Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, May/June 2010. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Ilse Middendorf was a woman of large vision, dedication, presence, and inspiration who was uniquely interested in the essence of a person's being. That inquisitive nature inspired her to follow her life's work and develop Middendorf Breathwork, also known as breathexperience. Breath, in fact, was the driving force behind this dynamic, yet graceful woman who strove to teach the power of breath to all those who would listen.
As a teacher and author of several books, Middendorf was dedicated to breath, even from a young age. In a 1995 interview with colleague Juerg Roffler, Middendorf talked about how her life's path began: "When I was 12, I was in my parent's garden in Germany. Suddenly a voice within me said, 'You need to breathe.' I was deeply touched and this experience led me to follow my strong interest in the breath as oneness of body, mind, and spirit. I had the impression that people passed over a very important part of their lives."
Breath was Middendorf's guide for living. As a young adult in Germany during World War II, Middendorf lived through significant challenges and stormy times, but she said it was also a great time for creative explorations. As Middendorf pursued studies in dance and gymnastics, key teachers supported her discoveries. She came into contact with a group called Mazdaznan, whose purpose was to develop a healthy body education. And Ewe Warren, a dancer, taught her the unity of human expression by means of movement, breathing, and meditation.
Cornelius Veening from Holland was especially important to Middendorf. His work with Margaret Mhe, and his affinities with Carl Jung's depth psychology that explores breath and psyche, led him to be clear that connecting with breath in depth meant connecting with the essence of self. Middendorf appreciated Veening's teaching over a long period in her exploration of how breathexperience could connect a person to self.
The work Middendorf developed was distinct, innovative, basic, and simple. The key difference between Middendorf's work and most other somatic practices was in its allowing
breath to flow through the body without imposition. Her unique approach was in learning how we can experience breath movement--our gift at birth. This is the breath that we receive--not take, pull, push, direct, or control. Instead, we let breath come and go on its own, and sense it in our body as it moves from our inner being into the outer world and from the outer back in again to a home inside ourselves. Middendorf said we sense this breath on the threshold between the unconscious and the conscious, in all its dimensions--physically, emotionally, spiritually--connecting us to the higher power that breathes us and unites us to life itself.
Middendorf addressed wholeness, not focusing primarily on pains that might be crying out, but including them in the oneness of body, mind, and spirit where they become integrated. She wisely recognized the intelligence of our body of breath--intelligence that could not be learned from intellect alone.Returning To Breath
In 1940, Middendorf married Jost Langguth, a choir master-organist. Their son, Helge, born in 1941, was never to meet his father, who was killed during the war. By then, with her workspace destroyed by bombs, Middendorf escaped Berlin and began living in Frankenberg, Saxony. As the war ended in 1945, she began her trek back to Berlin with 4-year-old Helge and a friend, jumping on crowded trains, sleeping in farmers' fields, sometimes walking with a wheelbarrow carrying the few items of food and clothing they had collected along the way.
When she returned to her apartment in Berlin after the war, Middendorf found it barren and soon discovered some of her furniture in other tenants' apartments. When she thanked them for "keeping her furniture while she was gone," they returned it. She had no money, so she reinstituted the breath practice she had begun 10 years earlier by bartering hands-on breath treatments for bars of soap and food.
In 1950, she married Erich Middendorf, a gifted photographer. By 1965, she had founded her Institute for the Perceptible Breath in Berlin where she trained practitioners and teachers, some of whom opened their own Middendorf Breath Institutes in Germany, Switzerland, and Spain. As she gained recognition, she led seminars and conferences and eventually brought her work to America in 1986 with her close associate, Roffler. (Roffler later founded the Middendorf Institute for Breathexperience, now in Berkeley, California.)
Memories flood through me of my first workshop with Middendorf 20 years ago in Berkeley, where I came seeking help for an injured spine. At the end of the five-day workshop, I could move with more flexibility and less pain than I had in years. I now wanted to learn to let the inherent authenticity of breath teach me to heal myself and my spine. Thus began a journey--that continues to this day--in the art of healing and growing myself. I couldn't get enough of classes, workshops, and hands-on sessions, and after a three-and-a-half-year certification training program, I became a breathexperience teacher and practitioner, with the help of Roffler and others.
By the time she turned 85, Middendorf had trained people from many parts of the world. In 1995, she invited her students to a beautiful party, taking 200 of them on a boat from Berlin to Potsdam and back, with music, food, champagne, and a hilarious theater program put on by several of her students. I was thrilled to be part of this celebration, joining with "breath people" from all over the world--teachers, home-makers, performing artists, athletes, monks, secretaries, health professionals, and more. I perceived that breath was spreading into the world.
