicted with fear and pain do they engage the unique individuality of a particular human being…a doctor thereby gains courage to deal with the pervasive uncertainties for which technical skill alone is inadequate. Patient and doctor then enter into a partnership as equals.

 I return to my central thesis. Our health care system is breaking down because the medical profession has been shifting its focus away from healing, which begins with listening to the patient. The reasons for this shift include a romance with mindless technology.”        Bernard Lown, MD, The Lost Art of Healing: Practicing Compassion in Medicine (1999)

I wanted to study with the healer and she instructed me to sit and observe, nothing more. She did not explain what she was doing, and provided no further instructions. Just observe. I did not understand. Yet, I continued to observe because she knew something, she did something that seemed to be associated with improvement and healing of many patients. A few showed remarkable improvement – at times it seemed miraculous. I felt drawn to understand. It was an unique opportunity and I was prepared to follow her guidance.

Dora Kawakami Muramatsu

Three remarkable healers: Dora Kunz, Mitsumasa Kawakami and Norihiro Muramatsu.

The healer was remarkable. When she put her hands on the patient, I could see the patient’s defenses melt. At that moment, the patient seemed to feel safe, cared for, and totally nurtured. The patient felt accepted for just who she was and all the shame about the disease and past actions appeared to melt away. The healer continued to move her hands here and there and, every so often, she spoke to the client. Tears and slight sobbing erupted from the client. Then, the client became very peaceful and quiet. Eventually, the session was finished and the client expressed gratitude to the healer and reported that her lower back pain and the constriction around her heart had been released, as if a weight had been taken from her body.

How was this possible? I had so many questions to ask the healer: “What were you doing?  What did you feel in your hands? What did you think? What did you say so softly to the client?” Yet, she did not help me understand how I could do this. The only instruction the healer kept giving me was to observe. Yes, she did teach me to be aware of the energy fields around the person and taught me how I could practice therapeutic touch (Kreiger, 1979; Kunz & Peper, 1995; Kunz & Krieger, 2004; Denison,2004; van Gelder & Chesley, F, 2015). But she was doing much more.

Sitting at the foot of the healer, observing for months, I often felt frustrated as she continued to insist that I just observe. How could I ever learn from this healer if she did not explain what I should do! Does the learning occur by activating my mirror neurons? Similar instructions are common in spiritual healing and martial arts traditions – the guru or mentor usually tells an apprentice to observe and be there. But how can one gain healing skills or spiritual healing abilities if you are only allowed to observe the process? Shouldn’t the healer be demonstrating actual practices and teaching skills?

After many sessions, I finally realized that the healer’s instruction to observe the healing was an indirect instruction. I began to learn how to be present without judging, to be present with compassion, to be present with total awareness in all senses, and to be present without frustration. The many hours at the foot of this master were not just wasted time. It eventually became clear that those hours of observation were important training and screening strategies used to insure that only those students who were motivated enough to master the discipline of non-judgmental observation, the discipline to be present and open to any experience, would continue to participate in the training process. It was training in compassionate mindfulness. Once apprentices achieved this state, they were ready to begin the work with clients and master the technical aspects of the specific healing art or spiritual practice.

A major component of the healing skill that relies on subtle energies is the ability to be totally present with the client without judgment (Peper, Gibney & Wilson, 2005; Peper, 2015). To be peaceful, caring, and present seems to create an energetic ambiance that sets stage, creates the space, for more subtle aspects of the healing interaction. This energetic ambiance is similar to feeling the love of a grandparent: feeling total acceptance from someone who just knows you are a remarkable human being. In the presence of a healer with such a compassionate presence, you feel safe, accepted, and engaged in a timeless state of mind, a state that promotes healing and regeneration as it dissolves long held defensiveness and fear-based habits of holding others at bay. This state of mind provides an opportunity for worries and unsettled emotions to dissipate. Feeling safe, accepted, and experiencing compassionate love supports the biological processes that nurture regeneration and growth.

How different this is from the more common experience with medical practitioners who sometimes have too little time to listen and to be with a patient. We might experience a medical provider as someone who may see us only as an illness (the cancer patient, the asthma patient) instead of recognizing us as a human being who happens to have an illness (a person with cancer or asthma). At times we can feel as though we are seen only as a series of numbers in a medical chart – yet we know we are more than that. People long to be seen. Often the medical provider interrupts with within the first 90 seconds with questions instead of listening. It becomes clear that the computerized medical record is more important than the human being seated there. Sometimes the patients can feel more fragmented and less safe, when they are not heard, not understood. In this rushed state, based upon “scientific data,” the health care provider may give a diagnosis without being aware of the emotional impact of the diagnosis.

As one 23 year old woman reported after being diagnosed with vulvodynia,”I cried immediately upon leaving the physician’s office. Even though he is an expert on the subject, I felt like I had no psychological support. I was on Gabapentin, and it made me very depressed. I thought to myself: Is my life, as I know it, over?” (Peper, Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, 2015 Martinez Aranda, P. & Peper, E., 2015)

What was missing for this young woman was compassion and caring. Sometimes, the healthcare providers are unaware of the effect of their rushed behavior and lack of presence. They can issue a diagnosis based on the scientific data without recognizing the emotional impact on the person receiving it.

Sitting at the foot of the master healer is not wasted time when the apprentice learns how to genuinely attend to another with non-judgmental, compassionate presence. However, this requires substantial personal work. Possibly all allied healthcare providers should be required, or at least invited, to learn how to attain the state of mind that can enhance healing. Perhaps the practice of medicine could change if, as Bernard Lown wrote, the focus were once again on healing, “…which begins with listening to the patient.”


Denison, B. (2004). Touch the pain away: New research on therapeutic touch and persons with fibromyalgia syndrome. Holistic nursing practice, 18(3), 142-150.

Krieger, D. (1979). The therapeutic touch: How to use your hands to help or to heal. Vol. 15. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kunz, D. & Krieger, K.  (2004). The spiritual dimension of therapeutic touch. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions/Bear & Co.

Kunz, D., & Peper, E. (1995). Fields and their clinical implications. in  Kunz, D.,(ed). Spiritual Aspects of the Healing Arts. Wheaton, ILL: Theosophical Pub House, 213-222.

Lown, B. (1999). The lost art of healing: Practicing compassion in medicine. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Martinez Aranda, P. & Peper, E.  (2015). The healing of vulvodynia from the client’s perspective. 

Peper, E. (2015). Towards the end of suffering: The contributions of integrating mind, body and spirit by Mr. Kawakami. In: Kawakami, M., Peper, E., & Kakigi, R. (2015). Cerebral investigation of a Yoga Master during Meditation-Findings from Collaborative Research. Fukuoka, Japan: Showado Publisher, 7-13.

Peper, E., Gibney, K. H. & Wilson, V. E. (2005). Enhancing Therapeutic Success–Some Observations from Mr. Kawakami: Yogi, Teacher, Mentor and Healer. Somatics. XIV (4), 18-21

Peper, E., Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, E. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback, 43(2), 103-109.

Van Gelder, K & Chesley, F. (2015). A Most Unusual Life. Wheaton Ill: Theosophical Publishing House.



  1. I thank Peter Parks for his superb editorial support and encouraging me to publish it.
  2. This blog was adapted the following two published articles, Peper, E. (2015). Compassionate Presence: Covert Training Invites Subtle Energies Insights. Subtle Energies Magazine, 26(2), 22-25; Peper, E. Sitting at the foot of the master-Covert training in compassionate presence. Somatics, 18(3), 46-47.