Our frenzied, market-driven culture forgets that often the most powerful vibes come for free. Want to try something really intense to welcome spring with your lover? This simple-sounding exercise is cutting-edge sexual healing work from the heart of Manhattan.You and your lover are in the bedroom. Now, dare yourselves to try this: breathe deep into your bellies, each at your own pace. Begin to gaze into each other's eyes and keep breathing. After a couple of minutes, let your eyes wander over the other person's body, just taking your partner in. Then go back to gazing into each other's eyes for another two or three minutes. Don't forget to keep breathing.
I did it with a perfect stranger at a workshop hosted by neuroscientist- turned-sex-therapist Marta Helliesen. Whoa! Feelings of aggressive self-defence gave way to shyness, openness, then a deepening and slowing of my already measured breath and then waves of turn-on -- all with someone I'd met just five minutes ago.
Meanwhile, tears had begun to well in my partner's eyes for her own private reasons. The basic acts of breathing and looking had become a doorway to intimacy.
Breathing is central to Helliesen's work. I had expected that a workshop called Turning Sexual Dysfunction Into Function would cover stuff like lack of desire or lubrication, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, inability to achieve orgasm and sexual compulsions item by item -- this causes that. Instead, Helliesen presents an innovative, integrated theory of human sexual functioning that demystifies sexual blockages. The key to sexual fulfillment, it turns out, is reconditioning the brain's fear system with the help of deep breathing.
The parts of the brain and nervous system that deal with fear, explains Helliesen, are quick to learn and slow to forget. That's because evolutionary survival demands fast learning in the face of danger. When we're experiencing fear, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is active. It's that old familiar fight-or-flight reaction, and it dampens desire, deflates cocks, closes off vaginal muscles and generally wreaks havoc in the bedroom.
After all, our ancestors would scarcely have wanted to keep on fucking or having orgasms when a sabre-toothed tiger was trying to make a meal of them.
Nowadays the traumas arise from different sources, but it doesn't necessarily take much before the stubborn fear system kicks in whenever sex shows up, and this is what closes the doors to pleasure.
Satisfying sex, says Helliesen, requires a high degree of parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity. The PNS is the "rest and digest" system. The way to arrive in PNS-land is to breathe deep into the belly and focus on one's body sensations as they arise. People who cut off desire, can't get turned on without a particular stimulus, avoid sexual contact, don't reach orgasm or cut out of sex early can recondition themselves, explains Helliesen, by taking in new forms of erotic stimulation while continuing to breathe and focus on the body.
A brave member of our workshop offers to receive a demo. From what I can gather, this man generally prefers to avoid sexual contact. Helliesen has him lie down and start breathing deeply. Then she asks him to continue while she begins to gently stroke his arms. Sometimes she puts her cheek next to his and lets him hear her breath in his ear. Within moments, old tensions are being released, the man's body is shaking and his face has undergone a profound transformation into softness, receptivity and openness. He looks in wonder around the room. Everything is suddenly different, he reports. He feels more alive. Now my eyes begin to tear.
This back-to-basics approach is what Helliesen uses to restore the Wall Street powerbrokers who can't get it up without a visit to a dungeon, the dominatrices who damage themselves and their clients with the rage they generate to do their jobs, women who choose shopping over sex and men who shoot their load way too early.
Approached this way, she says, sex can never be boring or rote -- which, as we all know, it sometimes is, even if all the parts are "working."
"If you're willing to be present," says Marta, "you'll always discover something new." She advises stressed-out couples to try intimacy dates, and guarantees that if you just sit and breathe and relax together long enough, you'll soon be feeling the impulse to reach out and touch each other. The trick then is to keep breathing and following those inner impulses rather than fall back into old habits. If you have trouble climaxing, the prescription is the same: keep your breathing going and keep your mind focused only on feeling your body sensations.
Finally, don't reserve your breath work for the bedroom. The brain, Helliesen points out, constantly monitors the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the body. Turning deep breathing into an ongoing habit is step one to becoming a great lover.