In 1996, I joined the teaching team and made my first visit to Middendorf's institute in Berlin. Situated in Viktoria Luise Platz, a historic part of the city, the building was part of the old Kaiser Wilhelm's Palace. What a treat it was to enter the space. We walked through a courtyard into a beautiful room of high ceilings with carved moldings and tall windows facing a lovely garden. Around the room, plain wooden stools were placed in a circle. I came to this space each year in May to attend five-day intensive workshops for directors and teachers of Middendorf Breath Institutes in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States.
When I returned to Middendorf's Berlin institute once more in 2000, I resonated with her presence--graceful, breathful, and living in her body. Her breath had moved her through her long life. At 90, she was still vital, dynamic, and lively (leaping like a frog now and then in the mornings, she showed us). She seemed softer, less authoritarian in her manner, and more affectionate, yet she remained precise and demanding in her teaching. She made a point of asking us to continue developing more and more self-responsibility and freedom--difficult to teach and difficult to learn.
I was inspired. If Middendorf could be so vital at 90, then why couldn't the rest of us be like that, too? When breath is allowed to come and go on its own, without imposing on its natural flow, it moves freely through our entire being, bringing significant changes in an individual's life and in our world.
While it's tempting to idolize a person who does great work, it's important to note that Middendorf, like us all, had her faults. As an authority figure, she was sometimes less than generous with those who wanted to expand her work and less than lovable and prone to frustration when her students didn't get what she was offering. Sometimes I, and others, struggled when learning something new; often trying too hard to be right, in seeking her approval and not allowing the breath to flow. At these times, I didn't like my teacher or myself.
There were, however, many joyous times with Middendorf, a woman of grace, elegance, and formality who loved celebrations and enjoyed being playful. I remember her wearing beautiful pearls and flowing scarves, and she enjoyed good restaurants, champagne, theater, travels, and shopping.
She could laugh at herself and was a good sport, especially when a group of us dared to put on skits depicting her during our breath training programs. Playfully, we dramatized her love for beautiful clothes by putting on a fashion show with scarves sweeping through the air. We acted out Middendorf's words: "Breath comes ... it goes ... and in the pause we wait until ..." We stayed in the pause a very long time, standing in a line, before allowing breath to move us further. Our graceful teacher laughed and laughed, and so did we.
I remember Middendorf's last trip to the Bay area in 2004. She was excited about a recent World Qi Gong Conference at which she had presented breathexperience. She had decided to create an International Congress for breathexperience the following spring in Berlin. At 95, it would be her last presentation to a large group. By now, there were an estimated 1,500 Middendorf practitioners across the globe. Her True Love
Although Middendorf was married twice, her true marriage was to breath and its development. However, in a letter of thanks to many who had sent birthday wishes for her 98th birthday (September 21, 2008), she recognized the need for living in a true partnership with another person and with the Divine. She wrote, "This is the highest partnership in human life ... The leading force is breath." Just five months before she passed, Middendorf said to a colleague and friend at her Berlin home, "Breath wants to live. It needs to be connected and brought to life in the world so it can stay alive. It will die if it stays only within the students of breath which always will be just a very small group."
Only months before she died, Middendorf wrote to me about my book, River of Breath
(iUniverse, 2008). "I particularly like the poems which are also messages inspiring the reader to sense themselves and think about their responses," she wrote. "You have produced a direct hit. People will become interested in [breathexperience] more and more because they start to understand what in the beginning was more difficult for them. For me, life has taken a big turn," she continued. "I have difficulty because ... food no longer nourishes me. Therefore I have lost weight to my bones. However, I have courage, because I have dealt a lot with my soul. If I can find my strength in the greater power, every breath enters every cell, enlivens them, and even gives me a piece of happiness and light-heartedness. With much joy, I still think of our nice journeys ... when you came to visit me with Juerg in Berlin, as well as the American times. I embrace you warmly, no day goes by that I forget you, and I wish you the best of this life."
I was moved by Middendorf's generosity in her note, inspired by her authenticity and depth, and touched that she shared this special time of being so close to death.
Thank you, Ilse. You have left a beautiful gift for us to continue to grow and explore. Margot Biestman, MA, is an artist and internationally recognized teacher-trainer of Middendorf Breathexperience. She is the author of several books and articles including
River of Breath (iUniverse, 2008). Biestman's 50-year career includes educating students of all ages, professional consulting, and medical research collaboration. She and her husband of 57 years live in Sausalito and Sonoma, California. For more information, visit www.breathexperiencemargot.com and www.breathexperience.com.