“I see at last that if I don’t breathe, I breathe…” F. M. Alexander
Many people are concerned about how to breathe in the “correct” way, or they may be interested in the relationship between breathing and “stress.” And there is often an idea that they don’t breathe “deeply enough.” One can find much advice in books and from fitness people about taking deeper breaths, or “breathing from the abdomen.” But the problem with almost all approaches is that they assume that the average person has access to their breathing mechanisms in such a way that they could be simply told to breathe differently, and they could do it correctly. As is the case with all efforts to change habitual activity, most approaches overlook the complexity and subtlety of the problem.
In the first place, breathing is not simply one isolated function of our bodies that we can change without changing the way we use our entire bodies. Breathing “correctly” and naturally means not interfering with the design of our bodies. The ribs attach to the spine in the back, and the diaphragm has signficant attachments to the spine and the back of the ribs: the support of the spine allows the ribs and diaphragm to move freely and efficiently in the act of breathing. When our breathing takes place according to our design, the lower ribs swing out sideways, and the lower back fills out in back as the diaphragm descends, pushing the abdominal contents sideways, backwards, and some forwards. The conventional idea of “breathing from the abdomen” interferes with the delicate articulation of the ribs with the back, and prevents the lateral and backwards component of the movement of the ribs and lower back.
As discussed elsewhere (see “Stability and Balance”) most of us, in the process of growing up, have acquired habits which interfere with the natural, integrated functioning of the body. In a very young child, the muscles of the spine form a unified support for the body in all its activities. As we begin interfering with this natural support (through unconsciously imitating the habits of our parents and friends, sitting in front of the TV or computer, and so on) we build up a network of tension which substitutes for the support of the spine. As a part of this network of tension, we begin to recruit the ribs and diaphragm to help support the body. Once this takes place, our breathing is seriously compromised, as the breathing mechanisms can no longer function as they were designed to. The diaphragm then becomes stuck, and cannot fully release into a complete exhale. It is as if people learn to hold their breath all the time.
The problem, then, is that when people are told to breathe in a different way, they will recruit the same patterns of tension as they always do, except in a more exaggerated form. No matter what they are told, to “breathe” means, in practice, to activate the pattern of tension they have associated with breathing. There is no way, without more understanding and more skill, to breathe in any other way, since the breathing mechanism is now being used to help support the body.
Does this mean that the problem is insoluble? Not at all. But we need more awareness, more understanding, and more skill. Through lessons in the Alexander Technique, people learn to re-activate the natural support of the postural muscles of the back. This starts to free the breathing mechanisms to return to their proper function as they are released from their incorrect role of supporting the body.
Next, through focusing on the exhale (which is a relaxation and release of the diaphragm) NOT on the inhale, students learn to let go of the spasm which prevents a full exhale. The inhale then comes in as a reflex, and a deeper pattern of breathing can be established. Again, if someone is simply told to breathe more deeply, or to “breathe from the abdomen,” they will simply breathe the way they always do, except with more force.
As is the case with all attempts to change our habits, once we have an idea of “doing” some activity, including breathing, we will do it in the same habitual way that we have always done it. In effect, we must learn “not to breathe” (as we understand breathing) in order to truly breathe in a new a different way. As Alexander said to one of his students “I see at last that if I don’t breathe, I breathe.”