Song, Breath, Joy and Liberation

By Kathryn Hayward, M.D.

I love the thrill of singing with a group. At times I feel I will explode with joy.

I never click on ads on the internet. But this one grabbed me. Have you seen the YouTube video (4 minutes) of the Breathless Choir? It just came out on November 17, 2015 and it already has 2.7 million viewings.

See what happens when determined people, whose chronic lung disease makes them breathless, come together with a passionate, visionary musical director (Gareth Malone) and a technology company (Royal Philips) that makes a portable oxygen tank and a compelling film clip ad.

For five days, eighteen breathless people learned to breathe and sing, They then shared their joy with an audience at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC, known as the “theatre of dreams” because so many famous musicians started out there. The eighteen include a fireman and policewoman injured in the September 11 attacks, a Welsh woman with chronic lung problems and a 12-year-old asthmatic; there is an age span in the choir from 12 to 92.

It’s a gorgeous illustration of the human spirit soaring through sound. I also see it as a reflection of Integrative Health, which brings together conventional medicine with mind/body/spirit disciplines.

The power of breath to transform us is fundamental to the practice of every mind/body/spirit discipline. One Tai Chi teacher that I know calls the diaphragm “the muscle that massages all of the internal organs. We massage the organs through breath and movement to keep them vibrant and functioning, and to prevent atrophy.”

My 83-year-old mother suddenly became oxygen-dependent last year. All of her tests pointed to a chronic condition that her doctors told her would only continue to worsen. They prescribed full-time oxygen. After a few months of breath exercises and Jin Shin Jyutsu, she needed neither the oxygen nor several prescribed medications.

A recently-published study from the MGH Benson Henry Institute looks at whether mind/body interventions that focus on reducing stress and increasing resiliency can decrease healthcare utilization across a broad population of patients with a range of different health conditions. Those who participated in mind/body exercises reduced their visits to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, and decreased their overall use of health care services by an average of 43% in billable encounters. This translates into an average cost reduction of $2,360/patient/year.

Even setting aside the importance of the cost savings, what were these patients doing with all of those hours that they were not driving to medical appointments, sitting in waiting rooms, and undergoing examinations and procedures?

They were living their lives, liberated from their prior attachment to the medical system.

The beauty of these sorts of liberating activities—singing, breathing, self-massage, mindfulness, meditation, tai chi, jin shin jyutsu—is that they cost no money to do. And they fill our lives with excitement, independence and conscious connection to the power that we each hold within.

In our Living Whole immersions, we devote five days to doing what music director Gareth Malone did with the Breathless Choir—creating transformation within community. Five days is enough to establish new connections and build a self-care practice that infuses joy and confidence into our everyday lives.

We asked Living Whole Redwoods participants who wished to do so to share a practice with the group, and one woman shared her meditation using the sound Hu. This was one of the greatest gifts I received in 2015. The song of Hu in my private morning meditation makes me feel the way I feel when I sing with a group of people—connected and joyful.

Another participant of Living Whole Redwoods in March 2015 spoke about her experience to our International Integrators colleague, Tristan Martineau, and he caught 30 seconds of her comments on tape:


Next June we will bring together another community of people with an interest in Integrative Health and self care, this time in the beautiful mountains outside Ávila, Spain. Join us for the next International Integrators Living Whole immersion retreat from June 12-17, 2016. And if you wish, you can take advantage of a longer stay in Madrid with day trips to beautiful places nearby.


Kathryn Hayward, M.D. was a primary care internal medicine specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School for 20 years. She now lives in Mallorca, Spain, where she practices Integrative Health in the United States and elsewhere through Odyssey Journey: A Collaborative Approach to Wellness, and is co-founder of International Integrators, a community devoted to the global promotion of Integrative Health.

Leave a Reply